Secretary of State Colin Powell was jeered, booed, and heckled when, as America’s top official at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, he attempted to defend the unconscionable Bush energy development and consumption agenda and explain away the environmental consequences. Hate to say it, but he got what he deserved. Global protests are increasing over the perceived use of America’s superpower military to bully other nations on trade, politics, and the environment. Both at home and abroad, a tide of resentment against the new “ugly Americans” is rising—and this tide shows no signs of ebbing any time soon.
Deafened by war drums and isolated by handlers, President Bush seems unaware of the broad opposition to his current policies. During what has been called “The Battle of Portland,” aggressive phalanxes of cops in full body armor and riot gear descended on thousands of protesting citizens during Bush’s last visit. Pictures of grandmothers being choked by nightsticks and accounts of young mothers with babies on their backs being covered in blinding sheets of pepper spray filled the media. Bush, however, saw none of this as he was carefully sequestered from those protesting his administration’s policies ranging from the new logging offensive to the looming Iraq attack.
When Bush blew Portland for sunny Stockton, Calif., the same thing happened. Citizens turned out in what has been called Stockton’s single largest demonstration to display their displeasure. Once again, however, he was carefully isolated from those he claims to lead. Protestors were herded and kept behind a line of semi-trucks by riot police, totally screened from the president. Meanwhile, those with signs supporting Bush were allowed to line his route to provide a cheering background for the media coverage.
Obviously, the White House will go to any lengths to manufacture a positive image for Bush, including limiting our basic rights to peaceably assemble and petition our own government. If you’re for the Bush policies, step right up here in front of the cameras. If you’re against the Bush policies, step over here behind these trucks, where the dogs and cops are waiting for you.
The problem, however, is that the protests are waiting everywhere Bush goes these days—even at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Simply put, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the façade of broad public support for the Bush agenda in the face of mounting resistance. Ironically, while President Bush unleashes much of his harshest criticism at leaders like Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein, whom he says disdain the wishes of their people, he is hypocritically isolating himself behind a barrier of agents, soldiers, and cops from any contact with those critical of his own policies.
Isolating decision-makers from citizen dissatisfaction is one way of running a country – but it is far from the best way, as the Vietnam War so painfully proved. During that long ago time in which the Baby Boomers came of age, America’s young men were again rounded up, trained, and sent off to armed conflict on foreign soil. Truth be told, no one seemed certain why it was America’s job to step into Southeast Asia after the French colonials and their soldiers were unceremoniously kicked out. Then, as now, White House spin doctors and military advisors pumped up the nation with hysteria that we had to prevent what they called “the communist takeover of South Vietnam” or face a disastrous “Domino Effect” whereby communism would sweep through the region, toppling one regime after another.
The world looked on in wonder and horror as America went to war. What started with the insertion of thousands of “advisors” soon ballooned to one of the largest infusions of men and war materiel in modern times. While our politicians played “rally ’round the flag,” our bombers stripped the jungles with Agent Orange, dousing our own soldiers in the defoliant and planting the seeds for future disease and debility in those who least deserved it. While military bands marched and tooted beneath fluttering flags, napalm fell from the sky on combatants and civilians alike. The horror and propaganda grew on parallel courses, as a chain of presidents took increasingly desperate steps to justify what seemed to have become a pointless and endless war.
But nothing they did, including gassing, clubbing, and even killing student and citizen protestors, infiltrating protest organizations, or throwing their leaders in jail was enough to offset the rising howl of indignation from home and abroad. Fed by a steady stream of television coverage and increasing numbers of body bags filled with young Americans, the protests grew larger and louder as the toll of dead and injured mounted.
As history sadly records, America made its exit from Vietnam as overloaded helicopters plucked our last soldiers and allies from the roof of the Saigon embassy while the victorious Viet Cong completed their takeover in the streets below. The world’s mightiest military had been defeated and kicked out of this tiny country, just like the French before them, and no amount of White House propaganda would ever whitewash this harsh reality.
The question now, nearly 30 years later, is what happened to this nation’s collective memory of those events? Some believe we been so dumbed down by the media, so shocked by a vicious attack on our own shores, that the citizenry is ready to swallow whatever egregious constructs emanate from the White House.
But I don’t think so.
As the protests build, as the soldiers and cops club and gas our own citizens, as the parallels between this latest aggression and the Vietnam War become more painfully obvious every day, the streets worldwide are again filling with protestors. Soon, not even President Bush will be able to ignore their message. The United States, with all our wealth and power, can and should be a beacon of peace and freedom to the world—and not the personification of the new “Ugly Americans.”
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.