The Promise Keeper

Brian Cook

It’s no revelation that the perception managers” giving our reporters their daily bread from the White House and Pentagon are old hands at the art of euphemism, having long ago taken to heart Humpty Dumpty’s dictum that when masters” use a word, it means exactly what they choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Yet language remains a fickle mistress, whose in-built ambiguities and tendency toward multiple meanings make it a slave to no man. So it’s instructive to examine those instances when language’s eccentricities send the spin masters — themselves subservient to state secrecy — stumbling and spilling the beans.

In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Pentagon planners managed to catch themselves before dubbing the mission Operation Iraqi Liberation,” presumably when some officer noted that the mission’s acronym (OIL) might suggest an ulterior motive. They’d obviously learned from the post-9/11 mission-naming debacle, when the Pentagon code-named the plan to bomb Afghanistan Operation Infinite Justice.” The American Muslim community cried out that only Allah was capable of this task. (Ever reluctant to offend the sensibilities of those they are about to target with cruise missiles, the Pentagon changed the name to Operation Enduring Freedom.”)

But in his latest book, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, In These Times Contributing Editor Slavoj Zizek argues that the name Infinite Justice” holds a disconcerting truth, one fitting for a war waged against an abstract noun. As Bush himself recently blurted out to the chagrin of his handlers, there is no way to win the war on terror, so the battle will continue to move from front to front, stretching from here to eternity. (A similar ambiguity exists in the replacement of Infinite Justice,” it being apparent that John Ashcroft has found the task of Enduring Freedom” far too taxing for his imprisoned mind.)

Such thoughts arise when listening to President Bush’s stump speech, now playing in a swing state near you. Having been reeducated by his handlers, the president is back on message regarding America’s war on terror.” The emotional climax occurs when Bush regales the faithful with his remembrances from Ground Zero, in particular the moment of male bonding he shared with a group of hard-hatted workers who chanted at him: Whatever it takes.”

The gruff manliness of the phrase obviously appeals to Bush, so much so that he repeats it later in the speech, telling the crowd, I will never relent in defending America, whatever it takes.” This repetition elicits the loudest cheers of approval from his backers — terrifying, when you consider we are not six months past an uncensored glimpse of the logic of whatever it takes” at work in Abu Ghraib.

Of all the dangerous beliefs held by this White House, the most damaging has been its steadfast insistence that noble ends are justified by any means. Thus, to achieve the admirable goal of bringing Saddam Hussein to justice, the Bush administration lied to and misled its citizens, spied on members of the United Nations and breached the U.N. Charter that had been the bedrock of international law for over half a century. In its attempts to capture and interrogate terrorists, the administration has laid waste to the Bill of Rights, tacitly approved the use of torture and established an illegal concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay.

Americans have grown accustomed to cynically dismissing campaign promises peddled by politicians on the stump as pure pablum. But take Bush at his word. He’s a promise keeper. If reelected, he won’t relent in pursing this never-ending war on terror by any means necessary. More draconian legislation, more unlawful, unilateral action, more electrodes attached to the genitals of prisoners of war. Whatever it takes.

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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