Monday, February 28, 2005

Masters of war

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

I couldn't help but utter a low mordant chuckle when I heard George W. Bush speak these words in his inauguration speech, and repeat the call for "ending tyranny in our world" in his State of the Union address.

Because the history of the Bush family -- including the current White House occupants, and the power cadre they have gathered -- tells us a little about just how W. defines "tyranny." It's all in the eye of the beholder.

This was driven home recently by news of the recent war-related windfall that just happened to befall W's own Uncle Bucky Bush:
William H.T. "Bucky" Bush, uncle of the president and youngest brother of former President George H.W. Bush, cashed in ESSI stock options last month with a net value of nearly half a million dollars.

"Uncle Bucky," as he is known to the president, is on the board of the company, which supplies armor and other materials to U.S. troops. The company's stock prices have soared to record heights since before the invasion, benefiting in part from contracts to rapidly refit fleets of military vehicles with extra armor.

William Bush exercised options on 8,438 shares of company stock Jan. 18, according to reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He acknowledged in an interview that the transaction was worth about $450,000.

In an earnings report issued Tuesday, the firm disclosed that net earnings for the first quarter ending Jan. 31 reached a record $20.6 million, while quarterly revenue hit $233.5 million, up 20% from a year ago. As a result, the company boosted its projected annual revenue to between $990 million and $1 billion.

None of this should come as a surprise, really. This is the world of the Bush family, after all.

The Bush family fortune, you see, was built on making steel castings, primarily for two of the linchpins of industrial society: railroads and armaments. Bush's grandfather, Samuel Prescott Bush, ran an Ohio manufacturing firm called Buckeye Steel Castings. The Bushes had many business and family connections to other giants of industry who were often business partners, including the Harriman family of Union Pacific Railroad, and the arms-making Remington family. Sam Bush was also director of small armaments and ammunition on the federal War Industries Board board between 1918 and 1924, which made him responsible for government assistance to arms makers like Remington, whose owner, Frank Rockefeller, was a former Buckeye Steel company president. Bush also oversaw the takeover of numerous small arms manufacturers and the cartelization of the industry.

As I've described in detail previously, the Bushes -- Samuel Bush as well as his son Prescott -- had little compunction about doing business with tyrants, particularly the rapidly rising Nazi regime of Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, Prescott Bush appears to have continued doing business with the Nazis, for a while at least, even after America went to war with them.

The problem with all this, as I explained then, is not that the Bush family has Nazi ties (it doesn't) or that the family fortune is built with Nazi money (which is arguable). The problem is that this way of running the world -- of doing business with and propping up murderers and tyrants so long as they're "on our side" -- has remained with us, and plagues us, to this day:
This really is why the questions around the Bush family's connections to the Nazi regime are relevant today. The episode does not point to some secret ideological affinity for fascism so much as it reveals a willingness to empower them if it furthers their ends. The really interesting question raised by the "Bush-Nazi connection" is not so much a hidden skeleton in the family closet as what the episode says about American society's willingness to ignore inconvenient truths of history, and how that affects the ethos of current public policy.

Cecil Adams, in his attempt to debunk the connection, alludes to this when he argues:

So, did Bush and his firm finance the Nazis and enable Germany to rearm? Indirectly, yes. But they had a lot of company. Some of the most distinguished names in American business had investments or subsidiaries in prewar Germany, including Standard Oil and General Motors. Critics have argued for years that without U.S. money, the Nazis could never have waged war.

While this is quite accurate as far it goes, for some reason, Adams considers this an excuse of some kind: "Hey, everybody did it, and we still do it." This elides the larger question of the real moral culpability that exists for aiding and abetting not just the Nazi nightmare, but violent totalitarian regimes through succeeding years. While it is true that certain American figures -- notably Henry Ford -- faced even greater degrees of culpability for their overt support of fascism, the people who gladly profited from providing essential cogs to the Nazi war machine cannot escape accountability by merely claiming that it was "just business." This defense for all kinds of atrocities is common among American capitalists, and it is at base corrupt and amoral. Indeed, it continues to serve as a handy excuse for the kind of foreign policy that has been practiced ever since the war, and which was specifically shaped by the same self-interested forces that gave way to the Holocaust.

Two other texts -- both balanced, accurate and reliable -- have tackled the larger issue of the role of corporate America's investment in and financial and logistical support for the Nazis, both in their nascent and military-building phases: New York Times reporter Charles Higham's groundbreaking 1983 book, Trading With The Enemy; The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949, and Christopher Simpson's 1993 The Splendid Blond Beast: Money Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.

