It is always perilous to invoke the term "Orwellian." It has become such an easy-to-hurl cliché, often used too quickly and in such a carefree manner as to dilute the visceral power of Orwell's original nightmare world of dictatorial double-talk in 1984. But try as hard as I might, I find it impossible to escape the word's gravitational pull when considering an exchange that transpired during George W. Bush's most recent press conference.
Fox News's Carl Cameron asked:
On the subject of the terrorist surveillance program….The primary sponsor [of legislation declaring the warrantless wiretapping illegal and calling for Bush's censure] Russ Feingold, has suggested that impeachment is not out of the question. And on Sunday, the number two Democrat in the Senate refused to rule that out pending an investigation. What, sir, do you think the impact of the discussion of impeachment and censure does to you and this office, and to the nation during a time of war, and in the context of the election?
I did notice that nobody from the Democrat Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program. You know, if that's what they believe…then they ought to stand up and say it…They ought to take their message to the people and say, vote for me, I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program.
Before Bush answered this softball question, he had already, in a sense, scored a Big Brother-type victory. Cameron had used the administration’s preferred term for the no-warrant eavesdropping that Bush had authorized: the “terrorist surveillance program.” And in his response, Bush deployed that phrase twice.
Terrorist surveillance program. Consider those three words for a moment. Who could be opposed to a terrorist surveillance program? No one. The operative question is how such a program should function. Who should be monitored? What guidelines, procedures and protections should govern the program? By using this term in a demagogic fashion, Bush is explicitly charging that if a person objects to wiretapping American citizens without a warrant he or she is opposed to penetrating terrorist operations. With such talk, Bush and his aides are engaging in—dare I say it—an Orwellian exercise.
They are crassly exploiting the rhetoric of fear. The critics of the warrantless wiretapping okayed by Bush are not saying that they desire no terrorist surveillance program. Yet Bush presents the issue as a harsh either/or—just as he did with the war in Iraq. Prior to the invasion, he claimed that the choice was either to mount a full-scale military attack against Saddam Hussein's WMD-loaded nation or do absolutely nothing, even though others advocated more aggressive and intrusive inspections and perhaps limited military action.
Dick Cheney has gone even further down the Orwell highway, equating criticism of the no-warrant eavesdropping with "the outrageous proposition that we ought to protect Al Qaeda's ability to communicate as it plots against America." In doing so, the vice president recasts expressions of constitutional concern as active protection of Al Qaeda. Give me another word for this—other than Orwellian.
Now ponder the frightening logic behind these statements and see how easy it can be stretched. If you do not support, say, the open-ended detention in secret jails of American citizens suspected of terrorism without any charges, then you are opposed to the terrorist apprehension program—and you are obviously protecting the ability of Al Qaeda operatives to concoct schemes to kill Americans and destroy this country. And if you think it is not a good idea to assassinate American citizens suspected of terrorism, you are then guilty of failing to support the terrorist prevention program.
By the way, it should be noted that the Bush administration has declined to extend its warrantless wiretapping to communications that take place entirely in the United States (as opposed to those involving at least one party who is overseas). Therefore, Bush and his aides are themselves protecting the domestic communications of Al Qaeda operatives who have already managed to gain access to the homeland.
Is it a surprise that Bush, Cheney and Karl Rove engage in this sort of rhetorical warfare? I suppose that depends on your view of their natures. But I have yet to seen members of the mainstream media cry foul. (My apologies, if I've missed someone doing so.) And at least one White House reporter, as noted above, accepts and promotes this insidious terminology.
And—don't be shocked—there's more. One could write an entire book (or at least quite a lengthy magazine piece) on how Bush and his team rhetorically linked Iraq to the horrific 9/11 attacks to justify the war. This past Sunday on Meet the Press, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried again. She told Tim Russert:
We're in Iraq because the United Sates of America faces a different kind of enemy in a different kind of war. And we have to have a different kind of Middle East if we're ever going to resolve the, the, the problems of an ideology of hatred that was so great that people flew airplanes into buildings. Iraq was—Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a threat. Now that the—
Russert was sharp enough to cut her off her at this point and interject, "But Saddam was not related to flying airplanes into buildings." Rice then countered,
No, and we have never said that Saddam—Saddam was not related to the events of 9/11. But if you really believe that the only thing that happened on 9/11 was people flew airplanes into buildings, I think you have a very narrow view of what we faced on 9/11. We faced the, the outcome of an ideology of hatred throughout the Middle East that had to be deal with. Saddam Hussein was a part of that old Middle East.
This is rather significant language. At first, we had a war on terrorism—not specifically a war on Al Qaeda. Now it's a war on the ideology of hatred. What's the slogan for this war? Let's hate hate? Rice is, of course, in error when she asserts that "we" never said that Saddam was related to 9/11, but that’s another article. Yet, Rice’s refusal to acknowledge the administration's clumsy effort to tie Saddam to 9/11 was overshadowed by her argument that because the 9/11 hijackers hated America, America had no choice but to rid the "old Middle East" of the "ideology of hatred." That ignores the possibly relevant fact that Al Qaeda despised America for a different set of reasons than Saddam did. Lumping all anti-Americanism into a seamless, coherent "ideology of hatred" is a bolder rhetorical move than assailing an Axis of Evil. And since the "old Middle East"—including Iraq—still contains hotbeds of America-hating, what's next?
One other example, if I may: On Monday, The New York Times front-paged a story on a memo detailing a private conversation that Bush had with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on January 31, 2003. During that discussion, Bush made clear that he wanted war, not a diplomatic resolution—which was contrary to his public position. Not so, says the White House. Frederick Jones, the spokesman for the National Security Council, told the Times, "The public record at the time, including numerous statements by the President, makes clear that the administration was continuing to pursue a diplomatic solution into 2003. Saddam Hussein was given every opportunity to comply, but he chose continued defiance, even after being given one final opportunity to comply or face serious consequences."
Saddam Hussein—murderous tyrant that he was—had not chosen outright defiance. U.N. weapons inspectors were in Iraq and doing (what turns out to have been) a decent job. Certainly, Saddam was putting up obstacles, but the inspectors were working through these issues and generally reporting that they were making progress. But what was particularly slippery about Jones' response was that it ignored a key portion of the memo: a passage (previously reported in the British press) that noted that Bush had talked to Blair about trying to provoke a confrontation with Saddam, as the Times put it, by painting "a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire." I ask you: is this the notion of a president who prefers a diplomatic solution? In fact, it shows Bush was willing to engage in an act of subterfuge to create a pretext for a war. The White House refuses to discuss the proposal. Orwellian? You make the call.
I try not to get overwrought when contemplating the excesses and consequences of the Bush administration. But it is hard to look closely at these matters and not question how far this administration is willing to go. (Note to Democrats regarding the 2006 elections: look out.) Perhaps a going-overboard reaction is appropriate. Still, charging this bunch with Orwellian practices—even if true—has a hackneyed ring. I wonder: what would George do? Orwell, that is.