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Joe Conason,
Book Review With Commentary

Insights upon insights are among the offerings of this gifted writer. In this, his fourth major book on contemporary American politics, Conason essentially indicts the Bush/Cheney Administration of fascism; the very kind predicted by Sinclair Lewis in "It Can't Happen Here" 1935:

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross."

In breathtaking detail, Conason fearlessly explores the origins of the autocratic/plutocratic Neocon movement from its origins in the Nixon Administration onwards. His thoroughly documented sources fully back up his thesis that America came to the brink of dictatorship before the American electorate began to wise up--in the nick of time. But then Bush was a minority president who stole the election with the help of extremists in the Supreme Court who were eager to intervene as no prior Court ever had, twisting law in ways that were dubious indeed. Still, the electorate did vote for more war in 2004, even after things had become very dark, if somewhat opaque behind barrages of propaganda. The main responsibility still lies in the White House with a critical assist from the Supreme Court.

Conason shows us things were worse than even we suspected. Quoting Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the very first meeting of the National Security Council in the Bush Adminstration unfolded like this:

"Briefing materials for that meeting included a 'Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq,' which included a period of peacekeeping by U.S. soldiers, a war-crimes tribunal for Saddam and other Baath-Party officials, and a scheme (with maps) for exploiting Iraq's oil resources. ...Bush told his aides that he wanted an excuse to attack."

Raw power and empire are of course the essence of Neoconservatism. What Mr. Bush also surely brought to the party, was a desire to settle an old score from pre-Clinton days. He has virtually said as much.

Conason continued with what is now obvious:

" The difference between Iraq and Iran is that the mullahs in Tehran truly could pose a threat to world peace if and when they can produce nuclear warheads, which their scientists may well be trying to accomplish. If they can be discouraged by a combination of warnings, sanctions, and diplomacy, perhaps a distant but disturbing prospect of a nuclear Iran can be prevented. The problem is that no matter how much bluster emanates from the White house and the Pentagon, Bush's war in Iraq has weakened the United States politically, militarily, diplomatically, and economically. Having spent so much blood and treasure on a false problem, our government is much less capable of dealing with the real one. "

This is not to mention a possibility even more dire: A resurging Taliban coming to power in Pakistan. Talibanstan would immediately face off against Western interests with eager fingers on an existing nuclear trigger. It is an aside that Pakistan would become a reactionary 7th-Century-theocracy. If you don't like Talibanstan, how about Qa'idastan? Either was unthinkable just five short years ago. When our great leader claims progress against terror, does he include bringing this possibility about?

Take a look now: Isn't the previous paragraph fear-mongering? As written, YES. In intent, it is a wake-up call as loud as we know how to make it. Unless we find another way to damp down terrorism, we are doomed to just such an eventuality. It is very late, hopefully not too late.

Conanson moves on with events closer to home:

" The advent of the permanent global war on terror has provided the Republican regime with a durable rationale for secrecy, a compelling theme for propaganda, and an irresistible imperative for curbing and harassing the independent media.

These strategies reinforce each other. "If government can conceal real information from the press and public, it can more easily replace that information with propaganda; if government can replace news with propaganda, it can more easily intimidate the independent media; if the independent media are intimidated, the government can insist on greater secrecy, and less questioning of propaganda."

Conason treats us with an actual example. Ari Fleischer was Bush's press secretary early on. Two weeks after 9/11, Fleischer hinted heavily how things were going to be in his daily briefing.

" I am aware of the press reports about what he [Bill Maher] said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it's a terrible thing to say, and it is unfortunate. And that is why ...they're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not the time for remarks like that. There never is." "

Conason connected in a follow up, that most of us missed.

