Cracks In The Ice

These have been tense days as we await Congress’s vote on Bush’s proposal for war powers to use against Iraq. By the time this article reaches print, the vote will have been taken and the focus of debate will have moved on, but the situation at this moment of deliberation is worth examining nonetheless since it affords a glimpse at the prospects of increased dissent in the coming years.

Let us review the events of the past two weeks. At mid-September, the administration’s drive to declare war on Iraq and effect “regime change” whether in consort with other nations or going it alone seemed to be proceeding without a hitch. With only a few exceptions, Congress and the major media, including public radio and television, had assumed the role of sideline commentators, whose criticisms, if they could be called that, were couched as mere footnotes to basic support for the President’s aims. In fact, the administration’s escalation into ever greater degrees of unconstitutionality and lawlessness in domestic as well as foreign affairs over the past year, and especially over the past few months, seemed to have unstoppable momentum. Whatever reckless measures he has proposed has been accepted without substantive debate and has been given the appearance of mere common sense in the media, while suggesting to the thoughtful how widespread the intimidation that Congress and media people are feeling in regard to voicing dissent must be.

Then, as if from out of the blue, Gore’s attack on Bush’s motives at the end of September made headlines and two days later, Daschle embarked on a tirade against Bush’s treatment of the Democrats in his war preparations. While the substance of their criticisms was fairly mild, the tone was for the first time not conciliatory, and this change in mood was truly startling–evincing the first cracks in what had become very thick ice in public debate. Then, in a matter of a single day, all manner of questions about Bush’s plans and aims started being aired and, ten days later, still are.

Behind the voicing of criticism by Congressional leaders, we find that, over the past six weeks, many people been contacting their representatives about these issues, the overwhelming majority weighing in against Bush’s war plans. At a time of deep freeze in terms of open political debate, the public has broken through.

It is true that the questions that are being aired at least in the media do not generally criticize Bush very deeply, certainly not enough to put a wrench in the plans of the president and his hawkish cohorts. In fact, they seem mostly to accept many of Bush’s premises, for instance, the need to remove Saddam and a simple view of the U.S. as the great defender of freedom. Yet we shouldn’t dismiss their significance on that account.

The mere fact that many people–more than the usual coterie of outspoken progressives–are raising critical questions at all in the face of undiluted propaganda is a noteworthy event, and raises the possibility that a fortuitous shift may be occurring in how a segment of the public thinks about foreign policy.

Certainly the public has responded to other world events in recent decades. But throughout the 80s and 90s, most people have been followed the lead of our policymakers in viewing our involvement vis a vis other countries as a caricature in which a powerful America intervenes or refrains from involvement as needed in a world we don’t know much about and aren’t motivated to investigate. At present, in contrast, a substantial share of the public is looking at the scene in which we are being asked to make our entrance with greater than usual scrutiny and seeing it as complicated and as making ethical demands on us. Our responsibility for world order is at this moment not just a knee-jerk assertion of our power in a world we take for granted but is being accompanied by a genuine query into the nature and needs of that world.

This impulse among a share of the public is being reflected not merely in the act of questioning itself but also in the specific questions that are swirling around in the public debate. The questions at this moment seem to fall into three general categories: what are the risks to ourselves of invading Iraq? What is our role in relation to the role of other nations in protecting the world order? And what principle is appropriate to determine when it is permissible to invade another country?

Implicit in this last question is an inquiry into the nature of the world order we are preparing to defend.

In each of these three categories we find traces of this new impulse of thinking more seriously about other countries. In terms of the question of risk, it is now common to assume that our responsibility is to repair Iraq after the eventuality that we decimated it, both physically and in terms of governance. Risk is being judged partly in regard to our ability to carry out this responsibility.

In connection with determining what our role as the single superpower should be vis a vis other powerful countries, the first argument of those opposing Bush’s plan, that we must first move through the United Nations, is certainly a recognition of the central role of other nations that the public has not vocalized in a long time.

