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No Time for “Told You So”: Left Vision, Iraqi Quagmire, and 2004


I first spoke about 9/11 one week after the September terror attacks at a big teach-in at Northern Illinois University. I concluded my talk with a series of dark observations and warnings.

“When war machines move into gear,” I said, “ordinary people die in mass, rich people get richer, politicians restrict civil liberties, and reactionaries ride high. The events of September 11,th” I added, “are a great gift to the nationalist right wing in this country. Unless checked by an aroused citizenry, they will lead to significant reductions in American civil liberties and to a massive and regressive diversion of resources from social to military and surveillance expenditure. It is the structurally encoded role of the so-called ‘mainstream’ (really corporate) media,” I added, “to prevent us from thinking in a critical and open-minded way about what has happened and what we might to do to reduce the cycle of violence and repression” and to :whip us into a war fever.”

Nine-Eleven, I argued, meant tears for us but it was an opportunity for them – the masters of war and empire and repression and inequality.

Pretty much everything I warned about has come to pass and the dominant media behaved pretty much as I thought. But there was nothing original or brilliant about what I said. My admonitions and analyses were pretty much what other, smarter people on the left like Noam Chomsky and John Pilger were saying and the dangers I outlined were obvious to anyone who had seriously studied American society and policy past and present.

Not-So Clairvoyant

And I was soon to learn how non-clairvoyant I was in a more specific way. For a retrospectively surprising amount of time, many progressives (myself included) doubted that the White House would transform America’s post-9/11 “war on terrorism” into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. We didn’t really think that Bush and his “posse” as he like to call them would really dare to try so bizarre (to us) a transformation, moving from “real” threats (al Qaeda and its ilk) to such an obviously (it seemed) concocted and imaginary danger abroad.

In reality, of course, Bush’s creepy, crypto-fascist Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called for an attack on Iraq in a national security meeting with Bush present held on the morning of September 12th, 2001. “Iraq was temporarily spared,” notes the British journalist John Pilger, relying on Woodward, “only because Colin Powell, the secretary of state, persuaded Bush that ‘public opinion has to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible.’”

In June of 2002, the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning Richard N. Haas, asked Condaleeza Rice “whether they should talk about the pros and cons of confronting Iraq.” “Don’t bother,” Rice told Haas, “the president has made a decision.” By then it was all about military timing and setting up public opinion with the help of a media-coordinated PR campaign to build up Iraq as a terrible threat to Americans and to world peace.

The Uses of Iraq

How did we get it so wrong? Here I will only note that some of the things that worked against war in socially and democratically attuned minds worked for war in the regressive, authoritarian minds of the masters. The fact that Iraq was not in fact a threat and was actually a weak and battered land with minimal capacity to defend itself much less to attack anyone else made it an especially welcome target in the view of people like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Precisely because it was weak and defenseless, that country was a good stage on which to demonstrate America’s newly enabled post-9/11 determination to unilaterally rule the world by sheer military force and to engage in so-called “pre-emptive” wars wherever and whenever desired, in bold defiance of international law and standard norms of decent state behavior.

To progressives, the massive estimated financial expenses of war and occupation seemed contrary to the Bush administration’s determination to slash taxes for those most able to pay – the super wealthy. But, course, the budget-busting combination of massive regressive tax cuts and dramatically escalated “defense” (imperial) spending was part of the Bush administration’s well-funded neo-Reaganite project of starving the left hand (egalitarian, social and democratic) and feeding the right (aristocratic, regressive, and repressive) hand of the public sector.

At the same time, the build up to war was consciously designed to keep a critical margin of the US electorate focused on foreign adventures rather than on their own declining retirement accounts, employment prospects, leisure time, health coverage, civil liberties, social security and so forth. As James Madison once said, “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.” This was the core of chief Republican and Bush political adviser Karl Rove’s strategy in the mid-term elections of 2002.

Trouble in Iraq, Trouble At Home

We all know what’s happened since early May, when Bush landed on the deck of an offshore carrier in what the New York Times called “a triumphant Reaganesque finale.” American opinion has moved against the illegal, immoral, and unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq. Significant WMDs have not been found and US occupation troops are facing regular guerilla resistance, supported by no small part of Iraq’s population. Demoralized GIs have been using the Internet to send out depressing stories of misery from a terrible dessert front, even while Bush (himself a Vietnam-era military deserter) dared Iraqi militants to attack “our boys.” The Israel-Palestine conflict is in full escalation, not tamed (as the war hawk’s claimed) but worsened by the American “war.”

