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Putting The Public Back In Public Policy


On Saturday (Feb. 15), we stood on the Capitol steps in Austin, Texas — across the street from the governor’s mansion where George W. Bush once lived — and spoke to 10,000 Texans who had gathered to reject Bush’s mad rush to war in Iraq.


The next morning we watched National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explain on a talk show why the views of those 10,000 people — and hundreds of thousands more across the United States, and millions more around the world who rallied and marched against a war — don’t really matter.


At first glance Rice seems right; increasingly public opinion has little to do with public policy, which is probably why Americans feel so alienated from politics.


In the past decade, the institutions that govern our lives have grown more unaccountable and remote. Take a crucial issue such as corporate power. Public outrage over Enron and similar scandals has been wide and deep. On the eve of the 2000 election, a Business Week survey showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans said business has gained too much power over too many aspects of their lives. The public would like to see corporate power curbed, yet politicians — Republicans and Democrats — take no serious action.


Of all the public policy issues, none seems as remote and beyond citizen influence as foreign policy. Even though opposition to U.S. wars persisted throughout the 1990s, organized protest dwindled as people begin to feel powerless.


In the past six months that trend has dramatically reversed, for several reasons.


First, after Sept. 11, 2001, everyone sees that foreign policy directly affects us at home; there is no denying that U.S. actions in the Middle East have helped fertilize the soil in which terrorism grows. People realize it is a mistake to leave such issues to foreign-policy “experts.”


Second, people understand that the Bush administration is manufacturing pretexts for war and that there is no credible threat; none of Iraq’s neighbors (with the exception of Israel, whose leaders favor a U.S. war on Iraq for their own interests) fears an Iraqi attack. The Hussein regime is brutal (which is not exactly news to the American officials who once supported Hussein), but few people believe that Bush is telling the truth about U.S. motivations. When administration officials claim a war has nothing to do with U.S. desires to maintain and extend its global hegemony — including greater control over the flow of oil and oil profits — people around the world simply laugh.


And, perhaps most importantly, people are beginning to believe once again that they can change things.


In public, Rice and other administration officials appear to pay little heed to opposition. They want to undermine people’s sense of their own power, instill a sense of futility and convince us of the inevitability of war. But in private, they no doubt are paying attention — and are nervous.


The same has been true in the past. In 1969, President Richard Nixon had a secret plan called “Duck Hook” to escalate dramatically the attack on Vietnam, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. Nixon officials planned to issue an ultimatum to North Vietnam on Nov. 1, 1969.


On Oct. 15, a half-million protesters descended on Washington, DC, and across the country millions took part in local demonstrations, church services and vigils as part of Vietnam Moratorium Day. Another major demonstration was in the works for the following month. Although the public would not know until years later, that opposition was a main reason Nixon canceled Duck Hook.


The Bush administration, as the Nixon administration before it, wants desperately to ignore the rising tide of worldwide and domestic opposition to this war. But the more we begin to believe in our own power and act on that belief, the harder it will be to ignore us.


That is why — even as Bush officials work desperately to block diplomatic solutions — all who reject the administration’s militarism and plans for empire must speak louder and press harder. That commitment by people of conscience — people who believe in their own power — has changed history in the past. Our commitment today can do the same.


Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Rahul Mahajan’s latest book is the forthcoming “The U.S. War on Iraq: Myths, Facts, and Lies.” He can be reached at rahul@tao.ca.

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