All for show, not for go

So now we know one of the essential reasons the United States went to war in Iraq.

I’m not talking about the oft-cited reasons of oil and Israel.  Nor am I talking about the nutball neoconservative notion that a lack of democracy in the Arab world poses an existential threat to the United States and Western civilization as we know it. 

Those are all in the mix, of course.  But add to it the Bush administration’s desire for a “public spectacle.”

It is “surviving the public spectacle in finance and politics” that comprises the subtitle of DR founder Bill Bonner’s new book Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets, co-authored with Lila Rajiva.  (To pre-order at a nearly 1/3 discount, click here.)  And it is the notion of the Iraq war as public spectacle that stands out in this Newsweekcover story about the search for Osama bin Laden. 

The American effort to chase bin Laden into this forbidding realm [in Afghanistan] was hobbled and clumsy from the start. While the terrain required deep local knowledge and small units, career officers in the U.S. military have long been wary of the Special Operations Forces best suited to the task. In the view of the regular military, such "snake eaters" have tended to be troublesome, resistant to spit-and-polish discipline and rulebooks.

Rather than send the snake eaters to poke around mountain caves and mud-walled compounds, the U.S. military wanted to fight on a grander stage, where it could show off its mobility and firepower. To the civilian bosses at the Pentagon and the eager-to-please top brass, Iraq was a much better target. By invading Iraq, the United States would give the Islamists — and the wider world — an unforgettable lesson in American power.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was on Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board and, at the time, a close confidant of the SecDef. In November 2001, Gingrich told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "There's a feeling we've got to do something that counts — and bombing caves is not something that counts."

Not in the realm of public spectacle, it’s not.  Sure, you can send in special ops to put a bullet between bin Laden’s eyes, but you can't expect to get much mileage out of it.  You can’t telegraph it for weeks or months in advance with Congressional hearings and somber presentations to the UN.  Nor can you have TV cameras set up for the decisive moment.  Yes, you can trot out bin Laden’s corpse after the deed is done, but its utility is limited; it’s not as if the video can be run in an endless loop to cover the talking heads on cable TV for more than a day or two.

But a “shock and awe” bombing campaign on a major urban center?  That’s got staying power.  It’s a storyline that’ll last for weeks.  There’s ample opportunity for live coverage as it’s happening, punctuated by ample down time during which the pundit class (and a host of Pentagon-approved retired generals) can pontificate about the significance of the moment.  It is, in short, a public spectacle of spectacular magnitude — even if it has nothing to do with nailing bin Laden.  It's all for show, not for go.

The Islamists and the wider world indeed got their unforgettable lesson in American power in 2003.  But in the years since, they've gotten an even more lasting lesson in the limits of that power.  It's a lesson American leaders have yet to grasp.  For all the leaders of all the empires through history, it was ever thus.