(A slightly extended version of a piece originally published Friday, June 17, in The Moscow Times. Extensive annotations can be found in the link at the end.)
As we all know, George W. Bush is the most morally upright individual ever to set foot in the White House: a sober, righteous man of God. Yet this very rectitude obscures the fact that he is also one of the great wits of our time, a subtle and sophisticated ironist who has turned the dull business of governance into a highly refined comedic art.
With Shavian brio, Bush sends up the bourgeois pretension that words have meanings and actions have consequences. His specialty is the ironic reversal – known by old-time vaudeville gagsters as the "Orwell Twist." For example, you take a man who, say, concocts justifications for torture, kidnapping and the exaltation of presidential authority beyond the reach of law – and you make him the chief law enforcement officer of the land! It might look easy – but try doing it with a straight face, the way Bush introduced his criminal accomplice Alberto Gonzales as the new Attorney General of the United States. It takes real talent to pull off that kind of deadpan.
Or how about this gem? You illegally steal hundreds of millions of dollars from the public treasury to secretly prepare for a war you've been planning for many years; you tell your closest ally months in advance that the invasion is on, come hell or high water; you unleash a massive bombing campaign against the target months before the war; you deceitfully manufacture and massage evidence to build a bogus case for launching an unprovoked act of aggression against an opponent who has already met all your demands – then you tell the world that you only wanted peace! Peace! What yocks, eh? Not even Groucho Marx could match such comic subversion.
The list – and the Twist – goes on and on: fostering a "culture of life" through capital punishment, gulag murders and "extrajudicial killings" by presidential fiat; spreading "compassionate conservatism" by gutting aid for the poor, the sick, the weak and the old; naming corporate polluters as environmental guardians; promoting "democracy" by coddling despots; "fighting terrorism" by spawning more terrorists – it's a comedy cornucopia in Washington these days!
But Bush's satiric masterpiece, equal to Annie Hall, The Philadelphia Story or even Herbie Goes Bananas, might well be his appointment of nuclear war advocates to oversee – wait for it – arms control! Ain't that a hoot? Looney-fringe types who oppose arms treaties, want to build more nukes – and use them "pre-emptively," even in "non-nuclear combat scenarios" – are put in charge of all the pacts and programs to control and eliminate nuclear weapons! Har har"! Thus "arms control" becomes "Armageddon" in the wacky inversions of Bush-speak. We haven't seen this kind of witty wordplay since the old "Arbeit Macht Frei" gag that the Bush Family's business partners pulled at Auschwitz back in the day.
But we said Bush was subtle: almost no one has noticed his June 1 appointment of Robert G. Joseph as the new undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. Joseph takes the place of John Bolton, the warmongering blowhard and serial fabricator whom Bush has chosen to be America's walrus-moustachioed face to the world at the UN. (Yet another masterstroke of wit from the Maestro: Bolton is copiously on record as despising the UN.) Although Joseph is cut from grayer cloth (while still sporting plenty of nasal foliage – obviously a requirement for this baggy-pants role), he is probably even more dangerous than his tempestuous predecessor, as Tom Barry of the International Relations Center reports.
Joseph has been a key player in the "nuke 'em all and let God sort 'em out" school of international diplomacy since his early minioning days in the diseased bowels of the Reagan administration. He came into his own after the Crawford clownmaster seized power in 2000, serving as a "special assistant" to the president, in charge of destroying the ABM treaty, that 30-year bulwark against nuclear conflict. He was also instrumental in fashioning Bush's maniacal "Nuclear Posture Review," which calls for the production of "low-yield, precision-guided nuclear weapons" that can actually be used in combat, or in "pre-emptive" strikes at, well, basically anybody the president decides might pose a vague threat against "American interests" somewhere down the line.
But increasing the risk of global nuclear annihilation is not enough for jolly old Joseph; he also has a fondness for biological and chemical weapons. Along with nukes, they make up a Holy Trinity of WMD that "have substantial utility" in the "international environment," he writes. And he doesn't just want user-friendly WMD to be "a permanent feature" of life on earth; he's keen on militarizing the heavens as well – pre-emptively and unilaterally, natch. And it goes without saying that he opposes any attempts to place limits on American testing and deployment of mass-death weapons.
That's "arms control," Bush-style, for you: a perfect joke. Yet Joseph's merry pranks don't stop there; he was also responsible for pushing one of the many big lies – sorry, funny stories – in Bush's pre-invasion propaganda blitzkrieg: the pure hokum about Saddam's non-existent search for African uranium to fuel his non-existent nuclear program. As with so many others, Joseph's egregious intelligence "failure" has been rewarded with honors and promotion. Because of course it was no failure at all; it was a well-played pantomime, faithfully following the script of Bush's war-crimes comedy.
Lurking behind all this cynical katzenjammer is the grinning skull of the Bush death-cult: a mad but all-too-plausible dream of conquest, loot and unlimited dominion. For this dream, the cultists have already murdered countless thousands, and are gambling with the very life of the world itself. With these comedians, the joke is always on us.
Annotations for "Inside Joke" are here.