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No Lie?


Published June 5, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Word reaches me this week through the customary, loose-lipped channels that one of my readers thinks I ought to take tranquilizers instead of writing columns. I’d agree with him if you could ever get a tranquilizer in this country, but you can’t. Therefore, trembling, I report:

In a commencement address at West Point last Friday, Fearless Leader George W. Bush thanked the American armed forces for fighting so bravely and willingly in Afghanistan “on my orders.” This is the same George W. Bush who avoided service in Vietnam in 1968, when his string-pulling family got him placed at the top of the list for admission to the Texas Air National Guard — 12 days before the expiration of his student deferment and with the lowest possible score on his “pilot aptitude” test. But times have changed, as everyone knows, and Dubya’s now a regular General Sherman on the march to Armageddon.

“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” he proclaims. “The only path to safety is action, and this nation will act.”

Correction: This government will act; this nation will not be consulted. At West Point, Bush specified that “Cold War doctrines of containment and deterrence” are “irrelevant” in the fight against terror, and that “the only strategy for defeating America’s enemies” is to “strike them first.” The New York Times interprets the speech as a means of “preparing Americans for a potential war with Iraq,” adding that Bush’s words signal “a fundamental shift in how the military thinks about warfare.”

Indeed, by the sound of it, the military won’t be “thinking” about warfare at all — it’ll just be “striking.” Cross us, Bush says, and you’re dead.

Also on Friday, while Bush gave ’em hell at West Point, the United Nations instructed its staffers to evacuate their families from India and Pakistan. Similar orders to all citizens “in the region” came from the United States, Great Britain, France, Israel and South Korea, considering that as the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmiri can — and very well might — explode into nuclear war.

So real is this threat that the Pentagon has already issued an estimate of casualties, should India and Pakistan go at it with “100 percent delivery” of each side’s nuclear stockpile — 17 million people dead on the spot. This figure doesn’t include “long-term deaths from radiation sickness, starvation or fires that could burn long after the initial blasts.” Nor does it take into account the environmental devastation such blasts would incur. According to the British foreign office, “In a worst-case scenario, we would be looking at contamination affecting Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, even China.”

True, Pakistani President Musharraf insists that no “sane individual” could even think of unleashing nuclear warheads, “whatever the pressures.” At the same time, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee refuses to meet with Musharraf at this week’s “security conference” in Kazakhstan, thus consigning the whole enterprise to the loony bin of history. There’s nothing sane about the dispute over Kashmir or the enmity of Hindus and Muslims, Arabs and Jews, terrorists and tyrants.

“Being Muslims and Pakistanis, naturally we are peace-loving people,” says a brigadier-general on the Kashmiri front. “But I’ve told my men they will not give up one inch of territory. Not one inch. I’ve told them they will be buried here.”

From India, a former army chief of staff remarks: “War is one game that you cannot lose or draw, especially if you are the bigger country.”

Defense analysts predict something “unexpected, innovative, inconceivable” from India, something that “pays fast dividends” and sounds a lot like holocaust.

“The Indians believe they can absorb whatever pain is inflicted on them by Pakistan in any coming war and win,” The Guardian of London reports, “including a Pakistani first use of nuclear weapons. They know millions will die, but they believe India will still be there afterwards.”

In a world put on notice that “containment and deterrence” are dead items, what’s to prevent India, Pakistan or any other nation from claiming the same right to “strike first” that Bush, in his folly, demands for us? For that matter, what’s the difference, legal or moral, between a “suicide bomber” and a suicidal state?

Bush’s bully challenge at West Point comes on the heels of new revelations about the failure of U.S. intelligence in the months before September 11, not exactly encouraging in time of war. A different president — let’s say, a statesman — would be calling for some heads and explanations right now, but not Dubya, whose only response has been to shroud the ghouls in thicker cloth and endow them with unprecedented, unsupervised powers of investigation.

Even conservative pundit William Safire is appalled. “With not a scintilla of evidence of a crime being committed,” Safire warns, “the Feds will be able to run full investigations for one year. That’s aimed at generating suspicion of criminal conduct — the very definition of a ‘fishing expedition.’”

Meantime, in Israel, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak declares that “lying is a cultural trait of Arabs” and that “truth is seen as an irrelevant category” in the Arab world. I’d have thought there might be a warning precedent in Jewish history for such scurrilous attacks on races, nations and creeds, but apparently not. Barak has his evidence from the most impeccable source.

“The deputy director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation once told me that there are societies in which lie detectors don’t work,” he confides, “societies in which lies do not create cognitive dissonance.” We know the spooks have it right, for once, because we’re in one of those societies, and so is Barak, and so are Musharraf and Vajpayee.

Pass the tranquilizers, please.