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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 260 | Marzo 2003

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George W. Bush: A Dictator by Any Other Name...

On the brink of the US war against Iraq, many governments are sticking to their opposition while millions upon millions of citizens of the planet are expressing their indignation and demanding peace. Increasing numbers of US citizens are joining this cry. The wise voice of this woman is one that should be listened to attentively.

Margaret Randall

The term dictator has been used in my lifetime to describe a range of political leaders. Certainly Hitler was a dictator, perhaps the first of whom I was conscious—and about whom there is fairly universal agreement. The term was used by some when speaking of Stalin, whose ruthless repression and murder of tens of thousands of his people blighted a system intended to facilitate the worker’s state. The Western press routinely referred to Mao and Tito and other Communist leaders as dictators, yet even their enemies were forced to admit that they governed states in which raising the quality of life for the majority was an ongoing goal. Fidel, dictator for a succession of US administrations, might meet the standard if armed takeover and a lifetime in office were the only criteria; but what of Cuba’s titanic struggle to create a more just and egalitarian society, its successful education and health reforms, and the fact that it has a generous history of sending technical and material aid to other developing nations?

What defines a dictator?

Is a dictator, then, only one who comes to office through a takeover rather than via free elections? What other characteristics must he possess? (I say he, because almost all dictators have been men, a fact that reflects the gendered nature of power.)
My personal experience in Latin America enables me to speak of that continent’s twentieth century dictators: Trujillo, Batista, Somoza, Pacheco Areco, Videla, Pinochet: men who possessed all the characteristics of a dictator (illegal assumption of office, grabbing by one means or another exaggerated executive powers, extreme brutality in the social, political and economic spheres, and a focus on armed defense of his regime at the expense of the nation’s welfare).

Over time the term dictator has been used rather loosely. I do not subscribe to this sort of careless naming. By the same token it is difficult to convey—to a readership unfamiliar with the reality—what dictators have done to human lives. I have family and friends who bear the deep scars of this experience—in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, South Africa. Others have been lost, their lives cut short or rendered unrecognizable by the brutality of dictatorial regimes.

The subtleties of a dictatorial hand

My daughter-in-law’s Uruguayan family survived their country’s dictatorship split down the middle: she and her sister, both teenagers at the time, were forced with their father into exile. Her brother, who had just been accepted into medical school, stayed behind. So did his fiancée and others. As a result, for six long years neither group saw nor had telephone contact with the other. There were no diplomatic relations between their homeland and the country where the exiled members lived.

Recently, on a visit to Uruguay, I asked these men and women if they would be willing to talk about what those years had been like for each of them. It was a warm January night in the Southern Hemisphere. We’d come from watching a neighborhood soccer game in which their children had taken part. They were willing, but there was a palpable tension in the air as sisters and brother and others settled into lawn chairs under the beach house’s ivy-covered portal and began to retrieve memories long kept safely stored away.
That night I learned something about what dictatorship can do, even to those who survive it in relatively good shape. I listened to the sister who hated having been forced to leave her country and to the brother who tried to recreate what it had been like never being able to speak out. The fiancée, long-since wife and mother, explained how she’d completed a five-year degree in a career she didn’t want because of a dictatorship-tainted academia that made honest decisions impossible.

This was not a conversation about prison, torture or post-traumatic stress disorder; I’ve had plenty of those as well. This conversation put me in touch with subtler aspects of life under dictatorship, the less dramatic damage that nonetheless affects entire populations. It made vivid the way dictatorship can creep up on people, holding them in its grip until escape may no longer be an option. It made me see process rather than the horror of end result alone.

Bush: A dictator in all but name

Few people I know agree with my contention that in the United States, here and now, we have a dictator for President. An aspiring dictator, perhaps a new sort of dictator, but a dictator nonetheless. Given US hegemony and the nature of power in the world today, he represents incalculable danger for humans and the earth we inhabit. George W. Bush is a dictator in all but name, surrounded by a coterie of men and women as single-minded and devoted to their leader as the Goerings and Himmlers of the Third Reich.

