Transcript: PM - Wednesday, 24 December , 2003 18:10:00
Reporter: Monica Attard
HAMISH ROBERTSON: As part of the ABC summer season, we present a Current Affairs Special.
Gore Vidal, once described as the United States' last small-r Republican, found himself in the lead-up to the war with Iraq railing against what he calls the Bush-Cheney junta. America, he said, had made meddling in the affairs of other nations its "reason for being."
He went further, maintaining that without a constant perception of threat, the world's last super-power can't function. It is, he said, a law of nature that there's no action without reaction and the United States had September 11th coming!
Gore Vidal even went so far as to suggest that the attacks may well have been a gift to the Bush administration - a gift which allowed the United States to go after Osama bin Laden and after Saddam Hussein, the two men it perceived as obstacles to the super power's imperial ambition.
So, given his extremely dark interpretation of America's foreign policy, how does Gore Vidal see America itself?
If you believe him, it's a truly unappealing place where the State is constantly waging war not only against foreign nations, but against its own citizens, where the police run wild abusing civil liberties, and where the Bill of Rights is a fading memories of what could have been.
Earlier in the year, Gore Vidal spoke to Monica Attard on Sunday Profile.
GORE VIDAL: We have never had an administration that set out deliberately to rid us of the Bill of Rights. With USA Patriot Act Number One, which passed 45 days after 9/11, and now there's a current sequel to it, which has not yet been given to Congress, but it's been leaked, you can be arrested without a charge, put before a military tribunal without recourse to due process of law to a lawyer, you can be deprived of your citizenship and you can be deported, this is a born American, and there's some lovely language in it, you can be deported to a region or a country that has no government.
I mean it is a dictatorship.
MONICA ATTARD: Now, Mr Vidal, this dictatorship, as you call it, did it have September 11 coming?
GORE VIDAL: Well, yes, it activated a lot of things that had been in the works.
Example, after the bombing in Oklahoma City the country was duly shocked by what McVeigh and a group of what they call themselves patriots may or may not have done, we still don't know much about it, nothing was ever really investigated, but suddenly Oklahoma City they blew up a public building. Immediately, Clinton assigns a terrorist act bill, which really goes out to many of the rights of due process of law and so on, habeas corpus, which we expect under our system. They were, if not annulled, they were nudged toward obedience on the part of the citizens.
Then comes 9/11, and a few weeks afterwards there's a 342-page USA Patriot Act, which is enormous detail. Well, it certainly wasn't thought up in 30 days since 9/11, as a response to a terrorist attack. It had been prepared and it was sent to Congress. Congress was then so overwhelmed by the media and the horror that had befallen us by wicked Arabs or whoever it was who did it, they passed it without reading it.
Now we're stuck with the damn thing. Congress, at last, are sitting down and realising what they wrought, and they're reviewing some of the aspects of it, which are violently anti-democratic, if one can use that phrase.
MONICA ATTARD: Mr Vidal, do you think that the United States brought the devastation of September 11 upon itself though? Do you think it was as simple as a payback?
GORE VIDAL: Well, nothing is, of that nature, is ever terribly simple. No nation ever begins anything in a state of innocence. Nations have pasts. They've done good things and bad things and have acquired enemies, allies, indifference. There are many things we could have done, should have done, did not do, and there were many things that we did in other parts of the world which caused resentment.
The President is a born again Christian. That means he's a Protestant from the south and believes in rapture and wants to be a sunbeam for Jesus. Well, he's going to let in, so Washington says, I can't believe that he'll do it, but he will let in, in theory anyway, Christian evangelicals into the Muslim world.
I don't know if you've ever seen an American Christian evangelical but run, no matter what you yourself may be in the way of religion, I mean these are very, very primitive people and they're absolutist and they know that God has chosen them to convert everyone else. To have a bunch of them loose in the Middle East, I say, is asking for even more trouble than what we've got.
MONICA ATTARD: But given the United States' reaction to September 11, the attack on Afghanistan and Iraq, the rolling back of American civil liberties, who in your view represents the more dangerous evil? Is it Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush?
