The stakes are high in the US 2006 midterm elections. The Republican congressional majority has successfully blocked all but the most cursory examinations of the Bush administration’s intelligence failures in the months leading up to 9/11, and any exploration of the entire structure of the arguments about weapons of mass destruction and the push towards the Iraq war. Control of just one house of Congress will still give Democrats the ability to start asking questions about Bush’s failures, which the Republicans prefer to ignore as the 2008 battle for the presidency heats up. Consequently, the Bush administration remains wary about Democrats potentially returning to power in Congress.
With the elections fast approaching, however, things may be looking up a bit for Bush and the Republicans. Gas prices are down, the economy remains strong, and Venezuela’s President Chavez actually made the President look like a victim when, in a speech at the UN, he implied that Bush was the devil. Interestingly, the administration doesn’t need any lessons in the use of hyperbolic rhetoric. As the daily display of violence and chaos in Iraq continues, Americans are concerned that the war will drag on without satisfactory closure. And the administration has turned up the rhetorical heat, as it uses the concept of fascism to recast the war in terms which will blunt criticism. The strategy is designed to keep the Republicans in power in 2006, and set them on the road to holding the White House in 2008. But the use of such rhetoric carries potential gains and dangers for those who resort to such inflammatory style of speech; (such acerbity didn’t help Chavez’s cause after his attack on President Bush). Will the Bush administration’s attempt to light its own rhetorical fire succeed? Will it make the war more palatable? Will it assist the Republicans in their drive to beat back the Democrat’s challenge to their control of Congress? Only time will tell.
During the current pre-midterm election offensive, Bush and members of his team have worked to link the Iraq war and the war on terror, to focus on Islamic opponents of his Iraq policies as so called “Islamo-fascists”, and to criticize war dissenters as appeasers, akin to those who appeased Hitler in the years before World War II. The Bush administration continues, as it has since 2002, to link the horrific events of 9/11 with the Iraq offensive. Dissent against the war, then, in this view, becomes support for the 9/11 terrorists. And Bush’s attempt to introduce the “fascist” label into the debate has been going on for at least a year. On 6 October 2005, the President spoke before the National Endowment for Democracy. The speech interwove the Iraq conflict with 9/11, invoked “the (Soviet Union’s) gulags, and the (Chinese) Cultural Revolution, and the (Cambodian) killing fields”, and located the source of Iraqi turmoil in Islamo-fascism to clothe the Iraq war in the more palatable garb of the conflicts of World War II and the Cold War. The speech, geared to the fourth anniversary of 9/11, was a harbinger of the administration’s strategy to hold control of Congress and the White House. Emphasizing that the circumstances surrounding the ongoing war on terror are a continuation of previous struggles against similar forms of tyranny is a key aspect of that political plan.
Now, as the fall campaign heats up, and the fifth anniversary of 9/11 has passed, the administration increases the effort to reposition itself as acting to defend freedom in Iraq, and around the world, against a familiar threat from the past. President Bush, during an 8 August 2006 press conference on the Middle East crisis with Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, noted that those whom America fights, “try to spread their jihadist message—a message I call, it’s totalitarian in nature—Islamic radicalism, Islamic fascism, they try to spread it as well by taking the attack to those of us who love freedom.” The commingling of all these disparate terms (totalitarian, jihadist, Islamic, radicalism, and fascism) creates a very messy mélange. Yet it does further the idea that a battle began on 9/11, continues unabated in Iraq, and is linked to a long-lived struggle that can be traced back into the 20th century. The definitional complexity becomes lost within the negative associations most make with terms like jihad and fascism, and debate is effectively short circuited.
In a recent speech, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took the administration’s argument about Islamo-fascism, made it the centerpiece of his talk, and cast it as a key component of the administration’s view of Iraq and those who oppose the war. On 22 August 2006, Rumsfeld spoke before the 88th annual American Legion National Convention in Salt Lake City. He discussed the era between World Wars I and II, “when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and Nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored.” “I recount that history,” he suggested, “because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism.” He concluded on a hopeful note, “that we have learned the lessons of history, of the folly of trying to turn a blind eye to danger.”
From the administration’s viewpoint, all the discussion about fascism, Islamo-fascism, and the condemnation of war critics serves to make the debate about the Iraq war clear-cut. But to the administration’s probable chagrin, controversy over Rumsfeld’s blunt comments has confounded the drive to hook Iraq, via 9/11, with the fight against past totalitarian regimes, especially the Nazis. The speech has inflamed the debate about dissent, and, in a sense, created a new debate, about “Islamo-fascism”, what it means, what it is, and about the dangers of using concepts like fascism as a tool in current political debate.
