February 19, 2002

EXPANDING THE WAR: THE PUBLIC OPINION BATTLE

The past week saw some significant developments in the struggle over American war aims, developments likely to foreshadow larger battles ahead. Bush's State of the Union speech has altered the landscape, signaling to the world the president's seeming acquiescence to the most bellicose voices within his administration.The campaign against Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban – the groups responsible for the 9-11 atrocity – was moved to the back burner. A new war against "evil" as defined by the Bill Kristol-Paul Wolfowitz-Weekly Standard neoconservative group – is now being prepared.

But last week saw the emergence of new buds of opposition. Two of the country's most liked, respected, and, importantly, most centrist columnists wrote pieces arguing that the administration was carrying out a bait and switch operation, trying to shift the war against terrorists who attacked Americans into a war against Muslim states we don't like (or, more precisely, states that the neoconservative faction in the administration, opinion and think tank worlds doesn't care for).

Conservative voices in the anti-war movement – this site, Pat Buchanan, somewhat indirectly Robert Novak, Chronicles Magazine, and several others have been making this argument for months. For the most part, antiwar voices on the Right have not questionedthe need to destroy al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban, and has shed no tears over the alleged mistreatment of captured al-Qaeda fighters. But they don't want that necessary war to lead into a wider campaignagainst Middle Eastern countries where the US has adversarial relationships, but which pose no real threat to the United States.

Now Michael Kinsley and Chris Matthews, nothing if not solid centrists, have taken up the same point. Neither holds any brief for the Iranian mullahs, Saddam Hussein, or the North Korean dictatorship. Neither is a pacifist, isolationist, or movement antiwar person. Where they part company with Bush and the War Party claque is in recognizing that Bush has no authority fromCongress nor American public opinion to transform the war against terror into war against countries we don't like for other reasons. The pro-war factionhopes that the American people somehow won't notice that their outrage against those who killed 3,000 Americans is being used to pursue a war against Israel's potential enemies, a campaign long desired by the Beltway neocons.

The Kinsley and Matthews columns are indisputable evidence that alarm over Bush's bait and switch operation is seeping into the mainstream.If, as I believe likely, these two columnists are harbingers of broader shift in middle-of-road opinion, it could save the United States from the disastrous quagmire of war against much of the Muslim world.

In support of this optimistic interpretation, it ought to be noted that some of the principled neoconservative war pundits are beginning to worry about support for the wider war among the public. Both Ronald Radosh and David Brooks have written recently about Norman Podhoretz's "World War 4" address, delivered last week at the American Enterprise Institute. Podhoretz worried that Bush's war against the "Axis of Evil" could bring about internal divisions as sharp as the United States faced in the 1960's.In discussing this possibility, Radosh referred hopefully to the long "Just War letter" produced by the Institute for American Values'David Blankenhorn and signed by 60 academics, several of them quite prominent and coming from a wide range on the political spectrum.

The letter is long, nuanced, and as Podhoretz rightly noted in his address, eerilydefensive in tone, as if designed to account for every possible objection. Its bottom line is that United States military response to the 9/11 terrorists is justified according to Just War doctrine. The fact is that I (and I imagine, other writers on this site) would have few objections to signing the Blankenhorn statement ourselves. But it is curious to see it being wheeled out by the War Party now – (it was also touted last week on the Wall Street Journal's pro-wider war editorial page) as if it could serve as a religious/philosophical foundation stone for an expanded campaign against Iran and Iraq.For unless there are clauses in it too obscure for me to penetrate, nothing in the letter would justify a pre-emptive American strike against Bagdhad and Teheran because they might one day seek to develop the same kinds of weapons already in the arsenals of Pakistan, India, and Israel. Indeed, the letter is being used as something that many of its signers almost certainly did not intend – a document to ratify the transmutation of the Just War against al-Qaeda into a pre-emptive war against Iran and Iraq, a bait and switch for the PhD's.

Despite its success in inserting recklessly belligerent phrases into Bush's State of the Union speech, the War Party occupies a vulnerable position in the broad geography of American politics. Its core members understand full well that the American rage against terrorists who attacked us is not the same as an American desire to take out every country that has ever looked cross-eyed at Israel. They worry, with increasing openness, that American public opinion will not support a wider war, and (more quietly) that Bush himself will eventually retreat from that precipice. They have instigated opinion molding exercises that were hardly necessary in October and November, (when virtually everyone understood why we needed to rout bin Laden and the Taliban); they now face for the first time open complaints about the transmutation of war aims from prominent, popular and indisputably centrist sources.Elected officials may not be that far behind, and if a sensible peace movement gets rolling quickly enough, the United States may yet save itself from embarking on a tragic blunder.

Text – only printable version of this article

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