Although Bush has assumed dictatorial powers, the United States is not a dictatorship. Not yet. We can still protest, and do so in great numbers. A wide range of opinions is expressed, although the administration encourages the more conservative, which are consequently gaining in currency. A discourse of messianic nationalism is not limited to Bush, but has been taken up as well by many in his government—even by Colin Powell, who some believed might prove to be a voice of reason. Lawmakers in general have been hasty in giving the Executive the power to make decisions that push the nation to focus on homeland security and defense while cutting back on infrastructure and social programs. It is a frightening time.
Faced with a dictator President, we still have that margin of freedom in which we may prevent a true dictatorship. And it is imperative that we do prevent it.

Dictatorship in democracy’s name:
A 21st century phenomenon

The United States calls itself a democracy. Despite Manifest Destiny, the making and breaking of foreign governments (many of them democratically elected) and similar expansionist policies, much of its history has been truly democratic. We have a liberal Constitution and Bill of Rights, a tradition of suffrage that has proved a model, struggles such as those waged for civil and minority rights that remain exemplary. But to earn the right to call itself a democracy, surely a country must meet the standards long associated with the term: honest elections, representative government, a genuine concern for its citizens’ welfare, real meaningful freedom of speech, assembly and dissent.
Not only does our current President proclaim himself the global standard bearer for democracy, he has taken it upon himself to wage war in a number of places in defense of that representation. A powerful media establishment echoes his words. In the name of this democracy, Americans are being asked to pay for and die in wars thousands of miles away. No, not asked: forced. Increasingly, protest is considered unpatriotic. Flag waving takes the place of informed debate. Protest also seems to be more and more beside the point. Bush has publicly stated that the United Nations is “either with us, or irrelevant,” and that other nations must join his coalition in a war without end or they too will become irrelevant.

What qualifies Bush as a dictator?

Let’s look at how George W. Bush meets or fails to meet the most important definitions of a dictator.
Dictators assume power through coups, historically military ones. A country’s powerful interests may feel threatened by a civilian President—sometimes socialist or populist or otherwise intent upon spreading the wealth—and sectors of the Armed Forces take over. Historically, these takeovers have been effected with more or less bloodshed, ranging from millions slaughtered to a brief skirmish in which a dozen or so may die. Frequently our own CIA has had a hand in engineering these coups—Guatemala, Chile, Congo, Panama, to name a few.

For many years within the United States, large personal fortunes or the ability to siphon public funds have determined who wins elections—at least to the most important state and national offices. These elections may not be classified as takeovers, but they can hardly be considered democratic; without spending millions, you can’t win. Still, the presidential election of 2000 cast democracy in a qualitatively new mold.

Electoral fraud and a judicial coup. There seems little doubt that Al Gore ended up with more votes than George W. Bush. Later independent investigations show that the Republicans perpetrated all manner of electoral fraud. When this fraud didn’t achieve the desired results, the matter was placed in the hands of the Supreme Court, a court sworn to judicial honesty but largely appointed by interests for whom a Bush presidency was imperative. This then was a judicial, rather than a military, coup. George W. Bush became President via the decision of five out of nine Supreme Court justices. Immediately, he proclaimed his victory a “triumph of the democratic process.”(1)

Doublespeak. This use (or misuse) of language is one of the ways in which those who have usurped power in this country are able to manipulate large sectors of the population. We are told that our democracy is precious, that we must protect it and that the wars we are urged to fight are in its defense. Our highest officials warn us that a situation threatens US national security, and without questioning the statement we are ready to fight the presumed threat, even when doing so means sacrificing our own freedoms and economic stability.
Since September 2001, whenever people have begun to mobilize for job security, health care, prescription drug benefits for the elderly or other important domestic issues, the sudden revelation of a terrorist threat to our borders, transportation system or bridges has drawn the public’s attention away from such concerns. Raising Homeland Security’s color-coded warning signal from yellow to orange is enough to frighten people and make them compliant, even when such heightened signals have almost always turned out to have been baseless. We are ready to fight, to die and to kill. And killing seems all the easier since we have been trained to consider those we kill as non-persons.
We have been manipulated into believing that what we have is democracy. Every rousing speech, every media assumption, every commercial advertisement, many films, song lyrics and repeated images support this belief. So masses of people, tricked into accepting this misnomer, don’t question the half-truth. This manipulation is also incremental in nature. As the population is coaxed or badgered into accepting each new piece of misinformation, the next is but a few degrees further along on the path of that which we have come to consider acceptable. The doublespeak is aimed at convincing us that caution justifies racism, tax cuts for the wealthy and consumer confidence will heal the economy, privatization translates into security, or making war will curb terrorism and bring peace.

