January 23, 2003
the Eve of War?
troop deployments, the tough talk about President Bush getting impatient
(the hardly-hidden assumption being that by virtue of occupying
the Oval Office he has the right and perhaps the duty to tell Saddam
Hussein or any other titular leader in the world what to do and
when and how to do it), the sudden flurry of activity by Arab nations
to offer Saddam a soft landing are all evidence on the side of war’s
inevitability. But there are countervailing currents in the body
politic, not least the relatively large-scale antiwar protests this
last weekend and decline in support for a war in public opinion
It might still be possible to avoid this war.
Warhawks have been urging President Bush to get out
front more often, more systematically and more coherently to build
support for the necessary war to oust Saddam Hussein. The trouble
is, from their perspective, is that he has been doing that, and
support for a war keeps declining– or at least support for spending
more time searching for alternatives to war to war keeps growing,
which is similar but not exactly the same thing.
Newsweek poll released Saturday, for example shows that by
a 60-35 margin Americans want the administration to spend more time
searching for an alternative to war. To be sure, 81 percent of Americans,
in the same poll, say they would back a war if it had the full backing
of the UN Security Council and concrete allied support. But without
Security Council backing and with no more than one or two real allies,
a majority oppose US military action.
In the CNN-Time poll – which showed Bush’s
overall approval rating declining to 53 percent from the mid-60s
in November – 50 percent say they approve of Bush’s handling of
foreign policy while 42 percent disapprove. But last July, before
the administration began it’s public campaign about the absolute
necessity of regime change or disarmament or almost anything Saddam
would hate, some 64 percent approved of his handling of foreign
it be that the more President Bush explains why it is necessary
to invade Iraq the fewer Americans believe him?
CASE FOR WAR
part this might be because the case for war – as opposed to the
case for Saddam Hussein being a nasty dictator without whom the
Iraqi people would almost certainly be better off – is so weak.
Yes, Saddam has defied UN resolutions. But few of
those resolutions were as airtight and bereft of diplomatic wiggle-room
as currently advertised, and Iraq is hardly the first country to
thumb its nose at the UN.
Iraqi regime might well be trying desperately to develop weapons
of mass destruction (that term, by the way, is a marvelous example
of modern propaganda, a neologism that evokes nukes but includes
weapons whose capacity for mass destruction is less than standard
military artillery). But while it might pose a potential threat
to some of its neighbors, mainly Israel, Iraq poses no likely threat
to the United States itself. And while it might pose a potential
threat, Iraq has been fairly well-behaved in recent years, however
sinister its ultimate intentions might be.
Although they might not know the precise words and
concepts with which to express themselves, I think a growing number
of Americans are becoming uncomfortable with the kind of war some
administration people want to get us into. I’ve written before about
the difference between the commonly-used concept of a pre-emptive
war as contrasted with a preventive war.
A pre-emptive war is a fairly well-defined concept,
and generally viewed as justified if you have fairly solid evidence
that an adversary is massing troops on your border, or assembling
warplanes to begin a bombing campaign within days or weeks. What
American warhawks are trying to pull off with Iraq is a preventive
war – one waged because you’re fairly sure a regime or leader will
pose a real danger somewhere down the line, even though the danger
is not apparent now. An increasing number of Americans are coming
to the conclusion that a preventive war is not the American way,
and could create more problems than it would solve.
several radio shows as a guest in the last week or so, one at Yale
obviously run by people of fairly leftist orientation, but the others
hosted by conservatives. Ken Hamblin, the black conservative out
of Colorado, asked pointed questions and seemed to be coming from
a pro-administration place – although he was even-handed and polite
enough that I’m not absolutely sure. But he was civil and respectful
in discussing the issues of war or peace. He grasped the difference
between a preventive and a pre-emptive war right away.
He did point to Iraqi challenges to the US and British-enforced
"no-fly" zone in Iraq as potentially aggressive challenges
that would require a response, and perhaps even a war. I suggested
that over the last decade or so the no-fly situation has actually
been fairly stable. The Iraqis do something provocative from time
to time and the Americans and British drop some bombs. The status
quo prevails. So far there’s no evidence that the Iraqis are actually
trying the break the no-fly regime by shooting planes out of the
sky – and it seems unlikely that they would succeed in doing significant
damage if they did so.
I also talked on Chuck Harder’s program, he of what
might be called the patriot Christian right with an edge, with a
guest host. We got several calls, all of them against the war, and
all of them, unless my ear for rhetoric is completely gone or they
were excellent actors, from conservative people. One was a former
Navy Seal who has nothing against American military action as a
general principle but is deeply opposed to an aggressive war with
Iraq. A couple of the callers made my opposition to the war sound
measured and moderate.
brings us to the antiwar demonstrations this weekend. Most of the
media covered them as I had expected, as a curious vestige of the
old Sixties Movement updated to the present – like military planners,
journalists are hardly immune from the fighting-the-last-war syndrome.
But it was also obvious that it wasn’t only aging hippies and crazed
students out on the streets.
demonstrations were larger than expected, and largely because people
whose agenda is war rather than the array of leftist causes many
of the organizers want to use the war issue to push or elevate,
decided to come out despite fear of being associated with a fringe
group. As we get closer to the real possibility of actual war, it
seems, more Americans who are not ordinarily politically active
or aware are beginning to have their doubts about an invasion of
Iraq jell in ways that make them want to do something to slow, if
not to stop, the steady progress of the war machine.
This is essential, it seems to me, if we are to have
a chance of stopping this war before an invasion is ordered. The
powers-that-be need to know that it is more than fringe leftists
who question this war. It might not stop the war in its tracks,
but it could provide a rationale for some doubters inside the administration
to have more solid footing when they argue for letting the inspectors
have more time or paying more attention to the opinions of putative
Of course, the possibility of broadening the movement
presents a potential dilemma for some of the organizers. It is clear
from the way the organizing has gone, that many of those in the
forefront want a platform for protest over a broad array of issues,
from Mumia Abu Jamal to racial profiling to globalization to hostility
to oil companies and other large firms, rather than a series of
events focused on stopping the war. To many, the war is only one
in an array of important issues, and the point of having protests
large enough to attract media attention is to get publicity for
as many of these issues as possible, hoping a few of them will stick.
This means that if the focus is to be on the single
issue of war and peace, the troops might have to take over from
the leaders and organizers. Not that you would want an assembly
in which all signs for other causes were banned or anything, but
it shouldn’t take too much leadership to convince most would-be
protesters that whatever the importance of other causes war is the
key issue right now. If there’s a chance of getting it stopped,
perhaps it would be worth it to keep some of the other causes under
the lid, or under radar, at least for a while.
There’s some evidence this might be happening. At
the San Francisco rally many of the signs were home-made rather
than being the products of late-night radical workshops, and most
of those were focused on the war itself rather than on ancillary
causes or even the somewhat more incendiary but potentially divisive
oil connection contention.
ways, this much visible opposition to the projected war in Iraq
is quite remarkable. A few months ago, in my more cynical moments,
I would have predicted that nothing even resembling a political
antiwar movement was likely to develop until we started seeing body
bags shipped home – or maybe until a draft that threatened a significant
number of college students was reinstated. It’s easy to forget that
the Vietnam antiwar movement was not a mass movement until relatively
late in the game – and that much of the steam was taken out by the
abandonment of the military draft.
But here are Americans aware of dangers even though
they might not face them personally and even though we haven’t started
to see the tangible results in the form of large numbers of dead
servicepeople yet. Perhaps they will yet make an impression on the
appalling people who rule us.
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