Washington’s War-Makers Aren’t “in a Bubble,” They’re in a Bunker

With the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion coming up next month, we can expect a surge of explanations for what made that catastrophe possible. An axiom from Orwell — “who controls the past controls the future” — underscores the importance of such narratives.

I encountered a disturbing version last week while debating Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Largely, Wilkerson blamed deplorable war policies on a “bubble” that surrounds top officials. That’s not just faulty history; it also offers us very misleading guidance in the present day.

During our debate on Democracy Now, Wilkerson said: “What’s happening with drone strikes around the world right now is, in my opinion, as bad a development as many of the things we now condemn so readily, with 20/20 hindsight, in the George W. Bush administration. We are creating more enemies than we’re killing. We are doing things that violate international law. We are even killing American citizens without due process. . .”

But why does this happen?

“These things are happening because of that bubble that you just described,” Colonel Wilkerson told host Amy Goodman. “You can’t get through that bubble” to top foreign-policy officials, “penetrate that bubble and say, ‘Do you understand what you’re doing, both to American civil liberties and to the rest of the world’s appreciation of America, with these increased drone strikes that seem to have an endless vista for future?’”

Wilkerson went on: “This is incredible. And yet, I know how these things happen. I know how these bubbles create themselves around the president and cease and stop any kind of information getting through that would alleviate or change the situation, make the discussion more fundamental about what we’re doing in the world.”

Such a “bubble” narrative encourages people to believe that reaching the powerful war-makers with information and moral suasion is key — perhaps the key — to ending terrible policies. This storyline lets those war-makers off the hook — for the past, present and future.

Hours after my debate with Wilkerson, I received an email from Fernando Andres Torres, a California-based journalist and former political prisoner in Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Referring to Wilkerson as “that bubble guy,” the email said: “Who they think they are? No accountability? Or do they think the government bubble gives them immunity for all the atrocities they commit? Not in the people’s memory.”

Later in the day, Torres sent me another note: “Not sure if we can call it a bubble, ’cause a bubble is easy to break; they were in a lead bunker from where the bloody consequences of their action can pass unnoticed.”

Wilkerson’s use of the bubble concept is “a tautology, a contradiction implicit,” wrote the co-editor of DissidentVoice.org, Kim Petersen, in an article analyzing the debate. “Often people escape culpability through being outside the loop. After all, how can one be blamed for what one does not know because one was not privy to the information. Can one credibly twist this situation as a defense? Wilkerson and other Bush administration officials were in the loop — privy to information that other people are denied — and yet Wilkerson, in a strong sense, claims to be a victim of being in a bubble.”

In that case, the onus is shared by those inside and outside the bubble. Wilkerson said as much when I mentioned that a decade ago, during many months before the invasion, my colleagues and I at the Institute for Public Accuracy helped to document — with large numbers of news releases and public reports — that the Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were full of holes.

From there, our debate swiftly went down a rabbit hole, as Wilkerson took me to task for not getting through the bubble that surrounded him as chief of staff for Secretary of State Powell. “I didn’t see a single one of your reports,” Wilkerson said. “So, nobody called me from your group. Nobody tried to get in — nobody tried to get into my office and talk to me from your group. Other groups did, but your group never got into my office, never called me on the phone — never talked to me. Other groups did. Why didn’t you?. . . You didn’t call. . . You didn’t call. . . You did not call.”

Non-apology apologies have been a forte of former impresarios of the Iraq war. It speaks volumes that Col. Wilkerson has been more apologetic than most of them. The scarcity of genuine public remorse is in sync with the absence of legal accountability or political culpability.

The partway apologies are tethered to notable narcissism. It’s still mainly about them, the seasoned ones who have worked in top echelons of government, whose self-focus is enduring. At the same time, scarcely a whisper can be heard about renouncing the prerogative to launch aggressive war.