Racial profiling. Getting large numbers of people to accept his lies is vital for any dictator. Contemporary methodology is much more sophisticated than the brute force displayed more than half a century ago. On Kristallnacht in 1938, government-sponsored hordes raged through Nazi-controlled cities, physically destroying synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes. Following 9/11 here, official discourse was careful to pronounce itself against violence towards the Arab community, yet dozens if not hundreds of people of Middle Eastern origin have been murdered, their families victimized, their property destroyed. Perpetrators have suffered no significant punishment. This racial profiling and its tragic consequences are ongoing.

There are other uncomfortable similarities. The Nazis called up Jews and others and forced them to register; millions were sent to their death. Here, today, thousands of men of Arab or Middle Eastern origin have been summoned to registration centers, only to be summarily detained. Many of these men have been denied access to families or lawyers; in some cases their whereabouts are unknown. Will Bush stop at this level of gross injustice, or will he find it necessary to carry the repression to some “final solution”?

Blatant disregard for public opinion. Dictators have additional characteristics. Essential among them is a blatant disregard for public opinion. At this writing, a number of polls show that 64% of US Americans are against Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. These people disagree with the President for a variety of reasons; some may believe in peace, others may believe in war but feel that the case against Saddam Hussein has yet to be fully made; and there is a range of opinions in-between. Still, 64% of the population is a clear majority.(2) Even if this majority was to become 74% or 94%, I don’t believe it would deter Bush’s plans for war.(3) Dictators forge ahead with their policies. It is inherent to the office.

Inferiority Complex? Because I believe that axes of political power represent complex economic and geopolitical interests, I am loathe to make too much of what many consider a classic dictator’s psychological profile. Still, the term Napoleonic Complex—when speaking about a man of small stature who tries to make up for what he lacks in physical size through unchecked conquest—has its roots in reality. Similarly, other physical and psychological characteristics, often traceable to a painful childhood or brutal parenting, can and do shape a person’s adult life.
George W. Bush’s father was Yale-educated, sophisticated regarding to global politics, and became President of the United States. His son, too, attended Yale—though he graduated with difficulty.(4) He tried a series of business ventures, most notably in oil, and is generally considered to have failed at them all. He is a reformed binge drinker who was primed for the role of world leader without ever having traveled abroad. When he first took office, his garbled pronunciation and one-line non-sequiturs quickly became national jokes.

Attack on public dissent. Let no one be deceived, however. Our current President may be unsophisticated and lacking in intellectual depth, but he is shrewd and has shown that he knows how to surround himself with men and women as intelligent as they are ruthless. Together, they are pushing forward a politics of domination in the domestic as well as international spheres. The enactment of certain laws and the promotion of carefully chosen players have been particularly useful in putting this politics in place. Central among these are the Patriot Act of 2001 and the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, a draft of which was leaked to the public in February.(5)
Bush policies reach into our lives in a variety of ways. A Christian fundamentalist ideology allows for a discourse of “compassion” while shaping, controlling, punishing.(6) The first victims of these policies are environmental health and safety, poverty programs, public education and academic freedom at the university level, healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid, funding for public hospitals, women’s reproductive health, prescription drug benefits, research not done by the major pharmaceutical and insurance companies, etc.). Public debate and dissent, and the right to privacy, are under violent attack. Anyone seen as “different,” or as not complying with the Bush doctrine, is suspect. Abroad the victims are the established international bodies and all countries and peoples who get in the way of this administration’s dream of world conquest.(7)

