The home front

Posted: Jan 31, 2007 12:01 AM
The home front

Yes, there is some good news out of Iraq, though you might never suspect it from the general run of stories about bomb blasts in Baghdad and deadly attacks on Iraqi and American forces elsewhere.

In case you missed it, a major political and economic achievement is now within reach of Iraq's divided and beleaguered government: a long overdue agreement on how to share that country's immense oil wealth without breaking up the country.

The deal retains the central government's control of Iraq's vast oil reserves, but splits the proceeds among its major regions - Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish - and encourages each to invite foreign investment on attractive terms. Naturally, the final details remain to be worked out. (In the Great Middle Eastern Bazaar, negotiations never end. There will always be details to work out.) Still, the deal is almost done, and that's good news.

But you won't hear much celebrating - just criticism - on the part of the war's opponents in this country, which now include much of the mainstream media. Instead, this kind of progress will be dismissed as just another plot by Big Oil/American Imperialism/Globalization. Take your choice of cartoonish villains.

At such times, it occurs that if the major news outlets had covered America's growing involvement in the Second World War in the same accent-the-negative, eliminate-the-positive fashion, you might be reading this page in German. Some American newspapers never ceased criticizing FDR and "his" war even after Pearl Harbor supposedly united the country, with Col. Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune leading the isolationist parade.

The Tribune went beyond just opposing the war. In June of 1942, immediately after the Battle of Midway, it ran the Japanese order of battle, complete with the names and fleet assignments of specific ships. And it noted that all this intelligence had been "well known in American naval circles several days before the battle began."

Citing "reliable sources in Š naval intelligence," the Tribune headlined its front-page page story: "Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea." The headline might as well have said: "Americans Break Japanese Naval Code."

The Justice Department considered bringing charges against the newspaper under the Espionage Act, but realized that doing so might only bring further attention to the security breach. Though a federal grand jury was impaneled at one point, the matter was eventually dropped. Happily, the Chicago Tribune's circulation was highly limited in Tokyo. Besides, the Japanese were confident their code was unbreakable, once again underestimating those crude Americans.

In an eerie parallel to those days, the New York Times by now has revealed more than one classified program in the war on terror. For example, the wiretaps on international phone calls. For another, Washington's ability to track international bank transfers.

In these times, breaking that kind of news isn't considered a betrayal but prize-winning journalism. Poor Col. McCormick, whose anti-war stance was widely despised in his day, was born too soon.

What's more, we're told the war on terror, or at least the one in Iraq, is really just a conspiracy on the part of the usual plutocratic suspects. Reading how Big Oil is to blame for this war brings back Pravda's dispatches in another era, when Wall Street was to blame for everything that was wrong with the world - from poverty to your aunt's bunions. It was all the fault of those top-hatted capitalists in New York, who never tired of hatching plots to squeeze the rest of us.

Blaming a war on some favorite scapegoat - like Big Oil - is not without its charms. It's almost an American tradition. Consider this excerpt from the Populist Party manifesto of 1895. Just substitute Big Oil for the evil Gold Ring, and the Populists' cry of alarm has an almost contemporary appeal:

"As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. Š For nearly 30 years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. Š Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country."

The dark forces plotting against us may change or even merge (the Gold Ring, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, Big Oil) but your basic standard conspiracy theory remains remarkably the same.

Wesley Clark, the general and presidential possibility (again), recently blamed "New York money people" for trying to foment another war, this time against Iran. He didn't name names. There's no need to when a candidate is only appealing to the general paranoia always in the American political air.

New York Money People. Just whom do you suppose General Clark had in mind, if anyone in particular? Hillary Clinton's campaign donors? The members of the New York Stock Exchange? Or was his comment a not very veiled jab at George Soros and those whom Pravda used to dub international cosmopolites?

The more things change, the more paranoia - and those who appeal to it - remain the same. See Richard Hoftstadter's classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," for more particulars.

All these conspiracy theories are kind of assuring in their weird way. They indicate that at least some things have stayed the same in this confusing world.