Why Progressives Won the War

Well, the chicken-hawks are crowing. Most of those previously saying nay continue to do so. Iraqis demonstrate against Saddam and George simultaneously, and we shoot the demonstrators. Those who predicted a 48-hour cakewalk were wrong. Those who predicted a six-month seige of Baghdad were wrong. Those who predicted a huge increase in (non-state-sponsored) terrorism have yet to be proven wrong.

It seems to me that there are at least four positions on the war:

  1. It was a just war
  2. War is hell, but this one needed to be fought
  3. War is hell, and we probably could have avoided this one
  4. War makes money for corporations and decreases civil liberties, which is why we keep having them

If you're a 1, you're probably not reading this article. If you're a 2, you're probably busy making excuses for the lack of WMDs (“Saddam's such a horrible guy, he destroyed his WMDs rather than use them, just to make our President look bad”). For 3's and 4's, I claim that there are some benefits to the war. It was illegal according to international law, and immoral by any standard. Our protests didn't stop it, and in fact never stood a chance of stopping it. But don't despair, there are still some positive outcomes.

In this list, I'm omitting certain items that are pretty much universally acknowledged to be good things, such as Deposing a Dictator, and Not Screwing the Kurds This Time. I omit them, not to minimize their importance, but to emphasize my agreement with the general approbation.

There are other items that I consider to be good things, but not everyone will agree with me. To some extent my nominations are based on the theory that there are citizens of the US who pay attention to the news and make reasonable judgements using the information they have. If this thesis turns out to be false, I will retract several of my nominations. But I believe it's true.

Some of these items are simply related to high Bore-Ometer readings; for instance, I haven't recently seen one of those articles purporting to answer the 9/11 question “Why do they hate us?”. And the number of people denying the existence of an American empire is reduced when the US government begins overtly to refer to the US presence as an occupation, at the same time that Sharon begins to use the same word with respect to the West Bank.

From the point of view of evaluating our position, I think it's a good sign that they decided to name this operation “Iraqi Freedom”. That says something about the psychology of the marketers of this war. No more military code phrases or bureaucratic designators (“Desert Storm”), but ringing calls to action on the part of good-hearted individuals concerned only for others! In fact, the obviousness with which this war has been marketed is a good thing in itself. Some people (not you, gentle reader) will have learned something new about their government after hearing Andrew Card say “You don't introduce a new product in August.”

Other items might be called propaganda from some viewpoints, but I would call them educational. For example, the contrast between the Bush administration's democratic rhetoric for Iraq and its anti-civil-liberties actions in the US might be educational for the unjaded. Again, present company excepted. And Rumsfeld's statements that we'll allow any goverment the Iraqis want, as long as it's not similar to the one in Iran, has people laughing around the world. As some intelligent person is supposed to have said, it's not true if it doesn't make you laugh.

The situation in which Al Jazeera now finds itself—web site hacked and DoS'd by folks almost certainly not directly on the payroll of the US government, reporter killed in the Palestine Hotel from which US forces “were receiving fire”, barriers encountered around the US television market—makes it hard even for true believers to maintain the illusion that the US encourages free speech and alternate viewpoints. Have you seen the long-distance pictures of the Saddam statue falling, or more precisely, being pulled down by an American armored vehicle, watched by a small, hand-picked crowd, the whole surrounded by a ring of American armored vehicles? The marketing continues even in the captured capital. What's the going rate for extras?

It's also becoming more difficult for the propaganda managers to keep Americans ignorant of the real situation at the UN. No longer can we claim the nasty old Soviets as the boogey men who veto all our high-minded proposals. Now it's clear to anyone who was watching that almost everyone in the world sees the US government as dangerous warmongers, and it's also clear why. No longer can Americans be surprised when their country is listed as the number one threat to peace in polls around the world. The commissar class is now busy concocting explanations for this.

Some of these positive effects are only possible where information permeates. Fortunately the efforts to restrict the Internet are still in their infancy, and for this war we can still get a variety of viewpoints. Anyone with a browser has access to a number of news sources that rivals what was available to I.F. Stone or A.J. Liebling, though of course not to the breadth of viewpoints. Still, I can currently read the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Sydney Morning Herald, BBC, Deutsche Welle, and so on any time I want to (at this point all are still free, though some require registration), so at least I get viewpoints from around the world.

Enough of these sources are reporting, and enough governments complaining, that anyone who's trying to find out what's going on must know things you and I take for granted, like:

  • Saddam committed most of his most heinous human rights violations while he was a US ally, normally using US weapons, technology, and money.
  • Israel remains in violation of many more UN resolutions than Iraq, without even mentioning its hundred nuclear weapons in an area of the world we claim should be free from them.
  • North Korea is already a greater WMD threat than Iraq ever was.
  • The efforts of the US government to protect nuclear (“nucular”) sites from pilferage were nonexistant for the first week or two of occupation, so that by the time US forces checked relevant sites most things of value had already been looted.
  • Thus, the number of recruits and the amount and lethality of weapons available to terrorists has vastly increased in the past few months.

