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Anything Goes

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Azmi Bishara

September’s is back and it is time once again to remember the outbreak of the Intifada, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Black September and the crumbling of the Twin Towers in New York. September ushers in autumn, the most glorious of seasons. But, for several years, the annual opening of the UN session has marred autumn’s melancholy tranquility and overshadowed the commemoration of disasters and injustices. For some time now George Bush has taken it upon himself to address the General Assembly around the time of the anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade Center, the event Americans abbreviate as 9/11.

We have to deal with Bush’s address every year, if only to confirm that nothing has changed in the way he and his administration work, that they are still firm in the conviction—in spite of the death and destruction they have caused—that they are working to spread democracy in the world. This was the conclusion Bush came to in his speech of 21 September, in which he proposed the creation of an international fund to support democratic transformation having, in the preceding paragraph, heaped praise on other UN funds, created with generous American contributions, such as the fund to fight AIDS. What an uplifting, amicable and conciliatory closing: a democracy fund, in the mode of the funds to fight AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis et al. But what came before this?

Bush’s speech writers—undoubtedly after marathon discussions—had decided that robot Bush should begin and end this address on an optimistic note. Why? Because things are bad over there. Grey has phased into flashing red, fires that have erupted everywhere, when what Bush needs is soft and comforting pinks. Here’s the almost jubilant opening of the speech:

“During the past three years I have addressed this General Assembly in a time of tragedy for my country, and in times of decision for all of us. Now we gather at a time of tremendous opportunity for the UN, and for all peaceful nations. For decades the circle of liberty, and security, and development has been expanding in our world. This progress has brought unity to Europe, and self-government to Latin America and Asia, and new hope to Africa. Now we have the historic chance to widen the circle even further...to fight radicalism and terror with justice and dignity...and to achieve a true peace, founded on human freedom.”

Why did the world have to wake up the following morning, on 22 September, to this heart-warming mood music? For no other reason than that Bush’s speech writers decided it had to. They decided we had to be optimistic, that the circle of liberty is expanding, that this year, unlike its predecessor, is a year of hope and historic opportunity for the UN. Why? Because this is election year in the US and candidate Bush needs to create an upbeat mood on the eve of the elections, a mood of great achievements and victories. So the speech writers give us an opening that suggests that victory has already been won, that liberty and democracy are blooming and that the UN had better wake up and get its act together so that it can reap the fruits. They also decided that the end of the speech should deliver a response to Kerry, who has aimed a single criticism at Bush’s policy in Iraq, which is that it was a do-it-yourself policy that spurned cooperation with the international community. What more could Kerry want than a global democracy fund and the US- Italian recommendation, voiced in a speech to the G8, to create an 75,000 strong peacekeeping force for Africa, made up of African soldiers. After all, who would ever want to send their own forces to Africa apart from amateurs like Clinton?

However, if we take a closer look at the speech—at its structure, underlying logic, premises and discourse—we find that Bush and his aides, his writers and the dangerous thinkers that fill the White House, have not changed one iota. They still believe they are leading a holy campaign against terrorism and tyranny and for the spread of democracy throughout the world, and the Arab world in particular. And they still rebuke earlier administrations for being timid in this regard just because they hoped to maintain stability.

US imperialist rhetoric has reached new heights: it now implies that the founding of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are one and the same, in both text and spirit. US presidential addresses to the UN in recent years have made a point of alluding to this supposed conformity. The phenomenon has important implications, one of which is that the two are interchangeable when the need arises. Such was the case when the UN refused to approve the war against Iraq, forcing the US to approve it alone in keeping, of course, with the same charter, values and principles to which the US remains constant even when the UN betrays them. Is that not how an empire is supposed to behave? At least, this is how the neo-cons see it.

Bush’s speech asserted that the war against Iraq was legal. This was a pointed response to Kofi Annan who, a week earlier, declared the war illegal (from the perspective of international law. Annan did not bring up the subject again in his opening address to the General Assembly. Rather, he dedicated his entire speech to the meaning of law and legality, as defined by the liberal attitudes and positions that have made the rounds among Kofi Annan’s friends in Manhattan who support Israel always and Kerry, today, in the presidential elections.

Naturally, Bush’s speech did not dispense with the simplistic division of the world into good and evil. But even when reducing world affairs to a battle between good guys and bad guys Bush’s speech writers reached new heights of demagoguery. Terrorists and dictators, we are given to understand, share the same insidious character while America, democracy, human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights are all combined in the person of the hero of a third-rate cowboy movie.

What do terrorists believe in, according to this rhetoric? Terrorists are on the warpath, not out of some creed, not to exact revenge nor to promote any political or social cause that could be identified and analysed if only to be better fought. No, “terrorists and their allies believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the American Bill of Rights, and every charter of liberty ever written, are lies, to be burned and destroyed and forgotten.”

So now we know what the terrorists are really up to, lest our minds go astray and think that suicide bombings might be a response to violations of the Declaration of Human Rights or the Bill of Rights rather than a deliberate attempt to destroy them.

“They believe that dictators should control every mind and tongue in the Middle East and beyond. They believe that suicide and torture and murder are fully justified to serve any goal they declare. And they act on their beliefs.”

