by guest blogger Tom Engelhardt

Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian award, ranking second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to its official website, the medal “is reserved for individuals the President deems to have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” In 2004, George W. Bush had already awarded the medal to Estee Lauder, Arnold Palmer, Norman Podhoretz, and Doris Day, among others, when, on December 14 in a ceremony at the White House, he hit the trifecta.

Only the previous month, in a close race to the finish line — not so much against opposing Presidential candidate John Kerry as against a ragtag fundamentalist insurgency in Iraq — he had just slipped under the reelection wire and, in a press conference, promptly crowed about how “free” he was. (“You asked, do I feel free. Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”) The next month, he would launch his second term with an inaugural address that put “freedom” as a global mission at the very center of his presidency. He would grandiloquently promise nothing less than a crusade to end tyranny globally and bring liberty to the world. (He would, in fact, use the word “freedom” 27 times, and “liberty” 15 times, in that address.) He also had a few debts to pay and, having already brought “freedom” to Iraq at the point of a cruise missile, he now paid those debts in the coin of “freedom” as well. He slipped medals around the necks of three men — each recently retired from the field of action — who had been crucial to his first term “freedom” policies.

I’m talking here about the former commander of his Afghan War and Iraq invasion, General Tommy (“we don’t do body counts“) Franks; the former director of the CIA and proprietor of a global secret prison and torture network, as well as the man who oversaw the intelligence process that led to the Iraq invasion, George (“slam dunk“) Tenet; and his former viceroy and capo in Baghdad, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul (“I didn’t dismantle the Iraqi Army“) Bremer III.

Of Franks, Bush said that the general had “led the forces that fought and won two wars in the defense of the world’s security and helped liberate more than 50 million people from two of the worst tyrannies in the world.”

Of Tenet, the President claimed that he had been “one of the first to recognize and address the threat to America from radical networks” and, after Sept. 11, was “ready with a plan to strike back at al Qaeda and to topple the Taliban.”

Of Bremer, he offered this encomium: “For 14 months Jerry Bremer worked day and night in difficult and dangerous conditions to stabilize the country, to help its people rebuild and to establish a political process that would lead to justice and liberty.” And the President added: “Every benchmark…. was achieved on time or ahead of schedule, including the transfer of sovereignty that ended his tenure.” (“He did not add,” the Washington Post pointed out at the time, “that the transfer was hurriedly arranged two days early because of fears insurgents would attack the ceremonies.”)

Looking back, it’s clearer just what kinds of “benchmarks” were achieved, what kinds of freedoms each of these men helped bring to the rest of the world.

Tommy Franks helped to deliver to southern Afghanistan’s desperate, beleaguered peasants, the freedom to be caught, years later, in a deathlike vise between a resurgent Taliban and regular American air strikes. He also brought them the freedom to grow just about the total opium crop needed to provide for the globe’s heroin addicts — 8,200 tons of opium in 2007, representing 93% of the global opiates market. This was a 34% jump from the previous year and represented opium production on what is undoubtedly a historic scale. Afghanistan’s peasants, surviving as best they can in a land of narco-warlords, narco-guerrillas, and deadly air attacks have, once again, set a record when it comes to this unique freedom.

George Tenet, though a holdover from the Clinton years, wholeheartedly agreed with one of the earliest post-9/11 liberatory impulses of top Bush administration officials — the desire, as Donald Rumsfeld liked to say, to take off “the gloves,” or, as Tenet himself put it when it came to the CIA (so Ron Suskind tell us in his book, The One Percent Doctrine), “the shackles.” Those were the “shackles” that Dick Cheney and others believed had been placed by Congress on the imperial presidency after Richard Nixon came so close to committing the constitutional coup d’état that we have come to call Watergate, but that involved an illegal war in Cambodia, illegal wiretapping, illegal break-ins, robberies, black-bag jobs, and so many other crossing-the-line activities. As CIA Director, Tenet then delivered to Agency operatives the freedom to target just about anyone on the planet who might qualify (however mistakenly) as a “terror suspect,” kidnap him, and “render” him in extraordinary fashion either to a foreign prison where torture was regularly practiced or to a CIA secret prison in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, or who knows where else. He also freed the Agency to “disappear” human beings (a term normally used in our world only when Americans aren’t the ones doing it) and freed the Agency’s interrogators to use techniques like waterboarding, known in less civilized times as “the water torture” (and only recently banned by the Agency) as well as various other, more sophisticated forms of torture.

At the 2004 Medal of Freedom ceremony, the President spoke of 50 million people being liberated in his first term…


Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt

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