Power, like alcohol, is addictive. And some individuals are more prone to addiction than others. As with alcohol, some individuals learn to control their addiction while others do not. The critical threshold comes when the addict’s behavior is causing demonstrable harm to the people around him, as well as to himself. At that point the individual either shapes up and changes his behavior, or doesn’t.
George W. Bush used to be addicted to alcohol, but no longer. He still has an addictive personality, but now he is addicted to power. His closest advisers seem to share that addiction. Their present support for the current destruction of Lebanon is the latest and most telling indication that their addiction has overwhelmed them. They have lost the underlying ethical values that make it possible for human beings to work together and with time and patience, become what we call civilized.
This gloomy assessment becomes even more disturbing when you trace the path Bush’s addiction has taken so far and project it into the future. Fed by the assurance that our military power was in a class by itself, he responded to the challenge of 9/11 like a drunk in a barroom brawl, flailing around, challenging all comers, and eventually striking the wrong targets. Our vaunted military machine walked over a dispirited Iraqi army but bogged down in the unconventional war that followed. Frustrating. Meanwhile, our Israeli surrogate has followed a similar trajectory and is now finding the task of rooting out a determined guerrilla force in South Lebanon to be equally frustrating.
(A side note regarding Israel: if you are addicted to the demon rum it is comforting to have a fellow addict at your side, to reassure you that all those harping voices telling you to shape up can be safely ignored, and come on, let’s have one more for the road…strength in brotherhood. No wonder Bush is so determined to heed his Israeli buddies, even when the rest of the world shouts, desist!)
Another part of the problem is the nature of modern warfare. Army generals are less belligerent, less likely to take bold risks, than generals in the Air Force. The latter now have enormous power to cause damage to the enemy, and run relatively less risk of sustaining serious damage themselves. The power that comes with a hypermodern air force is like strong whiskey, while the power that came in older times with a strong army is like small beer, by comparison. (When I was a student in the National War College it was the Air Force colonels who were gung-ho for swatting any and all perceived adversaries; the Army types were much more restrained. Israel, for the first time, has an Air Force officer in charge of its armed forces).
This is especially true when you introduce nuclear weapons into the equation. Until now these terrifyingly powerful weapons have been kept under lock and key by American and other world leaders who collectively were able to keep their lust for power under control. For sixty years much effort has gone into assuring that these doomsday weapons will be kept out of the hands of irresponsible governments. But what are the prospects now, when a certifiable power addict (read, megalomaniac) controls by far the largest inventory of these awesome weapons?
Sy Hersch reports that planners in obscure corners of our military are examining the possible use of nuclear “bunker-busters” to take out Iranian nuclear facilities buried deep underground. In itself that is no great cause for worry. Every military is paid to be at least a little bit paranoid about possible threats. But when you put that together with the concerted efforts by a power-addicted leadership to hype the Iranians up as a kind of existential threat to our existence (or at least Israel’s), one begins to entertain serious doubts as to the course our nation may be taking.
There is a kind of Faustian logic operating here. You are the global hyperpower but wherever you turn your adversaries are nibbling at you. You can kill any animal in the jungle but the mosquitoes are driving you nuts. So you prowl around looking for suitable enemies. Eventually, frustrated beyond belief, you lash out with every weapon you have. Goodbye, jungle.
There is a simple antidote to this power addiction problem, and we were given it by our founding fathers. Separation of powers. The next Congress must curb the Presidential excesses the present Congress has tolerated. Then, hopefully, in another two years a new President will come in with a more responsible attitude toward his role as world leader. If that doesn’t happen, the fallout could be as serious as the consequences of Al Gore’s predictions of global warming, and could happen sooner.
Carl Coon, July 27, 2006