The War That Can Be Stopped

As I write, the US Congress has just passed by an overwhelming margin a resolution authorising President Bush to launch a unilateral pre-emptive attack on Iraq . The world needs to understand that there is no force in the US at present able to control its aggression, no matter how ruthless or how reckless. US elite and popular support for this attack is fragile, but the power to shatter it lies in the hands of the rest of the world, particularly Britain.

In the wake of 9/11 a faction within the militant right campaigned to attack Iraq, but top Administration officials instead put out the line that Iraq was not involved with 9/11, anti-US terrorism, or al-Qaida. By sometime this summer, however, the “attack Iraq” faction had won and military preparations were under way.

The Administration’s commitment to an attack on Iraq developed in stealth, which largely forestalled opposition from the left. The peace and anti-imperialist movements were focused on Afghanistan, repression of immigrants and other human rights violations in the US, and the Israeli assaults on the Palestinians. There was an active campaign to lift the Iraq sanctions, but little “pre-emptive” response to the secretly emerging threat of war.

When members of Congress went home for the August recess, Bush and the War on Terrorism were riding high in the polls and most Democrats were hoping to focus the November Congressional elections on poor economic performance by simply saying “me, too” to everything George Bush said about the War on Terrorism. But they met an unexpected wave of concern from their constituents about the rush toward war with Iraq.

This concern was primarily a spontaneous expression of people who remembered Vietnam and subsequent US wars and didn’t want to be dragged blindly into another one. Members of Congress reported a barrage of unexpected questions expressed at town meetings and county fairs. Local people organised delegations to visit members of Congress. For example, in western Connecticut where I live, a group without particular organisational affiliations collected over 1000 signatures and delivered them to their legislators.

This effort was encouraged by various organisations, such as MoveOn (www.moveon.org), a small national organisation that specialises in promoting on-line citizen action campaigns whose efforts led to meetings with every Senator’s office. Because of the highly fluid situation, this was an exceptional occasion in which the often-ritualistic advice to “call your Congressman” really had a historic impact.

Provoked by this expressed scepticism and by the obvious recklessness of Bush administration policymaking, a wave of elite challenges emerged in August and September. Brent Scowcroft and other top advisors to and cronies of former President George Bush, Sr., spoke out against a unilateral US attack. So did ultra-right House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

The Administration counterattacked with Bush’s famous UN speech and with a farrago of heightened charges against Iraq. Most members of Congress, while still expressing doubts, retreated before this barrage and voted for a slightly modified version of Bush’s war authorisation resolution.

Meanwhile, the barrage from the public was unrelenting. Members of Congress reported thousands of phone calls, often opposing war fifty or one hundred to one. E-mailings from MoveOn.org and other organisations provided suggestions for content and targeting, but these simply helped coalesce a desire to act that was bubbling up in response to events.

Only in the last few days have anti-war demonstrations, often with five to ten thousand participants, emerged in US cities. A major national demonstration has been called for Washington DC for late October.

The role of other countries, particularly Britain, will be crucial to what happens here next. Those opposed to war against Iraq under any circumstances are a small minority. In the latest Gallup poll at the time of going to press, 79 percent of Americans say they would support US military action against Iraq with United Nations support; the same number would support it if other countries participated. But the figures change radically without international support. If the US has to invade Iraq alone, only 38 per cent are in favor while 59 per cent oppose. And if the UN opposes invading Iraq only 37 per cent support it while 59 per cent oppose.

Elite opinion, too, depends on the international configuration. Longstanding military and foreign policy doctrines have held that the US should not go to war alone. The top Pentagon brass, the Brent Scowcrofts, and the Al Gores are deeply worried, not only by the predictably catastrophic consequences of unilateral US war on the Middle East, but also by the threat to the unity of Western Europe and the US that so long was the cornerstone of US security policy.

If the UN Security Council refuses to support a US invasion, if other countries continue to withhold their support, and especially if public opinion and the peace movement block Britain from participation in an attack, the Bush administration will find the political base for unilateral war against Iraq crumbling. Otherwise, it looks like the Bush team will have the opportunity to test their hypothesis regarding the opportunity for US global domination.

Jeremy Brecher is an American labor and social historian and the author of twelve books including Strike!  and Globalization from Below (South End Press)

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