Of course, you wouldn't learn this by watching Fox News. One of the most humorous, though also most embarrassing, parts of this war was the way the mass US media decided to lie back and enjoy it. (“Permission to embed Ashleigh Banfield.”—Trudeau.) All the jokes, and the real-time descriptions of battles, did not make up for the humiliation of the world seeing what a warped view Americans are fed. The head of the BBC criticizing US media speaks from a position of strength and a country of alliance; he should, but won't, be taken seriously. Still, by showing both versions of CNN to the world (only one at home, of course), we helped many citizens of the world understand why Americans' views are so out of line with theirs.

There were some relatively clear signs that what appears to be a juggernaut rolling in the direction of concentrated power and constant war is not as unstoppable as it looks. The most obvious example is the scale of the protests mounted against the war, and the attention they drew for months before the war started. Both are unprecendented.

A corollary is that more people around the world now realize the basic truth that what governments want often differs from what people want. This is not news to us, but there are people to whom it is news. Like the war against Vietnam, even those who really believe in the war cannot avoid noticing that others really don't. The cable news channels may avoid pictures of the demonstrations as if they were bodies of dead civilians; but the very volume of the right-wing commentators shouting “Traitor!” shows true believers that their opinions are not universal.

Another corollary is that those who were against the war realize that there are millions of potential partners, some in practically every country where demonstrations are allowed. Not only are these potential partners in peace scattered around the world, they are scattered around the political spectrum as well. It might even be considered a strength that the system is beginning to recognize this. One shortly pre-war article in the New York Times actually derided the anti-war movement for being too broad-based, on the theory that a group including some supposed leaders from the far left, I don't remember who, and the far right, I think it was Jack Kemp, could not possibly rally around a single spokesperson. This indicates that they still don't understand our strategy; or that they do understand it, and are scared stiff. The whole situation remains, as Chomsky said years ago, an organizer's dream.

A second sign that the juggernaut's wobbling is closely related to the first. Most governments can be forced to respond when it's clear that three-quarters of their citizens agree on something. As far as I saw during the build-up to this war, there were only two countries in which you could word the question about supporting a war in such a way as to get a 50% yes. A majority of every country except the US and Israel were against a war under almost every conceivable set of circumstances. I was not surprised at what these polls contained, but I was surprised to see them published. I find it a very hopeful sign that information is being so broadly distributed outside the US. My fear is that the US system will be imposed on a broader scale by the same corporations that brought us the current model. But as long as there are hundreds of thousands of people marching in some capital city, there will be news reports, and there will be pressure on politicians to respond.

Some politicians will be imperial allies for reasons of conscience or strategy. I, for one, think Tony Blair believed what he said about Saddam and Iraq; after all, as Edward Gibbon, familiar with fifteen centuries of Roman imperial politics, said:

In an age of religious fervour, the most artful statesmen are observed to feel some of the enthusiasm which they inspire; and the most orthodox saints assume the dangerous privilege of defending the cause of truth by the arms of deceit and falsehood. Personal interest is often the standard of our belief, as well as of our practice...

Still, most politicians, and therefore most governments, will react to their constituents in some manner. Whether it takes the form of Australia, whose contribution to the war effort was significant but did not include ground troops, or the form of Turkey, refusing to be used as a base, or of France, threatening to veto any UN authorization of force, depends on the ideology of the party in power and the extent of discontent among the citizenry, among other things. The outrage among the neo-cons when the Turkish parliament narrowly voted as the polls said 90% of Turkey wanted them to vote should have generated peals of laughter. A minor triumph of democracy is derided as weakness and lack of leadership. Although the inexperience of some government officials may have contributed to the result, the legislature clearly reflected its population's wishes.

Overall, the number of governments that found themselves in the position of choosing between their citizens and the US government was encouraging. If one of those that chose the US is turned out in the next election, the precedent will be established that whatever benefits may accrue from joining a US coalition come with a political price tag. Even if US allies are simply forced to explain their alliance in order to maintain their own political power, the point will be made. But what if Tony Blair's Labor Party were to lose the next election? Of course, this is putting the responsibility on the British public to save us all. A better strategy would be for us Americans to vote in a reasonable government. Or to stop acquiescing in the theft thereof.

