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Review: Armed Madhouse, by Greg Palast

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Message Lynne Glasner
Greg Palast's Armed Madhouse might be read as satire, if only its story were fiction. No, this is not James Frey's fictional memoir; it's one man's painstaking investigation into the web of intrigue that connects terrorism, oil, globalization and politics. Many of the webs are as complicated as "Syriana," but Palast tells the story with tongue in cheek biting humor that often feels more like an old Woody Alan movie. When the laughter subsides and you realize that it's our country, not a banana republic script that he's talking about, you want to scream "Cut!" and rewrite the script.

Palast explains the origin of his title, taken from a line in an Alan Ginsburg poem, which he felt summed up the problem of the "armed madhouse" in an insane administration""a regime that grants no asylum from militarized greed, whose sole saving grace is its incompetence: If they knew what they were doing it would be worse."

History and politics are full of irony and even coincidence, which can be interpreted as conspiracy or as part of chaos theory. Palast lets you reach your own conclusions. These are complicated issues that involve players on multiple continents, the economics of natural resources and the politics of war. And while these issues may seem remote from the everyday life of average Americans, Palast connects them, proving that all politics are local. Palast lays out the facts as he has been given them, approaching his subject with an irony and sarcasm that serve to lighten the load. The irony of facts meeting the rubber on the road leaves a mark that divides the dry accounting of what passes for serious news these days from the tantalizing analysis buried in the quest for some truth and understanding of where we are and how we got here.

Divided into five sections - roughly summed up as: fear of Osama, oil connections, globalization, election fraud and economics (where the political gets personal), Palast advises that the sections can be read in any order as they are independent of one another. While the sections are not co-dependent, there is a chronological arc in each one. However, this is real life, not an episode of "Law and Order" in which the bad guys are always caught and the good guys have their day in court and usually win. There is no neat beginning, middle and end to this reality-checked tale of political intrigue, and the web Palast weaves in each section has threads that often tie knots in other sections, or at least leave some hanging chads. Palast is correct: the order of operations isn't so important. But the overall story contains an additive value in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the circle is completed when all sections are included. It is the whole that provides the big picture, exposing the webs in the underlying network and the intrigue and deception that currently pass for the political process.

Each section uses humor to spice up what could be dry, and, well, depressing. Palast has clearly done his homework as he takes you through a rather detailed analysis of the issues. The facts speak for themselves, so much so that Palast doesn't have to be an original humorist. He just has to string the facts together logically and ask the right questions; the irony becomes self-evident.

For example, in the first section, The Fear, Palast explains how Bush and Co. capitalized on the fear engendered from 9-11 to push through their pre 9-11 agenda. Stealing from the FDR playbook, Bush took the Roosevelt dictum "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and 70 years later converted it to "We have nothing to sell but fear itself." An apt summary of the PR presidency. By selling fear, Bush not only led the public down the path to war, but enabled a power grab both in the executive office and in corporate suites. This isn't big news; it's a known known among those who have objected to the Iraq War. What was not widely understood, however, was that concomitant with the strategy of fear, Bush gave Osama everything he wanted; in short: high oil prices and withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia. There's nothing funny about this, but the sardonic commentary accompanying the narrative forces a smile, even if it's temporary - until you remember who it is that is actually laughing all the way to the bank.

Whatever story line you previously applied to make sense out of the Iraqi debacle and the politics involved on both sides of the Atlantic, Palast will show that you were either wrong or at least partly wrong because you were using incomplete information for your analysis. Palast offers a narrative that feels like a bad film script. Bad not because the script doesn't read well, but bad because it would be dismissed by any sane producer as too unbelievable and preposterous. The Republican spin machines will predictably say ditto to unbelievable, but with dead-eyed seriousness and a tone of offense. However, Palast has facts on his side, not that team Bush has ever let facts get in the way of a good story before. That aside, this story is a narrative that needs to see the light of day so that we can make sense of what sometimes seems like random, willy-nilly policy.

So how is it, one might ask, that Palast has access to documents no one else seems to know about and scores interviews that no one else can? It's not a big secret. Palast is an old-fashioned reporter""the kind that actually spends time digging deeper. As a former investigative reporter he has contacts that include people who are willing to trust him and give him inside information. He's been at it for a long time and doesn't shrink from asking the tough questions. Palast has spent the time culling sources and winning the hearts and minds of people who care about what happens. Unfortunately, we can't say that about the rest of the press - certainly not mainstream media. Palast is not outing classified documents or the identification of any undercover officials. He is able to string facts together because he has asked the right questions and he offers convincing analysis of the answers that he was provided to those questions.

