Friday, January 11, 2008

Bush Scores Again!

There was so much chutzpah going around this week that it was just too risky to issue an award too quickly. Even when it was apparent that President Bush was in the running for an unprecedented sixth award, I still felt it was necessary to hold off on deciding which of his many outrageous acts this week would be the one to earn it for him. Even now it feels as if the news keeps flowing in through the RSS feeds; but I think that, with the aid of Robin Wright of The Washington Post, I have reached a decision. What basically turned it for me is the latest effort to evolve the Rashomon-like puzzle of what actually happened this week in the Strait of Hormuz.

Before I continue with this main theme, I would like to offer a bit of an aside about Rashomon. For those unfamiliar with the connection, I am referring to the classic film by Akira Kurosawa based on a pair of stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which concern acts of rape and homicide that are accounted for in seven inconsistent versions related by six different narrators, one of whom is the homicide victim speaking through a medium. While there are those who obsess over this film as a logical puzzle from which some "ground truth" must ultimately be deduced, my own approach to narrative analysis tends to converge on the framework in which all of these versions are related. That framework is the setting upon which the title is based: The half-ruined gate of Rashomon in twelfth-century Kyoto, beset by famines and civil wars. In a driving rain storm a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner take shelter by the gate; and the versions of the stories begin to unfold. At the height of their confusion over the contradictions among these accounts, the men discover an abandoned baby. For me the film is resolved through two remarks made by the woodcutter (who has told two of the contradictory versions of the story). Relating to the contradictions, he says:

All men are selfish and dishonest. They all have excuses.

He then takes responsibility for the baby, saying:

I have six children of my own. One more wouldn't make it any more difficult.

The priest, who has been particularly distressed by the contradictions, then responds to the woodcutter:

… thanks to you, I think I will be able to keep my faith in men.

At the risk of sounding too reductive, I have decided that his "article of faith" may be summarized as: "People lie, but life goes on." As far as I am concerned, this is the only way we can view the way the news from the Straits of Hormuz played out this week.

Having said all that, let us now consider Wright's lead in today's Washington Post:

The Pentagon said yesterday that the apparent radio threat to bomb U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf last weekend may not have come from the five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats that approached them -- and may not even have been intended against U.S. targets.

Naturally, we are not going to find a noun as blunt as "lie" in The Washington Post; but at least we now have one source admitting that at least one of the versions of the story is questionable. However, this is not where the chutzpah resides. That emerges a few paragraphs later:

In the radio message recorded by the Navy, a heavily accented voice said: "I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes." But Farsi speakers and Iranians told The Washington Post that the accent did not sound Iranian.

In part because of the threatening language, the United States has elevated the encounter into an international incident. Twice this week, President Bush criticized Iran's behavior as provocative and warned of "serious consequences" if it happens again. He is due to head today to the Gulf area, where containing Iran is expected to be a major theme of his talks in five oil-rich sheikdoms.

This, for me, is the "life goes on" part of the Rashomon perspective, because it exposes the real agenda behind Bush's trip to the Middle East. There are those who have claimed that the trip was his last-ditch effort to secure a legacy for having brought the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to a peaceful resolution; but my guess is that this was little more than a side-show for him, which is probably why his language ran the gamut from the superficially hollow to the patently offensive (as when he tried to make light of his experience of passing through a checkpoint). No, the show in the "main tent," so to speak, is another last-ditch effort, which is to align against Iran every one of the other countries in the Middle East, not only the sheikdoms but also the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. This cuts to the bone of the chutzpah: the presumption that, at a time when it is virtually impossible to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree about anything, the most important thing is to get them to agree that Iran is a threat to the region, if not the entire world. If there is any good news to this story, it is that the President cannot even get his own Department of Defense to back him up on this deluded strategy (Fool me once?); but the idea that he has tried to pursue it at all seems to justify giving him the Chutzpah of the Week award!

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