Both books -- which deal at least tangentially with the Harriman-Bush connections -- focused on the question of why these captains of industry never had to confront their culpability in the Nazi nightmare. According to Higham, investigations were begun by international tribunals to look into this matter but "the government smothered everything during and even after the war." Higham contended that government officials believed "a public scandal ... would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services," and thought "their trial and imprisonment would have made it impossible for the corporate boards to help the American war effort."

Simpson delves even deeper into this point and ultimately concludes that when it came time for accountability in the mass genocide sponsored by corporatists, international tribunals were stymied by the same machinations of privilege and power that were in fact responsible for the problem. The elites whose fortunes were at stake found that the structure of international law was weak and easily manipulated so that they could simply "get on with business."

In a followup post, I discussed this point further:
This legacy has two dimensions that that need reckoning: domestic and international.

-- The willingness of elite capitalists to sponsor the activities of the thuggish elements that are intrinsically a major component of fascism as a bulwark against "leftists" has never left us entirely. Indeed, it has been occurring with renewed vigor since the early 1990s, when the conservative-movement dogmatists decided that Bill Clinton was a major threat to their drive for power, and began forming alliances with proto-fascist elements, specifically transmitting their ideas and agendas into mainstream conservatism. (This is, of course, the primary subject of "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism.")

That propensity has been rising to the surface in increasing numbers with the George W. Bush regime, which deployed thuggish elements in the Florida debacle in 2000 and turned them loose against antiwar protesters in 2002-03. The levels of violence and thuggery have remained subdued so far, but a serious challenge to Bush's power in the 2004 elections may well raise it another notch. In any event, the willingness to form these alliances dates can be traced directly back to the behavior of such capitalists as Prescott Bush and George Herbert Walker in the 1930s.

-- The willingness to do business with, and indeed sponsor and arm, brutish thugs, dictators and continues to affect us today. After all, Iraq's Saddam Hussein was precisely the kind of dictator that America has historically armed and backed as an "enemy of our enemies" over the years since World War II, only to have them turn on us as a genuine threat themselves. For that matter, the terrorists who now operate Al Qaeda were originally sponsored by Americans in Afghanistan as part of our effort to undermine the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Not that we have ever learned anything from this: Today, in the name of defeating Al Qaeda and Saddam in the "war on terror," we have allied ourselves with all kinds of reprehensible thugs and authoritarian regimes, including those in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, and Malaysia.

A couple of weeks ago, Parade Magazine -- not exactly a hotbed of liberalism -- ran a feature titled "The World's 10 Worst Dictators". It apparently was predicated on taking seriously Mr. Bush's charge for ridding the world of tyranny in our time. But it was a very interesting list, since it included some of our chief allies in the "war on terror," as well as governments with whom we have remained at least somewhat cozy.

Included on the list:

-- Than Shwe of Burma. Burma: Even though the brutal military dictatorship of Myanmar has come under more scrutiny and criticism from the Bush administration recently, it was worth noting that Bush's Justice Department undertook a legal effort supporting Unocal's campaign to avoid legal and fiduciary consequences for underwriting and encouraging government brutality -- including murder and concentration camps -- to get a pipeline built in Myanmar.

-- Hu Jintao of China. Hu is only the leading figure of a government by cabal that has held the largest number of people in the grasp of tyranny for the longest period of time in history. As I've argued previously, China's government fits the definition of a threat as well as any nation on the planet: they have weapons of mass destruction; they torture and brutalize their own people, oppressing them through police-state tactics; they invade their neighbors and are a regional military threat; and they have engaged in military confrontations with American forces. But we do billions of dollars in business with China every year, and they are proclaimed a valued ally in the "war on terror" (which China has used, of course, as a pretext for suppressing regional dissent).

-- Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The connections between the Saudis and the Bush family are almost too numerous to catalog, but Craig Unger's remarkable work in House of Bush, House of Saud is a good place to start.

-- Pervez Musharaff of Pakistan. Of course, Musharaff is now one of our prominent allies in the "war on terror," though it's hard to say why. After all, our own State Department reported before 9/11 on Musharaff's many connections to various terrorist factions, including Al Qaeda. Most significant were the many connections within the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

-- Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is also an ally in the "war on terror." The Bush administration turned down multiple pleas (including a recommendation by a federal commission) to designate both Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia as "countries of particular concern" regarding their handling of religious freedoms and human rights. That couldn't have had anything to do, I'm sure, with that pipeline they're planning to build through Turkmenistan. Nah.

So how, exactly, are we going to "end tyranny in our world" when some of the biggest tyrants are some of this administration's closest allies? How can we take such talk seriously when it's clear there are a lot hidden agendas involved in deciding just who is the tyrant du jour?

And if anyone has been deluded into thinking it's peace that this administration wants, they should think, for just a moment, on how people like "Uncle Bucky" make their fortunes in this world. Because those folks are running the show now.

[Originally published Sunday at The American Street.]

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