Wayne O'Leary

Games the GOP Plays

The Bush administration and its political allies are at it again, making enemies once more in the international community. This time, it's Canada, which thought it had gained a reprieve by electing a conservative government and adopting a pale version of Republican rhetoric with respect to the Middle East. No such luck for our northern neighbor.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, George W. Bush's Mini-Me, has issued a string of militant pronouncements on Canada's policing mission in Afghanistan -- to the effect that Canadians won't cut and run, that they will support the troops, stay the course, etc. But the Taliban is back, stronger than ever, treating their new occupiers as American surrogates. Dominion military personnel are being bloodied and taking losses, and Canadians, increasingly restive, are asking why they're there. Meanwhile, Harper continues to hang tough, with a commitment to stay until 2009, but still, he gets no respect from Washington.

The latest slight was precipitated by the overblown Toronto terrorist plot, which involved plans by a renegade group of Canadian Muslims to carry out bombings and other symbolic outrages inside their own country. The plotters, long under surveillance by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, were apprehended ahead of time in a sting operation and were never a serious danger -- they appear to be on a par with Richard Reid, the pathetic and incompetent "shoe bomber" -- but the incident nevertheless set off a hysterical reaction south of the border.

Canadians, while admittedly nonplussed and a bit shocked, took the evidence of internal domestic terrorism in stride; after all, they've been down this road before, in the 1970s, with the more violent of the Quebec separatists. American conservatives and much of the US media, however, acted as if it had been an attack on us. To their way of thinking, the RCMP's successful thwarting of Canada's homegrown threat was evidence not of superior police work -- superior, by the way, to anything comparable US authorities have carried out -- but of that country's supposed status as a hotbed for Islamic terrorism.

One Republican congressman, Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana, called Canada a "terrorist haven," and others on the right decried purportedly lax Canadian immigration and security policies -- a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. A former legal counsel for the 9/11 commission went further, citing an imagined wave of "terrorist travel" across the Canadian border into the US, which must be halted by sealing northern access to the lower 48. Such attitudes, shared by the Bush administration, spelled finis for the Harper government's dogged efforts to reverse or postpone Washington's plans to require individuals crossing the Canadian border to carry expensive passports and undergo extensive searches -- a blow to both tourism and bilateral trade.

The reaction in Ottawa to ignorant right-wing ranting and ill-informed US press coverage -- media outlets south of the border referred to the planting of nonexistent bombs, for instance -- was predictable. The leadership of the opposition Liberal party, in particular, went after US critics, calling their comments an insult to Canada. But anger erupted even among the Canadian parliament's Conservative party backbenchers. Canada's media focused repeatedly on the multiple inaccuracies in the hyped-up American coverage and commentary, and speculated aloud over what would have been said if the terrorist plot had not been foiled.

The American right's predisposition to attack countries like Canada that do not march in lockstep at all times with the US is surpassed only by its continued blood lust toward its actual enemies. It's not enough for conservatives to respond firmly and courageously to the terrorist threat; they must caricature, dehumanize and hate the other side -- hate them as much as they hate us -- to the point of being pathological. This should surprise no one. Today's right-wingers, remember, are the children and grandchildren of the fanatical anti-Communists of the 1950s, who gave rise to the horrors of McCarthyism.

The right's present crusade against "evil" has likewise brought out the worst in the American character. The torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004 and the concealed massacre of civilians at Haditha in 2005 are two examples; another more recent instance is the celebratory sequel to the June killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the violent leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi was nothing more than a glorified criminal, but the administration, undignified as ever, couldn't resist exultantly dancing on his grave.

Especially offensive were the death photos of Zarqawi, presented as a visual trophy and rerun over and over again on network television, as those of Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, had been two years earlier. Americans were invited to gawk and gloat over their military's (and, by extension, their government's) success. It was reminiscent of nothing so much as the grim black-and-white images of dispatched outlaws (the members of the Dalton gang at Coffeyville, Kan, in 1892, for example, and John Dillinger in Chicago in 1934), displayed to provide object lessons to the public and good p.r. for law-enforcement officials. Americans and their leaders should be beyond that kind of tasteless, primitive display by now.

Obviously, our maximum leader, George W. Bush, is not beyond it. He provided the soundtrack for the movie, playing the G-man to Zarqawi's Edward G. Robinson. Zarqawi had "met his end," intoned the president in his best voice of doom. (The voice of doom ranks with the macho strut as a defining Bush mannerism.) Right, both moral and political, had triumphed. In case the point was missed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added that no one had the blood of more innocent people on his hands than Zarqawi, conveniently forgetting his own role in ordering the air strikes that killed (inadvertently, of course) thousands of Iraqi civilians during the 2003 invasion.

There's something unseemly going on here. W and the Donald are manipulating the war and occupation with far too much relish. Like their 1950s predecessors, who cut moral corners, abused civil liberties and used external threats for political purposes, the Bush team and its support structure in Congress and the media view the present foreign conflict as a means to an end: the retention of public office. Whether it's trashing Canada or elevating Zarqawi, misrepresenting an ally or exaggerating the importance of a nemesis, the great game continues on toward its desired conclusion of winning the November elections.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, Aug. 1-15, 2006

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