War & partisan politics

A French Catholic journalist and priest recently visited Commonweal’s office (don’t tell Attorney General John Ashcroft about this possible collaboration with the "enemy"). Naturally the conversation turned to the war in Iraq, the French-American imbroglio in the UN Security Council, and the likely course of future events. Our visitor was not uncritical of his own government, yet bewildered by the Bush administration’s aggressive foreign policy. He asked how and why President George W. Bush remains so popular with the American people. Why wasn’t the American antiwar movement more effective? Why haven’t the Democrats resisted the president’s rasher actions?

There is really only one answer to these questions: Osama bin Laden.

We tried to explain. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the nation united behind the president. Convinced that terrorists willing to murder three thousand innocent civilians were capable of even worse, the American people put their trust in the president and in the national government. "War" was the term Bush used to describe the threat, and the solidarity necessary to fight a war was sought. In Congress, the Democrats embraced a bipartisan approach, especially in foreign policy. The war in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and hunt down Al Qaeda was judged just and necessary by most, both here and abroad. Its apparent success strengthened the president’s credibility, and that in turn further strengthened his hand politically. (Few seem to care about what is going on in Afghanistan now, least of all the president.)

Meanwhile, at home, government’s powers of surveillance, detention, and prosecution were expanded. "Homeland" security brought machine-gun carrying soldiers into airports and train terminals. Americans were instructed to be vigilant in public places. Periodic warnings that another terrorist attack was imminent became a disquieting feature of daily life.

In times of national emergency, the power of government inevitably expands. So does the power of the presidency. Even when one senses that the truth is being distorted or withheld for political reasons, it is difficult to second-guess the precautionary steps taken by elected officials. Is not the danger real? Have not our enemies sworn to destroy us?

So, when the administration suddenly set its sights on Iraq, many Americans were inclined to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. Hadn’t his actions already forestalled further terrorist attacks?

Now, with Iraq "liberated," Bush appears more politically unassailable than ever. Still, victory in Iraq has raised more questions that it has answered. The ever shifting and essentially incoherent argument made to justify the war revealed that Bush’s larger antiterrorist strategy lacks a cogent rationale and logical endpoint. Before the Security Council the administration contended that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) presented a clear and imminent danger to the world. Yet the Iraqis did not use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces, nor have any been found. That does not mean Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD, but it does lend more weight to those who argued that UN inspections were working. Nor has any compelling evidence been produced linking Iraq with Al Qaeda and 9/11. Yet that alleged link was the justification that, more than any other, Bush stressed in making the case for war to the American people. One gets the sinking feeling that the president thinks victory in war makes the truth or falsehood of the reasons given for war irrelevant. It doesn’t.

The administration’s Orwellian language and reasoning are increasingly evident. Think about the constant reiteration of the terms "coalition," "shock and awe," the advertising slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom," Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of the wholesale looting and chaos that followed the war as "untidy," the president’s so-called growth and jobs budget proposal. This sort of disingenuous language is typical of an administration that believes if it repeats something often enough it will become true. Polls show, for instance, that most Americans believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11. To his discredit, Bush has done everything he can to encourage that false impression. It is not a small lie or an unimportant one.

Too many of the administration’s pronouncements seem aimed at anesthetizing the brain of the American people. Victory has been triumphantly declared in Iraq, and it is assumed that this has increased American security. But it is not at all evident that the defeat and occupation of Iraq have made the United States safer from attack. (If, as the administration now suggests, Iraq’s WMD were smuggled into Syria, is not the danger of terrorist attack as great as ever?) Perhaps, in demonstrating in no uncertain terms that the United States will retaliate against its enemies (even if not attacked by that particular enemy), the war has intimidated potential terrorists or the governments who harbor them. Making America feared, in fact, appears to be the desired aim. Iraq’s defeat, however, may embolden radical Islamists and Arab nationalists, as has every previous Arab defeat at the hands of the West. By the same logic, perhaps the presence of U.S. troops on Iran’s border will give the imams there second thoughts about sponsoring terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons. Or perhaps the occupation of Iraq has convinced Iran that only a nuclear deterrent will stop the United States.

What does seem certain is that Bush foresees no end to the "war against terrorism." Not coincidentally, the open-ended nature of the "war" dovetails neatly with Bush’s own political ambitions. As long as the threat of surreptitious attack exists, as long as the rhetoric of war resonates, and as long as the enemy’s identity remains shadowy, Bush will keep his political opponents on the defensive. Predictably, the president plans to make national security the theme of his reelection campaign. In a shameless effort to exploit the anniversary of 9/11, the Republican Convention will be staged in New York City in September, rather than August. All American presidents wrap themselves in the flag, but Bush’s willingness to make the memory of three thousand murder victims an integral part of his reelection strategy seems especially crass.

In short, the answer to our French visitor’s question is that there is no easy way to take partisan politics out of the war on terrorism. Still, Americans can insist that the truth be told: about the reasons for war in Iraq, and about the consequences of our actions there; about "democracy" and "peace" in Afghanistan; about the elusive nature of the terrorist threat; about the complicated dangers WMD present (think of North Korea); about the importance of not betraying democracy in the fight to preserve it. Even about the administration’s "patriotic" tax cuts. At some point, the truth will be heard.

April 29, 2003

Published in the 2003-05-09 issue: 
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