Abuse of power. Dictatorship is about the abuse of power, power that is unchallenged, that has been elevated to a sort of omnipotence, whether through military control, via sophisticated mechanisms of manipulation, or by political blackmail. One wonders why so many otherwise intelligent men and women—Democratic and Independent members of Congress, intellectuals of stature, allied Presidents, members of the UN Security Council—speak out against the Bush doctrine but inevitably fall into step behind the President when the hour for a vote or some other tangible form of support arrives.
It has become a truism to say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet making the leap from speaking about the unauthorized and criminal exercise of power to calling a dictator by his name seems difficult for many to make.

In protest demonstrations on the streets of US cities, one placard among many reads “Regime Change Begins at Home.” It is past time that we take this exhortation seriously. Impeachment would seem a logical next step.

Margaret Randall is a feminist writer and poet.

Notes

1 For a thorough study of the electoral fraud of 2000, as well as an analysis of the Supreme Court’s role in deciding the presidency, see Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000 by Alan M. Dershowitz (Oxford University Press, 2001).

2 Other polls are even more revealing. One, taken in February 2003, reveals that a majority of Second World War veterans are against going to war with Iraq. And inordinate number of retired US generals, including Norman Schwartzkopf who led American troops in the first Gulf War, advocate against this war. Within the CIA and FBI, as well, important segments have broken ranks with the Bush administration to say this war is a bad idea.

3 In late February, the Daily Breeze, a Redondo Beach, CA, newspaper, published a picture of Bush with a caption of his own quote: “...leaders can’t be bound by public opinion.”

4 In the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency, he delivered the commencement address at his old alma mater. “To those who made A’s and B’s,” he quipped to the graduating seniors, “I salute you. To those who made C’s I say: you too can become President of the United States.”

5 The Patriot Act, which in the aftermath of 9/11 and almost without discussion gained the support of an overwhelming majority of Congress, reduced judicial oversight, made search and seizure easier, legalized wire-tapping, secret arrests, holding foreign prisoners without legal representation or trial, and much else. The Domestic Security Enhancement Act, if enacted, would push this neo-fascist control of the population a great deal further. The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity in Washington obtained a draft copy and Bill Moyers scooped it on “Now” on February 7, 2003.

6 In “The United States of America Has Gone Mad,” John le Carré writes in The Times of London (January 15, 2003): “Bush has an arm-lock on God. And God has very particular political opinions. God appointed America to save the world in any way that suits America. God appointed Israel to be the nexus of America’s Middle Eastern policy, and anyone who wants to mess with that idea is a) anti-Semitic, b) anti-American, c) with the enemy, and d) a terrorist.” This is but one very succinct description of Bush’s use of biblical reference and fundamentalist ideology to shore up his doctrine.

7 The United Nations is clearly the international body with the power to check Bush’s madness. Bush has repeatedly declared the UN “irrelevant” if it does not do his bidding. Despite the enormous power wielded by the US administration, a number of UN Security Council members have stood firm against attacking Iraq before weapons inspection has been given a chance. President of the Center for Constitutional Rights Michael Ratner, in “A UN Alternative to War: ‘Uniting for Peace’,” ZNet Commentary, February 8, 2003, writes: “In 1950 the Security Council set up a procedure for insuring that stalemates between countries would not prevent the United Nations from carrying out its mission to ‘maintain international peace and security.’ With the United States playing an important role, the Council adopted Resolution 377, the aptly named ‘Uniting for Peace” in an almost unanimous vote. [This resolution] provides that if, because of the lack of unanimity of the permanent members of the Security Council...the Council cannot maintain international peace where there is a ‘threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression,’ the General Assembly ‘shall consider the matter immediately.” This resolution has been used 10 times since its adoption: after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 and to pressure the Soviet Union to cease its intervention in Hungary in the same year, among others. Ratner suggests it should be used now, to mandate that the inspection regime be permitted to complete its inspections and to delay the US war on Iraq.

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