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Media addresses loose change conspiracy { May 12 2006 }

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Season of the Wolf
Is there a case for conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the Iraq war? For Washington's opponents, the truth is less important than the image of an America gone mad.

By Christopher Dickey
Updated: 4:22 p.m. ET May 12, 2006

May 12, 2006 - About 10 minutes into the ultra-low-budget documentary “Loose Change,” now making its way around the Internet, that late, great genius of addled truth-telling, Hunter S. Thompson, is heard giving his gonzo opinion of the way the American press behaved after 9/11. “Well, let’s see, ‘shamefully’ is the word that comes to mind,” he says.

“Fair enough,” I thought.

But then Thompson went on. “You sort of wonder when something like that happens, well, whooo [he stretched out the ‘o’] stands to benefit?” Right there and right then, I realized this would be one of those movies that reveled in conspiracy and revealed little in the way of fact. But I went on watching, because this fantasy begun in France that the United States government actually carried out the 9/11 attacks, ugly as it is, fits neatly with the world’s image of the United States as a land that’s been run by power-mad, supersecretive, hypocritical scofflaw servants of narrow corporate interests ever since the Bush administration came to power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin played on that theme in his annual state of the union speech earlier this week, referring to the United States, none-too-obliquely, as “Comrade Wolf,” and in the same breath, announcing what could soon become a new arms race on a scale not seen since the days of the cold war.

American military spending, said Putin, “is 25 times” that of Russia's. “In defense parlance, their house is their fortress, and good for them,” he went on, but “we have to build our home, our house, to be strong and safe—because we can see what is happening in the world. We can see it! As they say, Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat. He is eating and listening to no one. And it would seem he has no intention of listening.” Applause rang through the Kremlin. “Just where does all the rhetoric on the need to fight for human rights and democracy disappear to when it comes to the need to realize one’s own interests?” Putin asked. “It turns out that everything is permitted. There are no restrictions whatsoever.”

If you can portray the United States as a nation without scruples, of course, that makes it so much easier to rationalize your own instinct for tyranny, your own subservience to a military-industrial complex. As one analyst told The Moscow Times, “Russia wants to be another wolf.” So does China. So does … Iran.

The full text of the now-famous letter that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to U.S. President George W. Bush last week ironically blends preaching about “the teachings of Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him)” with allusions to just the kind of conspiracy theories showcased in “Loose Change”: “September 11 was not a simple operation,” says Ahmadinejad. “Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services—or their extensive infiltration? Of course this is just an educated guess. Why have the various aspects of the attacks been kept secret? Why are we not told who botched their responsibilities? And, why aren’t those responsible and the guilty parties identified and put on trial?”

It’s little wonder that Karen Hughes, Bush’s close friend since his Texas days and now the assistant secretary of State for public diplomacy, admitted to the Council on Foreign Relations this week that changing the world’s attitude toward the United States is an uphill battle. And despite her attempts at upbeat spin, it’s not one to which Washington is willing to devote many resources.

Hughes’s annual budget was raised this year to a bit over $1 billion, which is around half of what the United States spends every week (yes, week) on the military occupation of Iraq. But, of course, the money spent in Iraq goes to—well, that’s a big part of the problem isn’t it?

The kernel of truth in all the conspiracy theories is that the Bush administration’s biggest supporters and closest political allies have benefited mightily from its policy of open-ended war.

That “who benefits” question is where every case opens, and shuts, in the public mind, especially in the Middle East. If you profit—or can even be said to profit—from events set in motion by any crime, tragedy, atrocity or conflagration, then it is perfectly clear that you conspired to bring it about. No further proof is needed in the court of opinion.

Apply that dubious standard to the Bush administration, and clearly the president and vice president are guilty as hell—of something. The wars that began after 9/11 have taken Bush and Cheney through a succession of electoral triumphs and brought record profits to key supporters in the oil and defense industries. The stock prices of Halliburton and ExxonMobil would be exhibits A and B.

Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s old company—which is all about both oil and defense—has seen its stock rise from about $12 a share to about $80 a share under this administration. ExxonMobil, which has contributed mightily to the Republican Party, has seen its stock soar from about $32 to $64 since Bush took office.

