What did we know

The role of an all-American Cassandra.

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SOURCETom Dispatch

A few days ago, my partner and I went in search of packing tape. Our sojourn on an idyllic (if tick-infested) Cape Cod island was ending and it was time to ship some stuff home. We stopped at a little odds-and-ends shop and found ourselves in conversation with the woman behind the counter.

She was born in Panama, where her father had served as chief engineer operating tugboats in the Panama Canal. As a child, she remembered celebrating her birthday with a trip on a tug from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, sailing under an arch of water produced by fireboats on either side.

“But that all ended,” she said, “with the invasion. It was terrifying. They were bombing Panama City. The Army sent my family back to the U.S. so we wouldn’t be killed. I’ve never been back.” She was talking, of course, about the 1989 invasion of Panama ordered by President George H.W. Bush to arrest Manuel Noriega, that country’s president. For years, Noriega had been a CIA asset, siding with Washington as the Cold War played out in Central America. He’d worked to sabotage the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the FMLN guerillas in El Salvador who opposed a U.S.-supported dictatorship there. And he’d worked with Washington’s Drug Enforcement Agency while simultaneously taking money from drug gangs.

That a CIA asset was involved in the drug trade could hardly have come as a surprise to that agency, given its own long history of cooperating with drug merchants, but when journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of Noriega’s drug connections, the U.S. decided to cut him loose and hardline neoconservatives like Elliot Abrams, one of the architects of the Contra war in Nicaragua, began pushing for an invasion. Abrams himself would resurface in the second Bush administration, where he would become a cheerleader for some of the worst crimes of the Global War on Terror. He would bob up yet again like some kind of malevolent cork in Donald Trump’s administration. And then, in July 2023, perhaps in a fit of bipartisan amnesia, President Joe Biden would nominate him to serve on his Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

My partner and I told this woman that we remembered the invasion all too well. In fact, we’d joined a group of demonstrators occupying Market Street in San Francisco to protest it. But, I added, “Lots of people in this country don’t even know that there was an invasion, or that hundreds of civilians died.”

She nodded. “Nobody here knows about that. I’ve never met anyone who does. It was just one crook fighting another and Panama got in the way.” As we prepared to leave, she asked us, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?” We didn’t mind. We were honored.

The curses of Cassandra

Speaking with that woman reminded me that those of us paying attention had a pretty good idea what the invasion of Panama would look like. After all, we’d followed the 1983 invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada. We knew civilians would die. You could say that we predicted the obvious before it happened, but no one in power seemed to believe us and, after it happened, no one seemed to care.

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Reflecting on those moments brought to mind the Trojan prophet Cassandra, doubly cursed by the god Apollo both in her ability to foresee the future and in the fact that no one would believe her. She predicted the bloody and ultimately pointless Trojan War, but no one listened to her. The truth is that neither Cassandra in Troy nor those of us predicting the obvious outcomes of America’s follies today really need divine gifts to see the future. All it takes is a little attention to history and the present moment.

As I started to write this piece, however, something bothered me, like a student raising an insistent hand in the back row of the classroom of my mind. Wait, I thought, haven’t I written this before? And it turns out that, in a way, I did — back in 2021 on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At the time, I focused on the rehabilitation of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had made a lonely run for president in 1968 on a platform opposing the American war in Vietnam. In those days, opposing that war was considered naïve at best, treasonous at worst. Today, almost everyone in this country who even remembers Vietnam considers it a historic mistake, if not a moral catastrophe.

In that piece, I also pointed to editorials 20 years after 9/11 celebrating Representative Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, in the wake of those attacks. That AUMF authorized the use of “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” It permitted the 2001 invasion and disastrous 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and served as legal cover for the equally disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2021, press outlets that had once excoriated Lee for her vote were praising her for her courage and foresight. I imagine that, 20 years later, that praise was small comfort to her or any of the thousands of Cassandras who predicted that the U.S. would fail in Afghanistan — as it once had in Vietnam — or to the millions who knew (because the evidence was all around us) that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and so filled the streets of the world to protest that illegal and ill-judged war.

I ended the piece with a meditation on three young “Cassandras” — climate activists Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, and Martina Comparelli of Italy, who had traveled to Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. “Your pressure, frankly, is very welcome,” Italy’s then-prime minister Mario Draghi told them. “We need to be whipped into action. Your mobilization has been powerful, and rest assured, we are listening.”

“For the sake of the world,” I wrote then, “let us hope that this time Cassandra will be believed.”

You’re probably not surprised that the world has not acted to forestall the future foreseen by those young Cassandras. Today, Italy has a far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who complains to other European right-wingers about the “ultra-ecological fanaticism” she considers a threat to her country’s economy. Meanwhile, just like the 10 months before it, April 2024 was globally the hottest on record, a trend that shows no sign of abating. In fact, as I write this, temperatures topping 127 degrees Fahrenheit (another record) present a threat to human life in India and Pakistan.

Nor have our own right-wing politicians been willing to recognize the truth of the crisis humanity faces. Consider, for example, the Republican governors of Florida and Texas — two states recently ravaged by heat and extreme weather — who not only have refused to recognize the climate reality in front of them, but have actively prevented measures that could mitigate global warming’s effects on working people in their states. Both governors have, in fact, signed laws prohibiting local governments from requiring employers to implement heat-safety measures for their workers. Not to mention the brazen “quid-pro-quo” meeting Donald Trump had with top oil executives where he demanded a billion-dollar bribe for his election campaign, in return for wiping out Biden-era climate regulations.