Conservative political pundits such as Victor Davis Hansen argue that we do face an Islamic fascist threat post 9/11. For Hansen, the threat is real, correctly labeled as fascist, and when, “Our pundits and experts scoff at all this concern over Islamic fascism” they ignore, as with Hitler in the 1930s, a dangerous threat. (National Review, 1 September 2006) Liberal political pundits like Katha Pollitt suggest that this is the, “Wrong War, Wrong Word”, and, “Islamo-fascism conflates a wide variety of disparate states, movements and organizations as if, like the fascists, they all want similar things and are working together to achieve them … Islamo-fascism looks like an analytic term, but it’s really an emotional one, intended to get us to think less and fear more.” (The Nation, 24 August 2006 http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060911/pollitt)
Some of my acquaintances in Europe share Ms. Pollitt’s sentiments. In Prague, in Budapest, and in Warsaw, people vividly remember the brutality of the Nazi occupation. A Prague friend finds this modern invocation of fascism a wrong-headed and self-serving attempt to score political points all across Europe. Such political posturing demeans and dishonors the memory of those who personally experienced the terrors of fascism. I have visited memorials for the victims of fascist tyranny, and for those who suffered under communism, as well. In Budapest, I spoke with some who firmly believed that 9/11 was an attack on all of us, on civilization, and who felt that the Bush attempt to link either Iraq or Nazi atrocities to a failing Iraq policy represented the worst kind of political posturing. As Pankaj Mishra wrote in the 17 September 2006 The Guardian Unlimited, “People obsessed with the threat of Islamo-fascism fail to notice that a loose network of fanatics and criminals hunted everywhere around the world resembles little the modern nation-state that in less than six years caused the death of tens of millions of people across Europe.”
The Bush administration began this debate about fascism and Islamo-fascism with the hope that it would prove a useful political strategy in the midterm elections. Rick Santorum, an endangered Republican senator fighting for his political life (and a strong Bush and Iraq war supporter) is in the vanguard of Republicans who use Islamo-fascism to castigate war opponents as terrorist supporters. It is one of the more dramatic examples of the fascist label tactic, used in an important Senate contest. Newsweek even included Santorum’s picture in an article on Islamo-fascists, and noted that Santorum, “is in a tough re-election race” and is among the Republicans who “have adopted Islamo-fascism as shorthand for terrorists.” (Newsweek, 11 September 2006).
It is true, and I think unfortunate, that Bush opponents, both here and abroad, have for some time now also used the fascist label much too cavalierly in their analyses of the President. I was in Heidelberg, Germany in March 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began, and witnessed protestors carrying signs which pictured Bush and Hitler side-by-side, and chanting slogans equating Bush with Hitler. Utmost in my mind was the thought that these young Germans should know better than to use the term fascist with such casual disregard. In March of 2005, the website BushWatch.com invited readers to respond to “20 Characteristics of a Fascist Political Party” in an attempt to create “The Bush Fascist Index”. The site notes that “Early on during the first term of the Bush presidency, many progressives characterized Bush’s statements and actions as ‘fascist’ … In comparison with what had come before, a trend toward fascism was seen in the early days of the Bush presidency, and became more pronounced after 9/11.” This seems to imply that Bush is even more fascist than previous presidents, who were, apparently, also fascists.
However one reads it, I don’t think the use of the label “fascist” by Bush opponents or supporters does anything but, as Pollitt suggests, inflame emotions, conjure up images of Nazism, and poison our politics. It may be, as Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the 24 September 2006 The New York Times, “no phrase has crashed and burned as fast as the President’s most recent entry into the foreign policy lexicon: Islamic fascists, or, Islamo-fascism.” She also suggests that while the terms “have disappeared from Mr. Bush’s oratory—they were nowhere to be found in his 9/11 anniversary speeches, for instance—questions about the phrases have not … All of which leaves the central problem—what to call the enemy—unresolved.” (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Islamo-Fascism Had Its Moment”, The New York Times, 24 September 2006)
The fact that questions and criticisms regarding the use of fascist terminology linger among those who’ve lived through a fascist regime demonstrates that “what to call the enemy” is far from the central problem. The brunt of the debate continues to be the deliberate use of language and images of the last century’s political brutality to score political points, and to confront (and define) the new century’s turmoil. Will the ploy succeed or fail? Only time will tell.