Perhaps the most interesting, yet the most complicated, section is Chapter 2, The Flow. Palast has evidence, which he documents, of the original Bush plans to invade Iraq and control the oil. From the outside looking in, there were always reports about the tension between the Bush State Department and the Bush Defense Department. What we didn't know was how deep those rifts were and how they really played out in the war zone. Palast's analysis unmasks the two teams and goes a long way in explaining the apparent inconsistencies and bungling of operations as the two sides duke it out. Palast's behind-the-scenes look at the changes in personnel in Iraq, for example, start to make sense, in a madhouse kind of way, when seen through the lens of the internal conflicts in the Bush Administration.

The goal for the neocon/Defense Department team was to seize control of the oilfields and then have Iraq withdraw from OPEC or at least wreck havoc on its quotas. This is the heart of the conflict and the problem: the neocons want control of OPEC because it is in OPEC that the power to control the price of oil resides. Privatization of Iraq's oilfields, so it was theorized, would tear apart OPEC by increasing Iraqi production beyond the quotas and flooding the market. This would create chaos in the oil market, perhaps dissolving OPEC itself in the process. Certainly, the price of oil would drop precipitously and the Saudis would be rendered powerless.

But the State Department was aligned with the Saudi loyalists, as well as the Saudi royal family itself, and Big Oil interests, and opposed the neo plans. They were much more interested in inflating the price of oil and keeping the profits; stability allows them control of the price, the higher the better. They don't want to sell off Iraqi oilfields to the highest bidder; they want to keep it all under control of a government that is under control. "Only through the unique power of government monopoly can a nation hold back production to the OPEC quota," Palast explains.

The plot thickens and the players have multiple disguises. No, they don't sport faux mustaches but the secrecy of their operations and their public professional demeanor belie the Machiavellian antics. Palast explains the dilemma:

"Oil is about the flow and tides of power, centered on a struggle over two competing visions for the Middles East; on one side, the aggressive neo-con agenda for remaking Arabia as a Little USA (or better another Chile); on the other, Big Oil and the State Department's history-hardened view of the Middle East as a giant gas station inhabited by creatures with inscrutable superstitions and violent habits best not disturbed." (p. 124)

And the person most qualified to choose sides: Dick Cheney. By playing both sides, the vice-president has managed to keep prices inflated, prevent anyone from tapping reserves, keep OPEC under control and enrich himself and his friends. As Iraq withers on the vine, we can discern the reason for its rhyme if we follow Palast's complicated narrative. In a perverse sort of way, we can at least rest assured that the chaos that is now Iraq is not purely happenstance; there were plans all along, and well, sh*t happens on the way to the bank. Who will get to check-mate first, and how, is not clear, but one thing is for sure: the stakes are high and the tensions between the neos and Big Oil are actually the primary front on the battlefield. As Palast explains, "The power of the oil is greater than the power of the gun."

Palast's training in forensic economics gives him a leg up on how to look at numbers and trends and make sense out of all of it and he brings this training to his analysis of the oil grab. He studied and investigated energy corporations and originally studied economics under Milton Friedman. He parted ways with Uncle Miltie a long time ago, but Palast's image of Milton morphing into Thomas is one of his funnier asides.

One can't take apart the current war mentality without looking at the military industrial complex and its role in the feeding frenzy. Palast runs through the usual suspects and exposes their toys at our expense. (Whoever said US ingenuity was declining? Of course our genius engineers can retool submarines to make them appropriate and useful in landlocked Afghanistan and the one lone beachhead in Iraq.) While the war machine continues to make its bombs, Palast has a number of his own bombshells. A few include:
" It was the Saudis who funded A-bomb Khan after Iraq War I, ultimately leading to Libya's exchange of nuclear ambitions for a lucrative oil contract with BP, and Khan spreading his ideas to North Korea.
" Colin Powell opposed the occupation of Iraq, not the invasion.
" The business plan for Iraq, authored by Grover Norquist, included a private enterprise utopia in Mesopotamia. "The model, said Norquist, was Chile under August Pinochet," and included a tax-free business environment and copyright protection for software, music and drug companies. These laws are still part of the Iraqi legal code and are in effect. (Palast compares the takeover of Iraq to a corporate takeover that uses Abrams tanks instead of junk bonds.)
" Wolfowitz knew that his numbers were bogus when he told Congress that Iraq's reconstruction would be able to pay for itself.

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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams, MediaChannel.org, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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