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Ashcroft, Arafat & Oil: Behind the Magic Screen
Bernard Weiner

Magicians rely for their success on the trick of distraction. We're looking at what they want us to look at, but the real action is elsewhere. That's why, of course, it's best not to restrict one's reading to the front pages. Oftentimes, clues to other vital news are buried inside the papers on Page 18C.

In the case of America's current war, for example, while it's important to follow the shifting battle lines in Afghanistan and the hunt for the elusive Pimpernel of global terrorism, there is lot of important news happening almost under the radar screen, a good share of which will impinge on our lives much more than what is happening in the caves and tunnels around Kabul.

Three items seem most important in this regard: 1) The assault on civil liberties and the way it's been handled; 2) The decoupling of the Israeli/Palestinian problem from America's agenda; and, 3) The future role of Central Asian oil.

Civil Liberties

When observing the Bush forces during the voting-count in Florida and beyond, I was struck by their tough, take-no-prisoners demeanor and actions. These were folks (Karl Rove, James Baker, the Bush Clan, Karen Hughes, et al.) who knew what they wanted and apparently would do anything to succeed. They and their GOP allies were poised for total control of governmental power in the Gingrich era -- and thus would be able, finally, to enact their far-right economic and cultural agenda -- only to have it slip away from them once more by Clinton's second-term victory. They weren't going to let power slide out of their grasp again.

So, installed into office by the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush began trying to enact the agenda of the far right that was the foundation for his campaign. But he ran into snags: not only was his legitimacy (and competency) clearly in doubt, but Senator Jeffords' later defection from the GOP meant the Congress was no longer easily controlled.

Bush & Co. couldn't have asked for a better and more timely enemy than Osama bin Laden and his suicide air force. The U.S. was united in patriotic fervor, Bush found his voice and Looked Presidential, the Democrats in Congress lost their tongues and rolled over easy lest they appear "unpatriotic," and suddenly, the rightwing agenda could be enacted in the name of "national security" and "homeland protection." Whatever Bush and his allies wanted, by and large, he got, and continues to get.

Which brings us to the civil liberties question, or, phrased another way, the attempt to cut swatches from the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Those nasty little amendments keep getting in the way of true progress in establishing a rightwing utopia. Attorney-client privilege, for example -- virtually gone. Privacy on the Internet -- severely compromised. All the government has to do is to allege suspicions of some contact with "terrorism." Could be a vicious neighbor denounces you as engaging in suspicious, anti-patriotic expressions or behaviors; you're whisked away ("disappeared") to a detention facility, probably with nobody knowing for quite awhile where you are or why you're there, and your life is investigated. Torture is a possibility, widely talked of and advocated by many anti-terrorism officials.

Am I making this up, out of some third-world scenario we've seen in too many movies set in the dungeons of France or Colombia? No, this is Congress' law of the land -- even though virtually none of the members of the House ever were able to read the final version of the bill before voting on it. (It came out of committee one way, and Bush-Ashcroft substituted a new version at the last minute and demanded that the GOP push it to a quick vote.)

In short, out of nervousness and fright, the U.S. population -- represented by politicians that do not want to appear "soft on terrorism," lest they not be re-elected next time out -- seems, on the whole, to be willing to allow the Constitution to be majorly bent in the name of "national security," as we move more and more toward a martial society. (The one hopeful sign: marginalized leaders from the far right, suspicious of big government, joined the marginalized ACLU types in trying to oppose the worst aspects of the bill.)

The ingredients are there for a "national security" (read: police) state, with all law-enforcement functions centralized in the White House's National Security Council, dominated by the cultural warriors of the far right. If you liked John Mitchell and Ed Meese, you'll love John Ashcroft and General Wayne Downing. (Downing is the National Security Council's anti-terrorism chief, second-in-command to Tom Ridge in the Homeland Security Office.)

I don't want to be misunderstood. There is a good reason for a war on terrorism; the al Qaeda network is not playing games, and they must be rooted out and made inoperative. What we're talking about here are the crimes to the Constitution under the rubric of "national security."