In terms of assessing the public’s attitude in examining the principled basis for an invasion of Iraq, the task is more complicated since Bush seems to be professing three different principles of international order at the same time. Let’s look at them. The first approach Bush is promoting is a condition for invading Iraq based on that nation’s plausible potential for threat to others at a time in the future. The international order he implies is of nations whose inviolable sovereignty is based on those states not posing any possibility for future threat to other states. This seems to be the principle that Bush would like us to adopt, but the public’s skepticism is constantly pushing him to offer modified versions.

Hence we are presented with a second vision of world order: it is permissible to invade a country, violating its sovereignty, if it poses an immediate threat to other countries. This is the conventional approach in world politics today but it is noteworthy that, except in progressive publications , we don’t hear people advocating for it primarily out of a respect for the rule of law as it has developed. Rather, we are mostly hearing arguments that the approach is practical: if a nation’s threat is inactive we should follow convention and leave well enough alone since otherwise we risk endless entanglement. This lack of deference to what has constituted lawfulness is further evidence of a public interest now arising out of a dearth of concern about the subject, as if the issue of defining limits to violating sovereignty itself were created at the moment of our awareness of it. Still, peoples’ attraction to the principle has an element of humanity about it. There is a humility in not knowing the extent of the mess we face, a humility that evinces an appreciation of a world beyond our knowledge. This attitude may have been woven into the fabric of the conventional principle of sovereignty but it has not been in recent decades very often taken up in widespread public debate.

The third principle Bush is expounding he does so in repeated hints while never stating it explicitly. This is that countries that are not internally organized according to principles supported by world consensus–for instance dictatorships, and governments that have practiced barbarity against their own people–have no sovereign right against intervention to set things right. Though coming out of the mouth of Bush, this principle nonetheless appeals to an idealistic sense many people have not unlike the progressive response to calls for justice. Many find appealing a vision of nations open to account by others for their internal democratic functioning. While very problematic, we can still recognize in it an active desire to use our strength in the world in a way that responds to the troubles of others.

Both the second and third approaches to this question of defining a guiding principle of intervention are attempts to discern the best outcome for subjected peoples as much as for ourselves. Where one emphasizes the limits of our knowledge, the other focuses on our ability to improve a dire situation. What is new about both is that they are calculations the broad public is making based on more than a mere flippant appreciation for the plight of other nations.

How do we make sense of this seeming increase in the number of Americans’ interested in the world? My hunch is that it is connected to our emotional response to the attacks of 9/11/01. That moment in our national experience bears reviewing. That the world changed on September 11th , at least for Americans, has been acknowledged by people and broadcast by the media to so many times that it is a cliché; yet how the world actually changed for us is a slippery matter. Generally in the past six months, when the idea has been put into words, “9/11″ is proposed as the time when we woke up to the threat of terror in the world, to the awareness that “it could happen here.” And certainly that interpretation has been spoken incessantly in support of Bush’s ever-increasing belligerence in the world. Yet we need to remember that in the first two months after the attack what most people meant by it was mainly the visceral feeling of tragedy and how it slowed us down to feel the humanity of those around us and even in other countries much more than we had ever experienced it in the recent past. This was a sense of our broader surroundings that didn’t easily fit into an ideology, a basic experience of connection to others more than a set of ideas.

My suspicion is that the current upsurge in people’s skepticism about Bush’s vision of pre-emptive invasion is an expression of the lingering impact of 9/11. In asking, “why now?” many seem to be sensing that Bush’s clamoring for action is not a natural outgrowth of events, that it is not, in other words, grounded in a palpable feeling of the dynamic world. Their uneasiness is not only due to the fact that his aggressive posturing may prove foolhardy, but more basically, that it is based on a sense of the world that is too abstract.

In fact, the neo-conservative vision that Bush promotes is in its entirety rooted in circumstances that may no longer be current for an increasing portion of the public. Neo-conservatism was formulated, as we know, in the mid-70s. It was not much earlier that the long-term malaise we have come to take for granted in the United States and much of the Western world set in, the often-noted difficulty many people have feeling that there is a ground to their values beyond simple personal choice. I believe that this specific development was the result of the feeling in the West, starting in the early 60s after ten years of technological innovations, that human progress had rendered nature no longer an independent force in the world. At that time, we lost the arena in which the possibility of death was an ever-present collective experience. As a result, we no longer had any basis for feeling that fate, the palpable feeling of a reality existing beyond human power and thus the basis for meaning and values, was something we faced jointly as a society or world.

