Bear Left! logo: a road sign with a left arrow

Bear Left!

Where else would you get your leftist bearings every week?

Volume III, Number 11: 23 March 2003

The Fight for America's Soul

Tim Francis-Wright

The full-fledged war on Iraq has finally begun. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have rightly joined millions of citizens worldwide in protesting the morality and legality of the actions of the Bush administration. Bolstering their numbers are majorities in European polls and substantial minorities in American polls that share their displeasure. Even in America, many self-described supporters of the war are nonetheless uneasy with the zeal for war that George Bush and his administration have shown.

So many aspects of the war in Iraq could redound poorly for the United States, for Iraq and its neighbors, or for peace in general. But Iraq could be just one aspect of a wider struggle. Important men who advise the Bush administration from both within and without see the war against Iraq as just the first installment of a number of battles. Their vision is more consistent with the empires of yore, empires now rued in the history books, than with the promise of democracy. The anti-war movement must ensure that Iraq does not become the new paradigm for American foreign policy.

As it did in 1991, the American government paints its war against Iraq as both necessary and just. In 1991 as well as 2003, the American government faces loud protests against its actions. That, however, is about the end of the similarities. In 1991, Iraq had invaded and annexed Kuwait. In 1991, the United Nations Security Council was about as united as those nations ever get in opposing Iraq's actions. In 1991, a host of nations provided troops and material support to a real coalition against Iraq. In 1991, the goal of the coalition forces was limited. In 2003, Iraq has provided no tangible provocation for war. In 2003, most of the United Nations Security Council preferred weapons inspections instead of hostilities. In 2003, virtually all of the troops and armaments come from the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2003, the goal of the American and British forces is no less than, and perhaps more than, complete overthrow of the Iraqi government.

Indeed, many of the justifications for the war effort have left the realm of facts and entered the domains of confusion, mendaciousness, and hypocrisy. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are a main rationale for war. United Nations weapons inspectors, however, found no actual evidence of anything massively destructive in Iraq. Other countries, including the United States and many of its allies—Britain, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel—have actual weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons. (Yes, the worst-kept secret in Washington is that Israel has the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East.)

Fully half of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government were behind the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. On its own, this kind of solecism is unremarkable: it is comparable, for example, than the proportion of Americans who believe in angels or UFOs. Politicians do not call on beliefs in angels or little green men to justify war. George Bush and his administration have consistently alleged that Iraq supported and abetted al-Qaeda without providing a scintilla of actual evidence.

The administration has talked far less about the aftermath of a successful military campaign. Already, Turkey has sent commandos into northern Iraq to prevent Kurdish groups from forming an independent and democratic state. In the absence of a strongman in Baghdad, there may be little to bind together Shiite and Sunni Muslims in central and southern Iraq, never mind the Kurdish groups in the north. Even if postwar Iraq avoids the chaos and bloodbath of a civil war, the question of redevelopment looms large. A successful war is likely to inflict billions of dollars of damage to Iraq's major cities and infrastructure, which have already suffered from over a decade of intermittent bombing by the United States. Furthermore, establishing a democratic government from whole cloth is hardly an easy task. Despite the egalitarian nature of its founding documents, the United States itself took a very long time to extend political and economic rights to more than a plurality of its population. Iraq, by contrast, has suffered centuries of rule by tyrants, emperors, and governors, few keen on democracy.

The anti-war movement has rightly criticized George Bush and his administration for ignoring the perils of prosecuting war and the pitfalls of even a successful war. Iraq, however, may be just part of a far larger mess. Key members of the Bush administration—including Vice President Dick Chency, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, National Security Council member Elliott Abrams, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—are associated with the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Their group calls for a newly aggressive foreign policy that calls for attacking adversaries or even potential adversaries before they could threaten American hegemony. In 1998, several PNAC members wrote a letter to Bill Clinton urging him to undertake military and political efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In 2000, PNAC published a report urging the United States to quash any threat to its military superiority.

The PNAC alumni in the Bush administration have been proponents of military action against Iraq since the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks. Furthermore, they have been the architects of a foreign policy that eschews multilateral agreements and values military might.

The Bush administration has used the fear and uncertainty created by the 11 September attacks as a springboard for a misguided foreign policy. The United States cannot allow other countries to share its doctrine of preventive war, lest its adversaries adopt it and decide to attack first. Even the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction, with its reliance on the horror of nuclear weapons one benefit, that it discouraged fighting all-out wars. Worse yet, the doctrine of preventive war is a doctrine better fitting an empire than a democracy. Already, the PNAC alumni in the Bush administration talk of forcing regime change in North Korea, in Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Certainly these countries would be better off with Western-style democracies in place of their current governments, but democracy seldom flourishes at the end of a barrel of a gun, even an American gun. Democracy is best spread by example.

Since its founding, America has presented the world with a mass of contradictions. Its constitution and laws promised religious, economic, and political freedoms that were radical in their day and are commonplace today thanks largely to the success of the American polity. But American freedom often was not as full in practice as it was on paper. Freedom was not concrete for African-Americans until almost two centuries of independence has passed. Very few women could vote until the republic almost reached its sesquicentennial. Even today, gay and lesbian Americans face discrimination that, in most of the country, is encouraged by custom and protected by law.

It is hardly unique, then, to find that America is once again a land of contradictions. The land where modern democracy started is also the land whose leaders would build a modern-day empire. The American people, however, can force their government to live up to the promise of democracy. It is up to the anti-war movement to lead the way.