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America goes to war – a report from New York & Washington

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
2 April 2003

When George W. Bush issued his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, the sky on the US’s east coast was clear and bright. ‘Just like 9/11’, a reminder of what still lives on in the present in American minds.

But on this perfect day a calm prevailed, and a hope. Especially after the first limited cruise missile strikes, perhaps we might be spared the ‘shock and awe’ of 3,000 such raids, and see instead a swift resolution? An old New York friend who for decades has been the most consistent, contemptuous critic of official American power in all its forms, admitted that while it galled him to say so, for once he hoped that the president’s strategy would work, Saddam would be deservedly humiliated within the week, and we could then face up to the vanity of bushwhacked American sovereignty. It was not to be; but people everywhere were talking quietly about Iraq, assessing their concerns as the dice of war were cast.

There were very few flags. They are an everyday icon of American public space. When I went to New York soon after 9/11 they were flying or pinned everywhere, including the most unlikely places expressing a felt, determined response to being hurt – a shared patriotism.

While the White House has sought to transform the sentiment into a different, harder attitude the shift is not – at least not yet – reciprocated in the public temper. I expected a nation’s first war of global pre-emption to have been supported by the patriotic cheerleading of the gullible and the combatively sportive. Instead there were fewer Stars-and-Stripes on display in New York than normal (meaning before 9/11).

The same was true in Washington D.C. even as the troops went into action. I suppose my expectation had been fed by the ferocious language of threat and prejudice against foreigners who could not ‘get it up’. (The kind of attitudes which Tim Garton Ash described in the New York Review of Books and which have made themselves felt in openDemocracy forums.) If anything, the opposite was the case. ‘You may be French but you are still my friend’, we heard one waiter tell another in the local steak bar. There is aggression but there is also a worry among many that America is the aggressor.

Too serious for gesture politics

Perhaps this muted spirit is temporary, perhaps what I observed is not true in the suburbs and small towns which proclaim their marginality by flying Old Glory. I am not saying America in March 2003 was a country that expected to lose. On the contrary. But it was not wishing to be at war with the world.

Indeed, the early mood was almost light-hearted. ‘If you can’t pronounce it, don’t bomb it’, was one of many inventive slogans on the large New York march against the war on Saturday 21 March. (‘Shocked but not awed’, was text-messaged to me as the best from London, I have to add.) My favourite was a simple demand: ‘Pre-emptive thinking’.

Such an attempt to think ahead led Todd Gitlin and Laurel Cook to come up with ‘Democracy in Washington and Baghdad’ as their contribution to the banners.

As the march set out, I went with Todd to the studios of the Brian Lehrer show where a Saturday special was underway. Todd developed his concern that the demonstrators were still in a posture of leftist protest rather than looking forward to shaping something different and better, both in America and Iraq.

I agree with Todd’s prescription about what needs to happen, but not with his fearful diagnosis. What was a fatal illness in the 1960s is not yet more than a passing fever after Afghanistan. The opposition to the war is greater than the protests and is relevant rather than marginal. It is striking how determined all generations are not to ‘repeat the sixties’. ‘We’re not going to make the mistake of Vietnam, and attack our soldiers’, a passionate opponent of the war told me, for whom that conflict is history.

One reason for the change is that this is a Republican war, unlike Vietnam which was initiated by the Democrats. At the same time a breathtaking series of measures – tax breaks for the rich, cutting welfare for the poor, and homeland security measures that strike at fundamental civil liberties – is uniting opposition to Bush. This will coalesce around the next Democratic candidate whoever it is and most the ‘protestors’ will be drawn into practical politics.

‘I have never known such determination and discipline’, an experienced hand told me in the capital. Speaking at the Washington left-of-centre Institute for Policy Studies, Arianna Huffington told her audience that she was re-thinking her support for Ralph Nader. ‘We need victories’, she declared, not futile slogans and gestures.

Getting Henry Kissinger removed from the commission to investigate the disaster of 9/11 was one such victory, she felt; removing Trent Lott from the leadership of the Republicans in Congress was another. She predicted that Richard Perle could be next, as the story of his connections to the corporate lobby were being revealed – he resigned the chairmanship of the Defence Policy Board the next day (if only in order to cling on to his membership).

The next stage? A focus on making the connection between the war party and their support for unpatriotic, un-American tax havens in small Atlantic islands (often, of course, the same ones used by those who fund terrorism and drug-running).

The Democrats: no saviour in sight

The long-term alternatives to Bush’s strategy may well come from the right as other strands of Republican influence seek an alternative to the overstretch his policies threaten. In the next two years effective opposition will have to come from the Democrats. Those contenders who have declared their candidacy have all been rendered unconvincing by the trauma of war. At least two are rumoured to be seeking retired general, Wesley Clark, as their Vice-Presidential running-mate. Currently he is seen, clean cut and in civilian clothes, commenting regularly and carefully on the war for CNN. But what could be more attractive for voters than the victor of Kosovo being drafted in to lead the Democrats and then the country? It was General Eisenhower who declared he would ‘go to Korea’ to make peace. Perhaps it will once again take a military candidate to make an equivalent proposal in this century. But where would Wesley Clark propose to go? To Iraq? Hardly. To Iran or the Middle East? Could he tell the people he is prepared to go to New York and the United Nations and still get elected?

A new Democratic president with a clear majority would also be a profoundly conservative choice. By ousting Bush he would re-establish the legitimacy of the office. When Michael Moore made his Oscar-winning denunciation on Sunday 22 March he was booed; not for having spoken out against the war but for his attack on a ‘fictitious president’. It is one thing to oppose the invasion of Iraq, another to undermine the legitimacy of the Commander-in-Chief at such a time. ‘He should not have dragged up that’, I was told some days later, its ‘old history’. But it isn’t and it won’t go away while George W. remains as president.

Swamps of feeling, sidewalks of reality

There is one aspect of the Iraq war which does replay the 1960s, albeit in fast-forward mode. The television and media coverage is at once mesmerising and stultifying. American narcissism has not yet changed. Throughout the 1960s the Vietnam war was regarded as an American tragedy. Their 58,000 dead are beautifully memorialised at Maya Lin’s stunning wall monument in Washington. No apology has ever been extended to the Vietnamese who lost between one and two million people. Even now, the US is spending a small fortune searching for the body-parts of its MIAs (‘missing in action’) across Indochina, but refuses to assist children born with defects from its toxic population clearance and ‘strategic hamlet’ programme. Vietnam was and still is seen as something that happened to America. Not as a conflict which the United States visited upon Vietnam.

Today a similar attitude is assumed in the TV coverage of Iraq. Soldiers and airmen are constantly interviewed about their feelings. How did you feel when you dropped your first bomb? What did you experience when you came under fire? How upset are you when Iraqis don’t welcome you? These questions have become the main story on US prime time. America may at first have had a good war, then a bad war, soon a better war. Whatever. The point is that the Iraq war is happening to America and its consumers, from the point of view of the US media.

The rest of the world does not share this perspective. A fundamental difference.

If there were few flags in Washington, something else was on show: the consequence of the Clinton-Bush assault on welfare. It was impossible not to notice men, mostly black, walking the pavements of the capital looking as if they had just stepped out of the 1930s. They were not begging. They were walking, leaning forwards, tie-less, lean, hands in pockets, on the look out, with the frown of those determined to stay active and keep their dignity when they have nothing much, if anything, but their dignity.

The pride of destitution.

Many in America now have no unemployment benefits or income support whatsoever. Bush had just announced his request for $74.8 billion for the war. Not that I want to fly the flag either, but I did feel a touch of pride in the values of old Europe.

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