Under these conditions, a sense of a national or global community became very difficult to maintain for most people. Rather, at the deepest level of meaning, we each were left to live in our own private worlds. In this situation, several orientations arose for coping with it. One was the pragmatic approach, and akin to it, the “post-modern” approach, in which the lack of a deeper ground of meaning was acknowledged and the situation simply made the best of. Another was immersion in a symbolic community such as fundamentalism and also some forms of sub-cultural identity where meaning could be imagined jointly in one’s smaller community while holding at bay the fragmenting presence of the wider society and world. Neo-conservatism was another approach to the vacuum of collective feeling that opened up.

As Randall Hanson, Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Arizona State University, points out in an article in process, neo-conservatism’s key innovation as a political and social theory was to conceive of society strictly as a set of market interactions. Community became an empty concept, reduced to nothing except the market itself. Succeeding decades have seen this vision of society applied domestically in a largely successful attempt to cut out or re-orient social welfare programs, to shape development in poor nations and in post-Communist nations along strictly market lines, and now, finally, in full metal jacket, to lock the international order into the same image of market functioning. In a context where a larger community cannot be felt while the market can certainly be seen, the illusion that the market is the community is one way to make the world reassuringly comprehensible. Given adherence to that equation, the severe hardship and the losses to rich aspects of culture and community that result in practice have hardly registered. Neither have resistance to marketization or a preference for alternative development models except as obstacles along the way.

In this highly abstract mental arena it is a shockingly short leap to an “all means necessary” approach to the goal. A preemptive defense strategy and, even more chilling, the aim of global dominance, are seen by neo-conservatives as the only failsafe avenues to the establishment of worldwide freedom of enterprise. Next to the substantiality of the market, matters such as other nations having the safety and dignity of not being attacked without imminent cause and of having defense capabilities of their own simply don’t have weight.

A segment of the public is now demonstrating that it is viewing Bush’s abstract worldview from across a divide, from a sense of the world, I surmise, not entirely based in malaise and a vacuum of community, but in the still-resonating feeling of 9/11 when people faced the threat of death as a collective national/international experience for the first time since nature lost its felt force in the early 60s. For the first time in recent decades, many people may be feeling a part of the larger social world enough that they are becoming resistant to simplistic fantasies about it like Bush’s.

Of course, an increased sympathy for others in the world is not an attitude necessarily immune to manipulation for warlike ends, particularly at a time when the media is little more than a mouthpiece for the administration. Further, many people have undoubtedly hardened their thinking in the direction of greater militarization under the administration’s harangues, though, paradoxically, Bush’s constant harping on the theme of terror may also be keeping the palpable feeling of connectedness alive. All in all, we certainly cannot predict the direction of popular opinion in the current climate. Yet it is heartening that the past few weeks have shown some new proclivities among the public, and there is strong reason to believe that the shift might have a deep root.

This new development presents new opportunities for the left, but we need to attune ourselves differently in order to take advantage of them. We have become accustomed for so long to not being heard outside of our own circles that most often, in speaking out, we place our hopes of getting through simply on the authority of truth without paying much attention to the assumptions that determine the majority’s willingness and ability to hear what we say. That so many are now asking questions means that we may have a chance to begin a real public dialogue for the first time in many years. But we need to realize that the people we are speaking to are not simply blank slates. After decades of public relations for the global market, most people are closer to George W. Bush in their beliefs than they are to progressives.

We need to understand the points of view that the public holds and look for where prodding could realistically be expected to lead to further questioning. The Democrats’ recent criticism of the president’s motives is an example of this. Here is another example I am not seeing tried very much. Over the past two months, the media, even so-called public media, have been conspicuously behind in reporting the range of questions that have been on the minds of many. Progressives could be raising this point to others who have been wondering about Bush’s plans, since this situation suggests further questions about the public’s disenfranchisement from media access. There are certainly other points that can encourage people to look at the bigger picture. We need to find them. The good new is, we may very well have someone who is willing to listen for the first time in a long time.

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