So, when faced with occasional media questions about Powell’s WMD speech to the U.N. Security Council six weeks before the Iraq invasion, both Wilkerson and Powell routinely revert to the same careful phrasing about their own life sagas. Interviewed by CNN in 2005, after his three years as Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff, Wilkerson described his key role in preparing that speech as “the lowest point in my life.” Last week, in our debate, he called the U.N. presentation “the lowest point in my professional and personal life.”

As for Colin Powell, guess what? That U.N. speech was “a low point in my otherwise remarkable career,” he told AARP’s magazine in 2006. Yet the U.N. speech gave powerful propaganda support for the invasion that began the Iraq war — a war that was also part of Powell’s “otherwise remarkable career.”

So, too, a dozen years earlier, was the Gulf War that Powell presided over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in early 1991. On the same day that the Associated Press cited estimates from Pentagon sources that the six-week war had killed 100,000 Iraqi people, Powell told an interviewer: “It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.”

The illustrious and sturdy bow on the entire political package is immunity — a reassuring comfort to retired and present war leaders alike. Former Bush officials and current Obama officials have scant reason to worry that their conduct of war might one day put them in a courtroom dock. They’ve turned their noses up at international law, lowered curtains on transparency and put some precious civil liberties in a garbage compactor with the president’s hand on the switch.

Normalizing silence and complicity is essential fuel for endless war. With top officials relying on their own exculpatory status, a grim feedback loop keeps spinning as the increasingly powerful warfare state runs roughshod over the principle of consent of the governed. Top officials dodge responsibility — and pay no penalty — for lying the country into, and into continuing, horrendous wars and other interventions.

Without an honest reckoning of what did and didn’t happen in the lead-up to the Iraq war, a pernicious message comes across from Wilkerson, Powell and many others: of course we stuck it out and followed orders, we had private doubts but fulfilled our responsibilities to maintain public support for the war.

It’s a kind of role modeling that further corrodes the political zeitgeist. The upshot is that people at the top of the U.S. government — whether in 2003 or 2013 — have nothing to lose by going along with the program for war. In a word: impunity.


Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He writes the Political Culture 2013 column.

Norman Solomon

Co-Founder at RootsAction
Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org.

7 Comments on "Washington’s War-Makers Aren’t “in a Bubble,” They’re in a Bunker"

  1. An exceptional level of denial by Wilkerson. Admits they were wrong but then tries the ‘we’ were all wrong, then most of ‘us’ were wrong, then tries to make out that the information most of ‘us’ got was from the same sources rather than the government. The government fed it’s lies to an obedient unquestioning media. He is one of the few people at the top that was responsible for the lies that were used to send nations to war. He failed as a member of society, as a humanitarian, his ethics failed him & he failed the people of his country.

  2. Today’s political and economic elites are some of the most well-informed groups of people that have ever scourge Gaia. The Rothschild family reacted quicker to (and spread disinfo about) the British victory of Waterloo in 1815 than any other and made a fortune doing so. There is no bubble (even if there is a physical bunker to keep their corporeal selves safe), because they wouldn’t be a step ahead in the game like this otherwise. But the basis for the argument that ‘they must be in a bubble to perpetuate these atrocities’ is that no moral human being would intentionally continue what they are doing with the knowledge that they are causing more harm by doing so. But how can we definitively separate ‘moral human beings’ from ‘non-moral human beings’? It’s not possible, so it is a logically irrelevant argument. What remains then are the ‘crack-pot’ theories that non-humans are actually doing this, and the more I observe the kindness of those around me against the ferocity of ‘leaders’ who knowingly expose swathes of people to gruesome torture and death, the more I am encouraged to think that no humans could actually do this. Reality is not what we perceive it to be.

    • While I agree that “Reality is not what we perceive it to be.” It seems to me, that humans are indeed more than capable of these atrocities and more. To paraphrase Rick James, “Ideology is a hell of a drug.” That coupled with denial and zero accountabilty and viola, you have the corporate sate run amok, with all the horror that entails.

