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by Alexander Cockburn

Bush's Knesset Speech a New Low

These days, it's an almost irresistible temptation to believe that when the present incumbent finally rides his mountain bike off into the sunset next January, the world will be a better place merely by the fact of his absence. Amid the sinister twilight of the Bush years, such hopes are understandable.

Is it conceivable that Obama or McCain could be as bad as or worse than Bush?

A month ago, I stood amid the ruins of Palmyra, out in the desert two hundred miles east of Syria's Mediterranean coastline. The old oasis city looks at a glance like Las Vegas a couple of thousand years after the water finally runs out, and all that's been excavated are some columns and broken statues from Caesar's Palace, maybe the campanile from the Venetian Hotel and the sphinx in front of the Excalibur south down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Early in the second century, opportunity knocked for the Palmyrans, and they seized their chance. A shift in the political situation suddenly made Palmyra the safest route between Rome and Parthia for the desert caravans carrying textiles, spices and oils along the old silk road from China. The emperor Trajan finished off Petra, further south, as an independent trade enterpot, and that made him "good" in the eyes of Palmyrans, just as he became very "bad" in the eyes of the merchants of Petra.

For nearly 300 years, the good times rolled as Palmyra taxed the trade shipments. There's a carved stele from 134 A.D. recording Palmyra's specific excise duties on the silk, dyes, perfumes, ivory, precious stones, jade, slaves, prostitutes and gold coming through. Palmyra florished. Stone for the new tetrapylon on Main Street? Let's ship pink granite columns in from Aswan! Palmyra's special contribution to column design seems to have been a projecting ledge about halfway up where the tycoon paying for the column could put a nice bust of himself. Bountiful were the animal sacrifices in the Temple of Bel, a vast temple complex personally rehabbed at staggering expense by Palmyra's precursor to Donald Trump, Male Agrippa, who also footed the bill for a visit by the Emperor Hadrian.

Then, as quick as the ascent came collapse. The power vacuum in Rome seized to her advantage by Palmyra's Queen Zenobia had suddenly filled. The political situation changed further east, in Persia. Was there anything specifically and personally "bad" about the Roman Emperor Aurelian, who sacked Palmyra in 273? Not really, though the Palmyrans no doubt thought so. He was just pushing ahead with the Empire's long-term policies.

The day I was in Palmyra, the Emperor Bush II gave his speech in the Knesset, a slab of rhetoric so exuberant in its homage to Israel that The New York Times had to reprimand him editorially for bad taste. In its immediate aftermath, I had an opportunity to ask a member of the Syrian cabinet, Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, whether she thought the installation of a new U.S. president next January would diminish the forebodings that she had just been outlining with great passion, from the continuing human catastrophe in Iraq to the horrors of Israel's siege of Gaza. (For the record, Dr Shaaban did not think a war with Iran was likely.) She answered me without hesitation that she envisaged no change if a candidate such as Barack Obama settles into the Oval Office next January. The continuous policy of the United States is to divide and rule, she exclaimed, has been and will be for the foreseeable future, to fan schism and internecine bloodletting in the region, to set Arab against Arab, whether it be the communities of Lebanon or the Shia and Sunni in Iraq. From her perspective, there was no "good" U.S. president in the offing.

As the dust and fury arise from this year's presidential campaign, we dwell excessively on the notion that a new president, whether -- in our personal estimation -- "good" or "bad," will make all that difference to the Empire's course, fixed on a course dictated by policies decades old and lobbies that don't change every four years. The ship could run on to the rocks, but that may have nothing to do with Obama or McCain, but with economic or political decisions taken a couple of generations ago.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   June 26, 2008   (

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