In a broader sense, the GOP's meanness and single-minded tenacity to overturn decades of progressive and middle-of-the-road domestic policies continues unabated in the Bush administration, war or no war, and despite talk by Bush about the need for unity and non-partisanship.

The first fully domestic item pushed by Bush & Co. after September 11 involved giving billions in retroactive tax breaks to (surprise!) large corporations. Did you hear much about this? Not likely, as we're all watching the prestidigitations on the front page? Read anything lately about the raid on Social Security and Medicare funds, to help pay for the war? Didn't think so. Opening up ANWAR for oil exploration? Kinda slipped back without much fuss.

In short, the hardwingers of the GOP, especially in the House as supported by President Bush, are trying to slip all sorts of things under the political radar while the public is distracted by bin Laden, bombs and patriotic bombast. The only hope, and it may not be much of one, given the jellyfish-like spines of so many Democrats, is that the U.S. Senate could still stop the most dangerous House/Bush legislation if it so chose. Contact your senators, but don't hold your breath.

Israel & Palestine

Just as Bush & Co. are reverting to their original, hardline intentions domestically, so too is their neo-isolationist foreign policy back in force.

It looked for a while that the U.S. might feel obliged to step into the Israeli/Palestinian dispute and try mightily to organize a peace. But in recent days, the impression given is that the U.S. feels it doesn't have to do that to maintain the war coalition -- especially the Muslim nations in that coalition -- and so Arafat and the Palestinian cause have been detached from immediate U.S. concerns. The result on the ground is that Israel might well interpret this laissez-faire attitude on the part of its sponsor as even more of a blank check to determine the geopolitical future in the Mideast according to its own needs.

In hindsight, it looks as if Arafat should have taken what he could have obtained -- which was a lot but not everything he wanted -- while Barak was Israel's prime minister. Now he's dealing with a blood-bathed, hardline zealot, Sharon, who has no intention or desire, or need, to make concessions to the Palestinians. (All this underlines Abba Eban's famous observation from years ago that the Palestinians never pass up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity.)

True, Bush and Powell use the term "Palestine" and talk about the "future Palestinian state," but those are fairly empty terms unless the U.S. forces Israel to make the necessary concessions that will bring peace and hope to the region.

In short, those of us American activists interested in trying to get U.S. military/political policy to change in the Middle East -- so as to alter the soil in which present and, most importantly, future terrorists grow -- have a more difficult fight on our hands. Bush & Co. clearly don't think re-examining U.S. policy is necessary any longer, if they ever did. It's business as usual domestically, and it's business as usual in foreign policy -- no U.S. brokering a peace in the Mideast, no U.S. calls for more democracy in the authoritarian states of the area that support the American war effort, no U.S. attempts to get the autocratic rulers to deal more with the desperate poverty and injustice in their countries (which conditions, again, help prepare the soil for terrorism).

In sum, it's business -- and that means big business -- as usual, while the Middle East continues to fester.

Central Asian Oil

While it may be true that the U.S. war in Afghanistan began as a reflex action (in Tariq Ali's apt description: "A powerful animal temporarily blinded, by a bee sting, lashes out in a crazy way"), it does have a major natural-resources dimension.

Crudely put, pun intended, we're talking oil here and a proposed massive exploitation of the large Central Asia oil reserves -- located in the "stan" countries of the former Soviet Union -- through a pipeline that might well go through (drum roll here) Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the revenue and bribery monies that entails.

The pipeline was a possibility during the last decade, but the political situation was so tenuous and chaotic that Western oil companies decided it wasn't worth the risk. But if Afghanistan and Pakistan and the other "stans" are made politically stable (read: amenable to U.S. policy), and demonstrate that they are anxious to do business with a Western oil consortium, such a pipeline is a real possibility.

If this comes to pass, Middle Eastern oil -- and the corrupt, crazy politics that go with it -- becomes of less importance to the U.S. and Europe, while political cozying up with Russia and the "stans" becomes much more vital. Follow the money and you almost never go wrong in figuring out some major reasons why leaders act the way they do.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught politics & international relations at Western Washington University and San Diego State University; he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years.