  3. BuzzCoastin | Feb 11, 2013 at 8:09 pm |

    > But why does this happen?

    many people overlook the culpability of The System in all this
    especially in Der Homeland
    where people think man was made to be ruled by rules

    The System has its own unconscious agenda
    and it is advanced by unconscious worker bees

    • True dat.
      Have you read The Technological Civilization by Jacques Ellul? There’s a theory that technical “progress” drives man, and not the other way around.

      • BuzzCoastin | Feb 12, 2013 at 3:17 am |

        more along the lines of
        Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation
        McLuhan’s The Media is the Massage

        I saw an article the other day
        about a how a financial debacle was caused
        by a bad formula in an Excel spreadsheet
        Excel is the the ultimate Über-Bankster
        garbage in
        garbage out
        no one notices

  4. This has been a very thought-provoking post for me.

    I came across this “testimony” from Lawrence Wilkerson some years ago…
    …it made me think that Wilkerson is a pretty good guy. War is a damnable business, but it was also — for lack of a better word — an inalienable part of life for Americans and world citizens during the life of Lawrence Wilkerson. From his “testimony” above, he seemed to me to be a very principled warrior, scholar of war, and custodian of the war power. Certainly more so than Bush or Cheney.

    I have heard the complaint or charge against Wilkerson repeatedly that he is not-to-be-listened-to because of his and Colin Powell’s complicity or duplicity or guilt or whatever in regards to their roles in the UN “case for war” with Iraq day, and the whole greater U.S. National Security / War State. Frankly, I’m inclined to forgive him and perhaps even Colin Powell for it; they really were put on a spot and manipulated by others to “make the case” for war. (But let it be known I’m open to evidence which proves the contrary.)

    * * *

    I also recently read this, from a journalist I respect, that contains further reporting on the topic of this Disinfo(dot)com post:

    * * *

    I found this moment on MSNBC (from some years ago) to be quite thrilling / amusing / powerful. In it, Wilkerson calls out Rumsfeld.

    1: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/42908483 (full source)
    2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4_RQc9NLxQ (YouTube clip that gets right to it)

    * * *

    For whatever it’s worth, I’d like to add that I feel like it “almost doesn’t matter” exactly who is guilty of exactly what. We could all spend forever trying to argue for the guilt of certain people, and listen to their defenses forever as well. We could catch them in their lies, yes, and we would also listen to their further defenses that certain other people are “more guilty” than they are. (Were the Nuremberg Trials done to the satisfaction of enough people? I don’t know but I doubt it…)

    My point is that what’s just as important — if not more important — than getting the “who’s who” list of Iraq War Criminals straight is that we stop living in ways (feeding into ways of life) that keep the same old tragedies repeating. This is one of the hardest tasks ever, but I guarantee it is not impossible. And my final point is that I’m glad to hear active journalists debating just who is on the “who’s who” list of guilty. I’m not going to put-down or condemn Norman Solomon or David Swanson at all. Keep up the good work.

    Right now, we’re all coming round to the campfire from the wilderness of lies and manipulation. So we don’t need to quite be at each other’s throats just yet. Let’s rebalance and re-evaluate with a little charity for the sins of others. See this scene from the excellent movie, Michael Clayton. Michael’s young son is telling him about a video game / fictional mythology book that he finds exciting:

    Michael Clayton’s Son: So no one’s even sure exactly where they are, because there’s no borders, or landmarks, or anything. And the town? It’s not even a town really. It just is this camp where all these people have gathered to hide.

    Michael Clayton: Right.

    Son: All these deserters and guys that got cut off from their armies. All these people that are hiding in the woods, trying to stay alive. This is where they all came. There’s Thieves, Gray Mages, Unbidden Warriors, Dark Avians, Riverwynders, and Sappers. There’s, like, 15 different characters, okay?

    Michael: Okay.

    Son: And nobody has any alliances. You can’t even say who you are because, you don’t know, maybe the person you’re talking to — maybe they’re like your mortal enemy in the wars. So it’s just completely like everybody for themselves.

    Michael: Sounds familiar.

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