GORE VIDAL: Well, it's Bush we have to deal with. Bin Laden is a gangster that should have been treated not as like a war with the country. Osama bin Laden is not a country. He is something like the mafia. He's head of a bunch of religious zealots. He's a thug. He's a terrorist indeed.
Now, how do you handle that normally in a normal country? What you do is you call out the police, you get to Interpol if he's international, you turn to other countries to help you find him and his allies, and you might even go to the United Nations if you were not eager to supersede it yourself. That's what should have been done. Instead Bush pretends it's a war. Well you can't have a war without a country. Terrorism – you can't have a war against terrorism. It's an abstract noun. You can't fight an abstract noun.
MONICA ATTARD: But you'd have to argue, wouldn't you Mr Vidal, that attempts had been made to flush him out, particularly under the Clinton administration, and yet all of those attempts have failed. He's a very elusive character.
GORE VIDAL: Well, he's, literally elusive, they can't find him, but then again, we don't know if they're looking for him. When our generals first arrived in Afghanistan, a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, the Taliban as such had nothing to do with it, they were a bunch of chaotic people that we had put in charge of the country at the time of the wars with the Soviets and they were becoming crazier and crazier but, in the interests of establishing a pipeline to get oil from the Caspian Sea down to Karachi in Pakistan, we decided to go in there and replace the Taliban, and using Osama bin Laden, who had been in and out of Afghanistan, as an excuse. As soon as our general on the spot got there, he gave an interview, I'm sure he got into a lot of trouble, somebody said 'well, when do you think you're going to get Osama bin Laden?' He said 'we're not looking for him, that's not what this is about', and then he had to come back with a statement like 'we're against al-Qaeda', and then he had to explain what that was. But what it was really about was UNOCAL, Union Oil of California, which had a contract to put a pipeline from Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan, down through Pakistan to the port of Karachi, where the oil would then be sold to China. We'd already made a deal.
MONICA ATTARD: So is it possible then that September 11 was potentially pre-emptive strike in response to what the Arab world might have interpreted, correctly or otherwise, to have been a possible US threat to Afghani strategic interests, oil interests?
GORE VIDAL: I think that it is now fact, one doesn't know in a world of so much rumour and this and that, but Osama bin Laden got word that in October, Clinton had a plan to hit his camps up in the hills in the eastern part of Afghanistan and to attack Afghanistan maybe with a full invasion. This was Clinton, who was our kindly Liberal President.
Osama bin Laden gets wind of that and the next thing we know we've got 9/11, which is a pre-emptive strike against us. That, I think, is current wisdom around Washington, not in certain circles obviously, where he must be forever a mad demon, I'm sure he is a mad demon, but if he knew an attack was coming in October and he hit in September, one sort of sees the logic of that.
MONICA ATTARD: Now, you also talk of the United States' need to always manufacture an enemy. If it's not terrorists it's its own people, paedophiles, drug lords, etcetera. Do you believe that it was necessary for the United States to have one individual to focus anger upon after September 11, that is, Osama bin Laden?
GORE VIDAL: We've always done it. We personalise everything because that is the style of the country, that's the style of the media. But you immediately focus on an individual of great good and beauty, or of great evil and ugliness, and you just go on and on about them and you never go on about what the battle's really about, because we want to talk about good and evil, which gets back to President Bush's deep religiosity.
He keeps talking in theological terms about good and evil. Politicians ought not to do that, particularly politicians for the United States – a country in which we built, what I thought, was a big solid wall between the Church and the State, between religion and politics, and he's been breaking that wall down too. I mean, there's a good deal to object to.
MONICA ATTARD: Do you think that the United States, Britain and Australia had any justification for what they've done in Iraq?
GORE VIDAL: Not really, no. I think it could have been done quite differently.
First of all, Saddam Hussein was of no danger to the United States or England or Australia. He might be of danger to a next-door neighbour, but he didn't even show much sign of that.
The last war we had with him was 1991. Well he hadn't done anything between '91 and now.
MONICA ATTARD: But do you accept that the people of Iraq would never have risen up themselves, that they weren't capable of such an uprising?