Finally, thanks to Bush’s speech writers, we understand the goals of terrorism. But how do these speech writers, who have so blithely equated dictators and terrorists, explain the fact that these two camps have locked horns in many places in the Middle East and the rest of the world? They don’t: experts in rhetorical oversimplification, it’s not their job to be logical.

Throughout the rest of his speech Bush discussed the importance of preventive war, without mentioning it by name. He talks about defending stability, our way of life and “our values”. And not just at home; these values have to be spread throughout the world and their enemies have to be put down—all of which he justified with one fallacious argument after the other. He criticised, once again, his own country’s negligence in defending and promoting these values at home and abroad because making compromises with tyranny courted the disaster that struck the US. There could be no more tolerating of dictators and all efforts must be made to support reform and reformers. Not that he went into detail about reform and who these reformers are. Nor did he happen to mention that Washington regularly obstructs reform when it fears reform might work against its particular brand of power politics.

Under the heading of reform the subject that is accorded the most insidious treatment is the Middle East Conflict. Here the problem all boils down to those he refers to in his speech, without batting an eyelid, as “Palestinian rulers”. Rulers, applied to a stateless people and leadership under occupation? Appreciators of the arts of demagoguery cannot help but admire this subtle stretching of terms calculated to wring the most out of their emotive value. Such semantic dexterity permits for the reiteration of the same concepts and images—dictators in league with terrorists—called for by the script the speechwriters and its automaton reader want to impose on the world. But when it came to Palestine they outdid themselves in the hypocritical colouring of the issue and in the distortion of the values and principles cited above.

In their contextual slight of hand the speechmakers portrayed “Palestinian rulers” as if it were they who were occupying Israel and not the reverse. It was they who must stop their abhorrent practices, Arab governments that must normalise relations with Israel, before anything else could be done. Meanwhile, all Israel had to do was “impose a settlement freeze, dismantle unauthorised outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations”.

“Unauthorised outposts”—there’s handy euphemism for you, and a purely Israeli one.

Optimism may have bracketed the Bush speech like bookends, but it is unfounded. The US under this administration is pressing full steam ahead on the same course. True, some terms have been rendered so as to refute the existence of a clash of civilisations. Democracy and liberty, for example, were not just Western but universal values, a belief to which I also subscribe. However, the current US administration in its current campaign is the foremost consumer of the culture clash notion. It needs it to justify itself to the American people and to improve its popularity ratings. People are just not ready to die for the sake of democracy in another country. But if they are given to understand that the ultimate sacrifice had to be made in the fight against terrorists who are bound to invade their homes, because terrorists aim to destroy human rights instruments and because they hate us for our way of life and because they hate us merely for the way we are, which is not the way they are, then that will elicit the desired response. The current US administration is the leading promoter of the clash of cultures, of both the assailants and their victims.

In comparison with such emotionally packed rhetoric, Kofi Annan’s speech was insipid. The UN secretary- general appealed for the rule of law within and between nations, as though the two were one and the same thing, as though a global sovereignty existed upon which the international rule of law could rely. Wishful thinking. Certainly, the sovereignty of law and respect for the sovereignty of law are the essential condition and theoretical prerequisite for democracy, a fact that advocates of democracy in the Arab world would do well to remember. However, respect for the sovereignty of law between nations is another matter entirely, one that has no bearing on democracy. No amount of linguistic finesse of the sort that the rule of law abroad is the same as the rule of law at home can make it otherwise. This is merely the type of jargon used by liberals who never win, the type of rhetoric Kerry uses against Bush: verbal gymnastics instead of clear positions.

In his speech of 21 September Kofi Annan condemned in unequivocal tones almost everything except US and Israeli practices. Israeli practices are not described as crimes against civilians, as Palestinian practices are, but rather as “use of excessive force”—another homegrown euphemism for atrocities perpetrated by the Israeli occupation. Annan deftly lumps Palestinian actions in Israel in the same basket as the school seige in Beslan, and events in Uganda, Darfur and Iraq. What about the Israeli occupation? Apparently it doesn’t exist.

Annan’s statements meld nicely with Israel’s categorisation of Palestinian actions as one of the many tentacles of global terrorism. However, in the Palestinian case, in addition to condemning the Palestinians’ targeting of civilians inside Israel, Annan adds: “And in Palestine we see homes destroyed, lands seized, and needless civilian casualties caused by Israel’s excessive use of force.” What enormous lack of rectitude is needed to bend reality so that this kind of text can be produced. Annan brings a similarly convoluted approach to bear in his criticism of the US: “Yes, the rule of law starts at home. But in too many places it remains elusive. Hatred, corruption, violence and exclusion go without redress. The vulnerable lack effective recourse, while the powerful manipulate laws to retain power and accumulate wealth. At times even the necessary fight against terrorism is allowed to encroach unnecessarily on civil liberties.”

All those exceptive clauses, modifiers and softeners, and even the allusion to “the necessary fight against terrorism” just in order to say that America, too, is encroaching on civil liberties. So spoke the same secretary-general who had dedicated his speech to the rule of law and equality before the law. In September, anything goes.


Published Saturday, October 2nd, 2004 - 04:26am GMT
Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly
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