As governments realized that they shared a dilemma, they were forced to scramble for safety in numbers, or in secrecy. One smart gamble, for example, was a public stance against the war for the home front, combined with quiet promises of aid to the US if things got rough. Undoubtedly a number of countries did something along these lines; perhaps they were the ones the State Department kept telling us were about to vote for the UN resolution authorizing war. And the US government certainly understood its plan wasn't popular. That was, I suspect, one of the attributes that made the plan acceptable to the people who wanted to bypass the UN altogether, who have so far kept the US out of the International Criminal Court, who feel comfortable with a foundation called “Project for a New American Century”. Nothing imperial about that name, is there? The US even preferred a small coalition, essentially saying to the world, “Here's how much we think of your opinion: get out of the way. Or don't. We don't care.”

But one result the Bush Administration didn't seem to expect was a Security Council that couldn't be coerced or bought. Despite everything that has been said publicly about Colin Powell's standing not having suffered from the UN debacle, Colin Powell's standing must have suffered. This Administration is not famous for its tolerance of unsuccessful deviations such as the trek through the UN. The continued prominence of Rumsfeld despite the reported advice of the President of Spain (along the lines of “The less we hear of Rumsfeld, the better; and the more we hear of Powell, the better”) says a lot about relative statures from the point of view of the White House, as well as what this White House thinks about advice. And Condi saying “We weren't the ones who were coercing people” (only the French would stoop that low) was reminiscent of the good old days at Saturday Night Live.

Of course, the Bush attitude has not won us a lot of friends internationally. If anything has been proven about the UN during this crisis, it's that the UN continues to remain important even when all the power belongs to one player. The tour of “our so-called leaders” through the halls of the UN trying to drum up support for a war they knew would be detrimental to most everyone was mostly edifying for the nearly universal condemnation they received. Our guys looked stupid, unaware, uneducated, simplisticly moralistic, without judgement or knowledge—in a word, American—among a group of cosmopolitans, at a time when the merging of the polis with the cosmos has never been more important. What it means to be an American has never been clearer. Or more embarrassing.

One important outcome of this embarrassment is that the US government at least felt it necessary to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible. Bush I “went the last mile for peace”: in other words, he ignored even public capitulation to his wishes and chose war over any other possible outcome. Bush II was not foolish enough to settle on one war aim, preventing the “enemy” from capitulating. But he (or Karl Rove) realized that, given the stolen election and the vast majority of the world that opposed this war, minimizing the number of mangled corpses available to be shown on Al Jazeera would be wise. It might also leave the impression that war is returning to what it was centuries ago, when almost all the casualties occurred in military ranks, an impression designed to make it easier to sell the next war. This is a positive effect due almost entirely to the fact that the clearly expressed popular will was against the war.

Finally, there are signs that what seems to be a juggernaut rolling our way is at least two different vehicles, and that they are not by any means always in sync. The forces of military might are controlled by governments, while the forces of globalism are controlled by coporations, and, as William Greider discussed (Military Globalism in The Nation, March 31, 2003), these two forces do not agree about the correct use of war. In many ways they are in conflict: governments attempt to retain control of social policy, while corporations attempt to weaken all controls. In general, governments are established to steal from the poor and give to the rich, and in this they are completely synchronized with corporations. But power is not a toy that wants to be shared.

In the past, notably in the two World Wars, the US made enormous financial profits from conflict, and at the same time the amount of control of the population available to goverment increased. But these days war is not so simple: it does not benefit both corporations and government equally. For instance, “Iraqi Freedom” was a much better deal for Bush than for the globalizing multi-nationals. Bush was able to reduce civil liberties a great deal under cover of “The War Against Terror”, and the corporations loved that. But the profits to be made from the war are not distributed very widely. Halliburton gets the oil, Bechtel privatizes the water, and a few other Bush family friends make out like, well, bandits, but that's about it. Our avoidance of the air show in France left our aerospace companies out in the cold, while companies like Airbus were agreeing on large contracts. Bush also centralized a lot more power in the government, and increased the importance of the bureaucracy in, for example, “homeland security”, influencing a lot of big businesses like airlines and travel. He demonstrated the importance of sticking to our free-trade principles with protectionist measures for the steel industry. He reduced the value of US brands abroad, as the business press has recently discussed, by making a lot of the world angry enough with the US government to reduce consumption of US goods.

In general, corporations don't have emotions; certainly they have no consciences or morals. But they can be humiliated, and they can be made angry. Normally they don't speak much about these; in the parlance, they don't get mad, they get even. But no corporation on the face of the planet at this point can compete with the US military when it comes to forcing others to do something against their will. And any time a government succeeds in grabbing the reins, it grabs them from corporations, which naturally does not please the corporate honchos.

Thus we have a situation that the Romans might describe with their famous “Divide and Conquer”. We, the people, are not yet in position to conquer, but the forces arrayed against us are at least divided to some extent, and we are beginning to realize how many of us there are, and how much our numbers scare the opposition. At least in the countries that are nominally democratic, such as the US, we can re-take the reins if we choose to. They're frightened of us learning this fact, but they can't cover it up, despite all their efforts.

Let's grab those suckers. Now.

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