GORE VIDAL: Don't you think that's their problem? That's not your problem and that's not my problem. There are many bad regimes on Earth, we can list several hundred. At the moment I would put the Bush regime as one of them, but I don't want anybody to attack the United States and send Bush back to Texas.
MONICA ATTARD: Can you not conceive of any good, planned or coincidental, to come from this military campaign?
GORE VIDAL: Well, the first law of physics is there is no action without reaction. So for all I know they will discover a cure for cancer because of what they did in the desert. That, we can say, is a good result.
What we have done is we have torn up the old blueprint that came into being around 1950, in which we were in command of Germany and Japan and we were restoring them to their former glory really, and we had established NATO to help Europe, we had the United Nations to arbitrate, we had Bretton Woods, which was going to take care of the world finances, in our favour, but it was favourable for just about everybody.
That world has been totally destroyed in the last two years. There is nothing left of it. We don't honour any of our arrangements with the Kyoto accords or the environment. We tried to kill the United Nations several times by not paying our dues, by ignoring its orders. We have changed the world's balance and I am amazed that you people – "you people" is a generic word for everybody else on Earth – haven't done anything about it, and haven't brought it to attention. This is radical. This is the most radical regime since the '30s.
MONICA ATTARD: You mentioned that the United States has, essentially, usurped the United Nations, or is attempting to. Another casualty of the war is the relationship between Europe and the United States, always tense, but now it appears to be irretrievably damaged. Is that how you see it? You lived in Europe, you still live in Europe for part of the time, what do you make of that relationship?
GORE VIDAL: I don't think it's irretrievable. This administration will vanish without a trace one day. I just don't want it to vanish in a nuclear cloud of some suicide bomber, because I see that they're making all kinds of trouble for themselves that they don't understand the extent of it. I don't want war and I don't want anything violent to happen.
MONICA ATTARD: But what do you make of the descriptions of…
GORE VIDAL: Europe has moved onto another sphere and there are those, I know, rather good economists who maintain that with the creation of the euro, that removes the power of the dollar, and it's only the power of the dollar that we've been able to build up this vast military because we could print as many as we want and it's a sovereign currency and it's considered safe. So any time there's war being threatened, they buy American securities, American Treasury buy them, so that's how we finance our nuclear weapons and so on.
Well, Saddam Hussein threatened, it was his first threat that, I think, got to us, that he was going to shift over to the euro and not the dollar, which meant that people with euros could buy Iraqi oil, which they can't do much of now and then, but they will one day, and that would destroy the power of the dollar to determine world values, particularly the value of oil, and this was enough to give our people a great headache.
MONICA ATTARD: So do you think then, if that scenario's correct, that France and Germany would have had just as much incentive to indulge in decision making for the wrong reasons as Washington?
GORE VIDAL: Well, they would, they did, they embraced the euro. They don't love the United States. I think that should be quite clear. Nor is there any reason why one country should love another anyway.
President Washington, who was a great statesman, has said that nations should not have special friends or special enemies, nations should only have interests and that to me is good statesmanship.
MONICA ATTARD: But that's precisely what Washington's doing isn't it, acting on its interests?
GORE VIDAL: It isn't. It's invented interests that it doesn't have. It pretends that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and he was going to do it again if we didn't go in and smash him. He had no plans and we went in and smashed him anyway. Why? Because he has the second largest oil reserves on Earth.
MONICA ATTARD: Mr Vidal, if we look at the so-called Coalition forces, you've got George Bush, you've got John Howard of Australia, they appear at least to have behaved as expected, that is to say we're not really surprised by their actions. When you look at Tony Blair, a British Labour leader steadfastly supporting George Bush on this issue of Iraq, what do you make of that? Why do you think he did it?
GORE VIDAL: I think there's something very creepy going on, and I'm giving you an opinion.
Bush was an alcoholic, and he became AA, and part of AA is you find Jesus or God or something, and that helps you find the strength to cease to be an alcoholic, which he did. He found God, a very primitive sort of fundamental Protestantism – believes in Armageddon, believes in the end of the world, believes that this world is nothing and only the next matters.
