January 03, 2008

Moby Bush and The Great Saddam Whale

On April 2, 2003 I sent a short opinion piece out to several US newspapers, criticizing the Bush Administration's planned war on Iraq. None would print it. Criticism of the Bush Government was still not widespread in the media, though hundreds of thousands of people were protesting the planned invasion in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities around the nation. At the time I was a visiting professor at Notre Dame University, and I had followed the build up to the Iraq War quite carefully. I was against the invasion then, but I could not have imagined how thoroughly the Bush Administration was going to bungle their "peace keeping" once the invasion was over. Subsequent events showed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not making any. This seemed likely to be the case to many people at the time, not least to the inspectors who were on the ground. Recall that Colin Powell went to the UN and, we now know, lied, claiming that the US had superior intelligence to that possessed by the French and the Germans. Today, we know that they were right and the US was wrong. But even at that time, I felt that the nation was going absolutely in the wrong direction. And so I wrote the piece now published here.

Warning: If you have not read Herman Melville's Moby Dick, then the literary parallels between Ahab and George W. Bush will be lost on you. 

On board the Pequod II
The Pequod II shipped out in 2001 with the new captain, whom we did not know well, but he was rumored to be compassionate. In the first long months of the voyage he kept himself mostly below, in the Texas, letting others steer the ship while he plotted his unilateral course. Then he emerged in the midst of a storm and addressed his officers and crew. He called on all to join in a quest to make the seas safe for whalers and to assure civilization a steady supply of sperm oil, by hunting down and slaying the Great Saddam Whale.

Captains from passing French, German, and Russian ships warned him to hunt only normal prey, but he ignored them. For his mind was fixed on an earlier encounter with that great whale, whom he believed once tried to kill his father, and whom he saw as the very incarnation of evil. Indeed, he spoke of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and North Korea, making up a strange triumvirate that had no alliances with one another.

Can First Mate Starbuck Powell stand up to the Captain's extravagance, and steer us into safer waters? Or is his goodness ultimately no match for monomania? Will the frowning captain accept advice to change course from the smiling second mate, Tony "Stubb" Blair? Can the captain heed advice, or is this course become a destiny? We cannot expect restraint from third mate Flask Rumsfeld, who is cheerfully certain he can kill all whales that spout in any gulf.

Below decks are wolfish planners who steel Bush's will for the fiery chase. First, they promise an easy chase and quick victory. Have we not harpoons with satellite guidance? Now, they counsel patient pursuit. We will bring democracy and progress to the Middle East fishery. There be also readers of Revelation on board, who look to scripture and conclude that the confrontation with the Great Whore of Babylon has come. This will be the last day of judgement against the infidels. 

The Pequod sails on a profitless voyage into a rising storm. In his quest to destroy the Great Sadddam Whale the Captain risks his cargo, insults his allies, kills innocent people, and creates new enemies. I am a involuntary Ishmael on this voyage. My cry for war did not go up with the rest. I don't want to end up clinging to my best friend's coffin.


I see no need to change this more than 1700 days later. Melville was not, of course, writing about George Bush. But he had seen men like him and was able to imagine an apocalyptic scenario. 

Bush's foreign policy has been a catastrophe for United States. If we are fortunate enough to have wise leadership after the next election, by which I mean leaders who do not act unilaterally but listen to their allies, it will still take at least a generation for the nation to regain  the moral stature it had abroad at the end of the Clinton years. Sadly, however, it is possible that during the last decade the US has squandered a great historical opportunity for world leadership that will not come again.