What else did we know?

Well, there’sPalestine.

I’ll admit to having felt a surge of hope when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the 1993 Oslo Accord. That long-ago agreement between then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat began a lengthy, ultimately fruitless series of negotiations over the fate of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, areas seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

I remained hopeful, but I should have known better.

Hanan Ashrawi (long one of my personal heroes) did know better. In 1991, she’d been part of the Palestinian delegation to what came to be known as the Madrid Conference, convened by Spain at the behest of American President George H.W. Bush to try to find a way forward for the Palestinians and Israel. Other attendees represented the governments of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. What Ashrawi, a brilliant politician, scholar, and activist, didn’t know was that the process would also spawn secret talks between Israel and the PLO from which she and other Palestinian leaders would be excluded. Those talks culminated in the Oslo Accords (named for the city where they were negotiated).

Ashrawi immediately spotted a fundamental problem with those Accords, embodied in their first product, a letter of “mutual recognition” between the state of Israel and the PLO. “When I saw the letter, I was furious,” she told +972 Magazine in September 2023. Why? Because while the PLO formally recognized the state of Israel, and Israel, in turn, recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people, the letter said nothing about the establishment of an actual Palestinian state. It did, however, allow the PLO’s leadership to return from exile, something they had long desired.

In that interview, Ashrawi also said:

“I told Yasser Arafat that this agreement does not give him the basis for sovereignty or genuine access to the right to self-determination, that this is a functional administrative agreement… He was furious: ‘What, do you want an alternative leadership? Do you want the PLO not to return? That’s the whole point.’ I said the goal is for you to return freely, as a sovereign leadership.”

“One hates to be a Cassandra,” she added, “but unfortunately, I was 100 percent right.”

Unlike Arafat, Ashrawi had been living under the Israeli occupation and understood how it worked. Not having experienced the occupation in person, the exiled PLO leadership, she understood, simply couldn’t imagine Israel’s true intentions.

In truth, it took no Cassandra-like clairvoyance to see what would come of the Oslo agreements. Twenty years earlier, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had made Israeli intentions perfectly clear, explaining his plans for the occupied territories this way: “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlement in between the Palestinians and another strip of Jewish settlement right across the West Bank so that in 25 years’ time neither the U.N. nor the U.S., nobody will be able to tear it apart.”

Another major feature of Oslo was the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the entity empowered (and funded) by Israel to administer the occupied territories alongside the Israeli Defense Forces. This, too, Ashrawi had resisted when, “way back in the 1980s,” the Israelis offered a similar arrangement “and we refused; we said we are not collaborators. I remember telling the military governor at the time that we are quite capable of running our lives, but we will not work under you.” When the PLO agreed to the formation of the Palestinian Authority in 1993, Ashrawi understood all too well that the new entity’s institutional survival, and (not incidentally) the jobs of its many employees would eventually come to depend on how well it served the occupation.

It’s not surprising then that, drawing on the insights of people like Ashrawi, some of us predicted a version of Israel’s endgame for Gaza back in 2005 when Ariel Sharon’s government announced its plan to “disengage” from that strip of land, granting to the Palestinian Authority the duty to run what has since come to be known as the world’s largest open-air prison.

And when did we know it?

This capacity to predict the future is beginning to feel a bit déjà-vu-ish. Right now, it’s not too hard to foresee the approaching catastrophe in Gaza. Indeed, at my own university and across the country and the world, even in Israel, students are desperately trying to prevent a genocide already in progress. While the “grownups” debate the legal definition of genocide, those young people continue to point to the murderous reality still unfolding in Gaza and demand that it be stopped before it’s too late.

There are enough dangers looming right in front of us that you don’t need second sight to realize how bad it is. In addition to the clear and present dangers of climate change, not to mention the potential for a new global pandemic, there’s another foreseeable horror looming over this country, which, despite blaring sirens and flashing lights, the mainstream media seems unable to quite believe is real. Ignoring the clanging alarms, many media outlets continue to treat the 2024 election season as just another contest between two equally legitimate political parties.

The reality is entirely different. In this year’s presidential election, we are facing the potential elevation of a genuine instrument of fascism. I think it’s appropriate to characterize Donald Trump as an “instrument” of other people’s ideology, because I suspect that he personally has neither the knowledge nor the attention span to elaborate any political theory or coherent plan for the future. His previous presidency was, in fact, marked by chaotic, instinctive stabs in the direction of whatever target presented itself – or was presented to him by those seeking to influence his decisions. The world is probably lucky that the people surrounding Trump then were a greedy, self-serving lot.

We wouldn’t be that lucky in a second Trump presidency. It doesn’t take a prophet to imagine what such a regime might look like. All you have to do is dip into the 887-page Mandate for Leadershipthe Heritage Foundation has prepared for his future presidency. It lays out an explicit vision of an authoritarian government serving the interests of the wealthy, one likely to unfold under the auspices of Project 2025, a step-by-step plan to replace our democratic government apparatus with Heritage-vetted-and-trained political functionaries.

We don’t need Cassandra to predict that future. All we need to do is pay attention to what’s right in front of us right now.

Read Tom Engelhardt’s response here.

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