Let me be clear here: I do not for one second believe that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the U.S. government. “Loose Change” doesn’t present a plausible case for conspiracy, only a collection of innuendoes. And when those insidious suggestions are strung together, they imply that nobody actually died in the planes that hit the Pentagon or plunged into a field in Pennsylvania, and maybe not even in the planes that hit the trade-center towers. Somehow, those passengers were all part of a conspiracy, too. No wonder the film ends with an apologia offering insipid sympathy (and, incredibly, a free DVD of the movie) to the families of those who were killed. And no wonder many of those families are bitter about the filmmakers’ trivialization of their and the nation’s tragedy.

But the invasion of Iraq, well, that’s a rather different matter. As a whole raft of books by former members of the administration, Bush admirers and outside analysts have established over the last couple of years, the president and vice president were hell-bent on toppling Saddam Hussein even before September 2001. The New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, in a persuasive perusal of these tomes, finds that almost all of them, pro and con, depict an administration with “an appetite for big, visionary ideas, imposed from the top down; an eagerness to centralize decision making in the executive branch; and a tendency to shrug off the advice of experts, be they military experts, intelligence experts or economic experts.”

Now, why would an administration behave like that? The subtle overlapping truths that make up history are doubtless long and complicated. Many interests and ideologies were at work, and incompetence was clearly a factor, too. But the dangerously simple who-benefits indictment suggested in those Halliburton and ExxonMobil stock charts is, well, fairly striking.

Share prices in both companies, and in their industries, were plunging before the Bush administration came to office in early 2001. Oil prices were low, the defense business slow (and the lower and slower they got in the 1990s, the more these sectors increased their contributions to the Republican Party, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics).

Then 9/11 happened and the United States went to war in Afghanistan, as it should have done, to eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe haven. By early 2003 virtually all of the operational planners responsible for the 9/11 attacks had been caught and spirited away to secret interrogation centers, where they languish to this day. Osama bin Laden might still be at large, but the war on those terrorists who attacked New York and Washington was won. In fact, it was all over so quickly that it provided no argument for vast increases in defense spending, and oil prices remained low. In December 2001, they were running between $17 and $20 a barrel. A year later, they’d edged up to the $25 a range.

It was only in 2003 as the Bush administration committed irrevocably to invade and occupy Iraq, that you started to see the stock of Halliburton and ExxonMobil climbing dramatically month after month, and now year after year, fueled by the soaring price of oil (currently more than $70 a barrel) and the hundreds of billions of extra dollars pumped into the defense industry. Meanwhile, “War President” Bush and his party won big victories at the polls in 2002 and 2004.

Does this kind of superficial analysis prove that this administration is addicted to war, which serves its own political interests and lines the pockets of key supporters? Does it prove, for instance, that the misinformation about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was a conscious plot to lie to the American people, as many critics now believe? No.

But it is damn suspicious, especially if you are looking at the United States from afar. And whether the ordeal of Iraq is the result of self-delusion, bad intelligence, willful ignorance, political expediency, corporate cupidity, plain incompetence—or all of the above—does not much matter at this point. America’s enemies like Ahmadinejad and potential rivals like Putin, find it all too easy to convince audiences at home and around the world that they are up against a U.S. regime, Comrade Wolf, that will stop at nothing to serve its own interests.

They play on a fear expressed to me in private even by European diplomats considered close to the United States: that President Bush, now faced with dismal ratings in the polls, might go to war with Iran to win back some of the old rally-round-the-flag popularity he enjoyed in his first term. The Europeans, as well as the Russians and Chinese, remember Bush’s sleight of hand in the United Nations Security Council back in 2002. The U.S. and Britain argued then that tough sanctions under chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, opening the way to military action, would actually be a way of avoiding war with Saddam Hussein—even though London and Washington knew full well they intended to go to war anyway.

So what we see now is an American president hobbled by dwindling support at home, deeply mistrusted abroad, and unable to marshal the kind of diplomatic backing he keeps saying is crucial to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Russia, meanwhile, looks to fill the looming vacuum left by the hollow power of the United States.

Ask yourself, who benefits from Washington’s policies? Tehran. Moscow. It must be a conspiracy.

*When I want to explore facts, I present them in articles, in the Shadowland columns and in books like “Expats.” When I want to explore conspiracy theories, I do so in fiction: “Innocent Blood” and “The Sleeper.”

© 2006

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