" When the transcript of the briefing came out, the words demanding that everyone 'watch what they say' had disappeared. When a reporter for the New York Times noticed the omission, an assistant to Fleischer claimed it was a 'transcription error'. "

And so it went. Conason added revealing anecdote to revealing anecdote in developing insight into the whys and hows of one Mr. Bush. In getting around to the Military Commissions Act, he wrote:

" "...Senators McCain, Graham, and Warner joined sixty-two of their Senate colleagues in endorsing the Miltary Commissions Act--a sweeping surrender of traditional rights and liberties to the unitary executive...
The bill created a new, extra-constitutional system of militarized justice to permit the imprisonment, interrogation, trial, and punishment of individuals designated by the president as enemy combatants, outside the protection of the Bill of Rights. ...The act abrogated all the constitutional protections and the Geneva Conventions that the senators had promised to defend.

...Although thirty-three Democratic senators and one Republican had voted nay, the authoritarian White House had been able to rely on its own partisans and Red-state Democrats most frightened of right-wing retribution.

No wonder the president has felt free to ignore the will of the legislative branch, accepting their bills pro-forma--and then sending back 'signing statements' that explain why he is disinclined to obey the laws they pass."

On his closing page, Conason writes:

" ...The Republican leaderships in the White House and Congress have taken us closer and closer to a kind of government that our founders abhorred. Manipulating our fears, stirring religious divisions, and contriving to create a state of permanent war, they have sought to institute a rule by men instead of law--and they have reinvented the president as a sovereign monarch rather than an executive with limited powers. With the backing of corporate wealth and fundamentalist religion, the unitary presidency represents a potential tyranny."

All this from a man and his Neocon cabal who demand "strict construction" of the Constitution. And we thought only snakes had fork-tipped tongues.
Well, OK, that is rough. But may I ask you, readers of Conason's book, are you watching your step? The next one you take may be into an Oubliette!

Conason concludes:

" Yes, it can happen here. Whether it ever will depends on our determination to defend our rights, our liberties, and our democratic inheritance, not only for ourselves but for generations to come. "

Conason did not come to that conclusion lightly. The points mentioned above are only a small fraction of the supporting background in this book. The sad part is that too many voters may never learn, in which case Bush III or Cheney II may not make the many gross blunders of this administration. Bush III may find ways to keep American voters scared stiff in a truly Perpetual state of War, with voters in the dark, but otherwise fat, dumb, happy--standing on a trap door. Once in the Oubliette, however, there will be no way out.

Enough fear mongering. Conason offers crucial advice for an immediate about-face in the trend:

" ...The Democrats who won control of the upper chamber again in November 2006, however narrowly, will have a chance to fulfill that responsibility in the final two years of the Bush presidency. They can begin by seeking to amend the Military Commissions Act, as Senators Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Patrick Leahy of Vermont have proposed, and restoring the rights of due process and the international treaty obligations of the United States. If that effort succeeds, despite resistance of Republicans and some fellow Democrats, they will have brought the nation back from the brink of authoritarian rule."

We concur and can only hope the abyss recedes; it might not if an Authoritarian Democrat takes power and refuses to roll back the Unitarian Presidency Bush created--note the euphemism. We must add that it is time for the American public to take a continuing and critical interest in contemporary politics by insisting on candor and honesty throughout their representative government, including the Supreme Court. The latter, it is now evident, requires term limits, perhaps 12 years, if our tripartite system is to survive the Authoritarian threat. We can begin by thoughtfully reading Conason, checking his references, and beginning public Dialogue to correct or extend his thinking as the case may be. Milgram, Zimbardo, Altemeyer, Dean, Stout, and Pfaff each and all illustrate features contributing to the state we now find ourselves in. It remains up to us to to find the pathways to save the future for our progeny. Some of our thoughts are collected on Ways Forward.

The 2006 election showed the power of the people. It is up to those people to stay in active touch exercising enlightened command of the situation. In the longer term, means must be found to prevent recent history from repeating itself. Our instincts must extend beyond the immediate and visible. We must explore the very basis of existence and society, fill in the missing features, and find new directions. We do not have all the answers, but what we do have may be found on What We Can Do. Only one thing is certain:

To have a future, humanity must travel
along roads not yet explored or
perhaps even unknown.


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