On Tuesday the 11th of September, just as we were finishing our first Starbucks dose of the day, the radio announced that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane, like the World Trade Center Towers less than an hour before. Most everyone around here ran for the streets and the subway, figuring the White House would be next, and it was only a block away. Weeks later now, Washington has slapped itself out of its hysteria and most routines are back to normal, except for constant helicopter surveillance and the odd Humvee or combat trooper patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue. So, we all ask, what next?
Well, if the past few weeks are any indication, we can expect a lot of unseemly greed and cynical exploitation of widespread misfortune by the Bush administration. Congress is understandably reluctant to criticize the president in the wake of the recent attacks, for fear of seeming unpatriotic. This President, you will recall, has not heretofore been considered one of the giants ever to hold the office. Now, in the wake of the attacks, it seems he can do no wrong. Yet Congress’ temporary disarmament may prove to be unilateral, and the consequences long term. Even as we speak, the Bushies are crassly taking advantage of Congress’ deference to push the confirmation of their more sordid political nominees and their highly-divisive trade agenda.
A week before the attack, John Negroponte, Bush’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was sure to face hard questions during his Senate confirmation hearings. Negroponte was up to his eyeballs in deadly dirty tricks in Nicaragua while he was the Ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s. Three days after the WTC collapsed and just as the dust was settling over the Pentagon, however, Negroponte’s nomination went sailing through the Senate, no questions asked.
Two Bush nominees for Latin American policy positions were also in deep trouble: Otto Reich and José Fourquet. According to the Washington Post, pre-September 11, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was unlikely to hold hearings this fall on Reich for the position of assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Otto, a Cuban-born conservative, ran a covert program in the 1980s to drum up domestic support for the Contras in Nicaragua. A GAO investigation had concluded unflatteringly that Otto’s office had engaged in prohibited acts of domestic propaganda. Otto also has problems because he got some disturbing press for illegally pushing fighter plane sales to the Chilean armed forces when he worked for Lockheed. Nice guy.
Encouraged by Negroponte’s effortless confirmation after Terrible Tuesday, the Bushies began to push Reich’s nomination harder. Until he acquired post-attack infallibility, W. had been more careful. He was even ready to reconsider his nomination of Fourquet for U.S. Executive Director of the Inter-American Development Bank. Fourquet’s Wall Street and CIA connections made many people nervous: He was formerly the Vice-President of Goldman, Sachs’ Emerging Debt Market Sales Group (the big money guys who profit from the crushing debt of Third World countries) and before that an Operations Officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. But on Friday, September 14, when the Negroponte nomination went through, Fourquet’s name also went up to the Senate for confirmation.
And that’s not all. All through the long summer of 2001, W. waited for his chance to spring Fast Track legislation on the Congress and whip it through before the public noticed. Fast Track authority gives the President–no matter how thick he is–license to negotiate a trade agreement (like NAFTA, for instance) without allowing the Congress to amend it. Do you think this is a good idea? I don’t, and neither did the Congress when Bush tried to sneak it through in late July. But now, because we’ve been attacked by jihad-ists from the other side of the world, the President needs Fast Track to negotiate a Free Trade Area in the Americas. Do you find this confusing?
Me too. But, according to Robert Zoellick, W.’s Trade Representative, it all makes perfect sense. Mr. Zoellick explained it all for us in his insightful Washington Post article “Countering Terror With Trade.” Mr. Zoellick pointed out, “Earlier enemies learned that America is the arsenal of democracy; today’s enemies will learn that America is the economic engine for freedom, opportunity and development. To that end, U.S. leadership in promoting the international economic and trading system is vital. Trade is about more than economic efficiency [I think he means ‘money’ here]. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle.”
Neither Mr. Zoellick nor W. have been reading their foreign policy journals. I suspect that this is because the articles in them are often boring and hard. But the current take on Islamic fundamentalists suggests that increased trade and more exhaust from America’s economic engine are two of the things that make the mullahs mad and madder. While we don’t really know the impact of trade agreements on terrorism, we do know that they extend the reach of the flexible moral standards adopted by U.S. corporations trying to make a lot of money off poor people in poor countries.
This is not to say that the mullahs are right, or even that they are representative of anyone, only that if W. were smarter, or even half-way clever, he might pay attention to what other people think and believe. Remember what happened to the Shah? The ayatollahs pitched him out of Iran because he, together with U.S. merchants of death like Lockheed, stole way too much ‘economic efficiency.’ It may be hard for W. and Mr. Z. to believe, but U.S. corporations, combined with the scummy characters our presidents insist on sending out there to represent us, have not been America’s most convincing ambassadors of freedom, opportunity and prosperity in much of the world.
This of course does not change the fact that terrorism is deadly and must be stopped. But while W. launches war planes, calls up the Special Forces and threatens to carpet bomb the rubble formerly known as Afghanistan, there are less brutal and more efficient ways to address bin Laden. Many people think that choking off the funds that finance all those plane tickets and flying lessons would be effective. Oddly, the Bushies and Mr. Z. took a week to even mention this tactic themselves, even though they are almost always thinking about money.
According to the New York Times on September 20, people have already tried this, but “American officials did not skillfully use the tools they had, did not realize they needed stronger weapons and faced resistance at home and abroad….” Just last year, in an effort to uncover Osama bin Laden’s financial network and other terrorist support systems, Congress considered a bill that would give the U.S. Treasury Secretary broad powers to bar foreign countries and banks from access to U.S. financial markets unless they cooperated with money laundering investigations and enacted transparent information disclosure policies. Investigators had said that a lack of cooperation from foreign banks was the chief obstacle to drying up bin Laden’s financial network.
In fact there was an obstacle closer to home: Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). Gramm, then Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, single-handedly blocked the bill, after being financially courted by the banking lobby. Said lobby, together with Senator Gramm, continues to oppose the bill. If it passed, the banks’ partners abroad might have to explain where some of those large, interest-producing cash deposits came from. When interviewed, the greedy Gramm did not repent; he called the bill ‘totalitarian’ and said, “I was right then and I’m right now. The way to deal with terrorists is to hunt them down and kill them.” Oh right. Can’t you see Tough-Guy Gramm marching around the Afghani ruins under a 50-pound backpack blowing away the mujahedin (who, incidentally, Senator Gramm described as “Freedom Fighters” only a few years ago)?
Fortunately for us, our President is not quite as bad as our vicious Senator. After the WTC and the Pentagon blew up, he finally agreed to back the bank disclosure bill. We’re not hearing much analysis of how all these pieces fit together from the courtesans at NBC/ABC/CBS/CNN or from the Congress, though. It must be that an epidemic of cowardice, amnesia or idiocy has hit them all because we’ve seen this corporation operate before. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, Reich and the rest. According to W., our war started on September 20th, 2001, but this war really started a long time ago; it only arrived here on September 11.
America needs better leaders, better policies. Fewer parroting pundits wouldn’t hurt either. We also need more and stronger controls on traveling money, not fewer and weaker. To get them, though, we need a president and a Congress whose first priority really is stopping the bin Ladens, rather than making more money for people who already have too much. Because that is how Bush and people like him stupidly and greedily got the rest of us into this whole sorry mess in the first place.
Contributing writer Gabriela Bocagrande lives in Washington, D.C.