The White House has been forced to admit that it failed to plan adequately for the post-war “reconstruction.” Newspapers carry pictures of small children throwing rocks at Americans; you have to do a double take to realize those aren’t Palestinian kids and Israeli tanks. The Bush administration’s related efforts to obtain foreign financial and military assistance to maintain an occupation that most of the world opposed are challenged by the war’s disastrous impact on overseas views of the United States. The war and especially the occupation have been opened up to some significant critical scrutiny in the mainstream media, with the dreaded “q word” – quagmire – admitted to the discussion, supported in part by Donald Rumsfeld’s recently “leaked memorandum” admitting that America is in for “a long hard slog,” in Iraq – a rather different tune than he and Wolfowitz were singing in March.

Meanwhile, Americans remain impatient – despite very recent and partial (particularly as regards employment) signs of economic “recovery” – with a failing wealth-top-heavy socieconomic system society dragged down in part by absurdly expensive military costs. Reflecting all this, Bush’s popularity numbers have fallen back into the pre-9/11 vicinity.

No Time to Be Smug

It’s all pretty consistent with the warnings given by those who opposed the war, a group that included many within the US establishment, probably including even Bush pere. Still, this is no time for smug “I told you so” satisfaction on the American antiwar left. Being right and a $1.50 will get you a ride on my city’s Elevated Rail Line and there’s quite a bit to cause us concern as we look to the obviously crucial 2004 election.

All too predictably, perhaps, the mainstream critique of Bush’s Iraq policy is stuck in much the same moral backwater that characterized permissible mainstream criticism of the Vietnam War. The main problem, by this critique, is that the occupation doesn’t appear to be “working” all that well for US: it’s costing too much for US in terms of our money and lives, and it’s costing US too much in terms of global good will, and so on. All of those concerns are real and to be encouraged, of course, but one wonders if the mainstream critics might like to say a bit more about the fact that Bush’s invasion transgressed the highest edict listed in the books of post-Nuremberg international law.

And a bit more, perhaps about the Iraqi people. It was a bit of a shock to anyone who has followed the heroic research conducted and disseminated by Iraqi Body Count (IBC, available online at www.iraqbodycount.net/) to read the following comment from the antiwar Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, presented without comment on the front page of the liberal New York Times (November 4, 2003): “There are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn’t be dead if that resolution hadn’t passed and we hadn’t gone to war.” Repeat that phrase to yourself and then go to the IBC web site, which shows quite definitively that more than 7800 Iraqis died during the American attack, better understood as an invasion and occupation than a “war.”

As currently constructed, the current mainstream critique seems on occasion to be an argument for sending in more troops to “do the job right.” Also disturbing it its implicit and sometimes explicit notion that America’s pre-invasion policy of “containment” was “working” just fine – a brutal judgment consigning to history’s dustbin the 1 million Iraqis murdered by the US-imposed sanctions campaign.

There is more to be anxious about in the next year. There’s the massive power of money and the spin that money buys, much of which will be dedicated to portraying Iraq as a success regardless of the facts. There’s the likelihood of White House saber-rattling over new threats both imagined (Syria, Iran, North Korea) and real (including possible new terror attacks deeply encouraged by US policy), something we should expect on the basis both of the administration’s political experience (9/11 was Bush’s political heaven for more than a year) and of the administration’s published doctrine, which targets Iraq as only one episode in a broader “grand imperial strategy” of total global dominance.

There’s the sheer chutzpah of the Bush Team, a daring cowboy willingness to defy all the normal obstacles of democratic opinion and once-standard norms of political conduct at home and abroad. There’s the possibility that Bush will benefit from a purely fortuitous upturn in the capitalist business cycle (or the spun illusion or exaggeration of such an upturn) and of course there’s the scandalous weakness and division of the Democrats, fed by their complicity in the attack on Iraq and their refusal to make strong connections between the struggle against plutocracy and racism at home and the struggle against empire abroad. There’s the overly reactive capacity and mindset of the antiwar forces and there’s division within the US peace movement.

How to Think About Elections

Among the many lessons for the left, one is clear and recently demonstrated for us by the people of Venezuela and Bolivia: elections are important but they must not be seen as an endgame, something where you get the “bad guys out” and then go home, saying “mission accomplished.” Elections should be approached as occasions in the process of building deep, durable and richly textured movements for justice that help lift the best possible and least harmful candidates into power but work just as fiercely to keep officeholders honest and to defend them whenever necessary against the armies of the perpetual dark reactionary night.

Paul Street (pstreet99@sbcglobal.net) is the author of Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Writings and America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004).

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