Tony Blair is equally religious, obviously in a more sophisticated way, but he's in a funny position. He's Prime Minister of England. He is responsible, in a sense, for the Church of England. He appoints bishops for the sovereigns to install. Well, it is said that he's become Roman Catholic.
Now, the two boys can see themselves as crusaders fighting for Jesus against the infidel, against the heathen, against Muslims. This, to me, is perfectly loony. It is nothing that you would do or I would do, or most people would do, since this kind of religious zeal went out of the western world quite some time ago. It did not go out of the Middle Eastern world but we could live with that. It isn't going to hurt us unless we make them very angry.
So I think they see themselves as two Christian crusaders.
MONICA ATTARD: Do you think that Tony Blair's zeal will eventually see him falling in behind Washington if Washington makes a decision to extend this war and go after Syria? He says he won't, but do you think that's possible?
GORE VIDAL: Well, I'm sure he says that, but what he will do is a different thing. I think he's got himself in pretty deep and I don't think he's worked out enough of an exit to get out of it because they are going to go into Syria.
MONICA ATTARD: You believe that?
GORE VIDAL: I know that, and also Iran has been marked too. I hope it isn't going to happen, I hope that the American people will wake up and stop the junta.
MONICA ATTARD: How do you know that they're going to go into Syria or Iran? Why do you say you know that?
GORE VIDAL: I have connections in Washington and I know that this is a decision that has been made. Things do go wrong and things don't happen.
MONICA ATTARD: So, but you don't think that Washington is just sabre-rattling? Isn't it possible that having just demonstrated having this capacity and willingness to act in terms of Iraq, that the Bush administration can actually achieve its aims through fear and threat?
GORE VIDAL: It has no aims other than more oil and gas because Cheney had a study done about a year ago, that by the year 2020 the entire world would be practically out of fossil fuels. They're going to grab all of it and the biggest supply is in the Caspian area and all those countries whose names end in 'stan'. That's what our eye is on.
MONICA ATTARD: You describe a three-stage process that you observed the US Government employing against its enemies, abroad and at home. First there's harassment, then there's demonisation, then there's attack. Is Syria now at the harassment stage?
GORE VIDAL: You should read the New York Times this morning. There were four major stories about the crimes of Syria, how it was really in with they found the terrorists there, and so it means that Iraq had been supporting terrorism and this and that, mostly stories are made up or totally distorted. But the New York Times is a voice of the regime and a voice with really a sort of desire for war and expansion in that part of the world.
MONICA ATTARD: And so on your account then, the terrorist link would just be extended add infinitum, and all of this on the back of one event, September 11, which looks, on this account, as though it might have been a gift for Bush – a truly massive, widely-perceived direct external threat needed in order to secure American global and oil interests.
GORE VIDAL: That is one way of looking at it.
MONICA ATTARD: You believe there's no plan to deliver democracy via regime change throughout the Middle East?
GORE VIDAL: I don't believe it's our business to make the regime changes in the Middle East, particularly when we're under no threat from anybody.
MONICA ATTARD: But is there a plan? Is the American administration interested at all in delivering democracy to the Middle East?
GORE VIDAL: Are you crazy? We don't have it here, for God's sake. Why would we export it? We talk a lot about it.
Our founding fathers feared two things – one was majority rule, or democracy, and the other is tyranny, which they called monarchy in those days, that's all.
MONICA ATTARD: In relation to this idea that the United States is not, you know, the slightest bit interested in delivering democracy to the Middle East. Clearly much of the Arab world is deeply sceptical about what the United States is actually up to, but Saudi Arabia seems to stand apart from the rest. Why are they so taken by Washington?
GORE VIDAL: Well, first of all they're occupied by American troops which were brought in at the time of Iraq one, and then didn't go home. Secondly, deals were made that they are there to protect the Royal Family, which is generally in cahoots with our oil companies, and to protect them from the people if the people should suddenly turn ugly in a country like that. They're in an awful position. I would not like to be one of them for anything, but we are there.