Originally published in The Moscow Times, April 11, 2003.
As shovels scoop the shredded viscera of cold collaterals in Baghdad, and brisk hoses scour the blood from market stalls and children's bedrooms – festive preparations to make ready for the enthronement of the new lords of Babylon – we cast an anxious gaze beyond the barbed steel of the security perimeter, to a column of troops and ordnance rumbling toward the horizon. Whither are they bound? Who's next to feel the mailed fist of liberation?
At the moment, all signs point to Syria. Iran, of course, would be a more glittering prize – not to mention a more remunerative one for the unholy trinity of Oil, Arms and Construction whose mephitic spirits brood over the rising American Empire. But Iran is a big beast; first Iraq must be chewed, swallowed and digested before there is sufficient room in the imperial gut – and sufficient loot in the imperial treasury – for another sumptuous banquet.
Syria, however, would make a tasty snack – rough fare gulped down on the long, circuitous march to Persia and Cathay. What's more, a dose of shock and awe for Damascus would secure the rear for any eventual push on Teheran. And once recalcitrant Syria is brought to heel, the juicy olive of Lebanon would surely fall of its own ripe weight, without any need of brutal plucking. Then, with the equally cowed Jordan, it could serve as a – what should we call it? repository? refuge? – yes, a refuge for the troublesome hordes of Palestine, transferred – humanely and happily, of course – from the newly cleansed lands of Judea and Samaria.
Such are the utopian visions that allure the policymakers in the court of the imperator, George Augustus. But there are practical considerations that drive them on as well. Their leader excepted, these are not entirely stupid men. They can certainly see what the blind, bedazzled and bought-off media refuse to show the rest of the nation: that the American economy is in serious decay, that the infrastructure of American society – its ability to provide education, medicine, roads, justice, security, stability, opportunity, equality – is being severely fractured by the ever-growing, unconstrained imbalance between a small circle of powerful elites and the increasingly disempowered multitudes who serve them.
Of course, the imperial courtiers applaud this imbalance; they believe it's the best, most efficient ordering of society. (The fact that their own wealth and privilege are enhanced by this higher order is simply a happy accident.) That's why they're striving mightily to increase the imbalance through their radical domestic policies: their deliberate bankrupting of national and state governments through massive tax cuts for the wealthy, coupled with gargantuan military spending that siphons any remaining funds away from public services. The Imperator's own political mentor, Grover Norquist, put it well – long before that other happy accident on September 11: "We want to shrink government down so we can drown it in the bathwater."
But vestiges of America's democratic system remain. As in the dying days of the Roman Republic, the traditional structures of self-governance – though increasingly gutted – are still in place, and retain their old meaning for many Americans. (Many others, of course, are glad to see their liberties subsumed by the growing authoritarian cult of the Commander-in-Chief.) The Commander and his courtiers cannot yet rule solely by fiat – though they're almost there, as shown by Bush's still-unchallenged assertion of his right to order the extrajudicial killing of anyone on earth whom he deems – on secret evidence, or none at all – a "terrorist," or even just an undefined "supporter" of terrorism.
But as long as some semblance of democracy survives, there is a danger that the courtiers could be tumbled from power by the multitude. Therefore the true nature of America's societal rot must be kept hidden at all costs. The courtiers know they cannot govern a country at peace and hope to survive politically. Only war – with its upsurge of tribal feeling, its emotional floodtides sweeping away doubt, dissent and reason – can provide the necessary diversion from the Regime's fanatical policies of Imbalance.
So there must be more war, and soon. Syria is currently being sized up as a prospect. Unsubtle hints are being floated in the press: Damascus "aided and abetted" Saddam, Damascus is sheltering Saddam's minions, Damascus might be hiding Saddam's vast storehouses of weapons of mass destruction, which the cluster-bombing liberators so signally failed to find. Damascus has its own WMD, supports terrorism, has invaded neighboring countries, and might, conceivably, possibly, one day threaten the America in some hypothetical fashion – just like Saddam!
And last week, Bush courtiers suddenly began trumpeting the fact that the repressive Syrian regime – a Baathist Party state, just like Iraq! – sadistically tortures its prisoners, who are often snatched in secret arrests and held without charges or trial. This fact has hitherto been conveniently overlooked by the Bushist Party state, which has been sending some of its own Guantanamo zeks – often snatched in secret arrests and held without charges or trial – to Syria's torture chambers for "special interrogation."
But as Saddam has learned, doing America's dirty work – which he did for many years, bombing, brutalizing and gassing with the gushing support of Ronald Reagan, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George Bush Senior – cuts no ice when the courtiers change their plans. So keep looking for that light on the road to Damascus – not the blinding glory that converted Saul of Tarsus, but the flash of flesh-chewing MOABs launched by the Crawford Caligula, George Widowmaker Bush.