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The war movement and the peace movement

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
27 November 2002

The event Ambiguities of Intervention: Iraq and After was held at NYU on 22 November, 2002.
For an account of the
panel debate, see:
Ending the silence.

It’s the burden and sometimes also the glory of a serious life that in good conscience you don’t want to win the hard arguments too easily. Political decency consists not just in taking the right position, but in being willing to face contrary positions: face them at their strong points, not win arguments cheaply – but face the bad music; face the suffering that goes on if you do the right thing, also face the suffering that goes on if you don’t do the right thing. And make a judgment, which might well be in fear and trembling, about which is the better way. The smiley-face actions are damned rare. War in Iraq is not one of them. Neither is the absence of war in Iraq. I don’t see how to have a nice day, one way or the other – certainly not for Iraqis.

The war movement

But the Bush administration thinks it does know how to have a nice day, by giving war a chance. For them, it’s a matter of will and impulse speaking a muffled language of arguments because arguments are expected of them. But their arguments are so tremulous, shoddy, and shifting, you know that the arguments aren’t the explanation, the deep argument. For months we’ve been peppered with talking-points in the guise of a case: Saddam’s imminent weapons of mass destruction; Saddam’s putative links to al-Qaida; Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; Saddam’s use of poison gas in 1987–88. Therefore precaution dictates pre-emption – follow the bouncing logic.

For months now the arguments have been so slapdash, so helter-skelter – a veritable grab-bag – that you’re hard pressed to ask, What is really going on here? For example, if precaution justifies action, the US should have jumped to the front of the Kyoto parade – the point is nicely made by Sheila Jasanoff and David Winickoff in openDemocracy. No wonder that former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said three weeks ago, in my hearing, that the Bush group ‘have lost their minds’ – meaning, he clarified when I asked, not that war was a bad idea, but that their manner of defending war was slipshod and senseless. In the words of a writer in London’s conservative Spectator: ‘It is arguable that the Bush clique has come up with the lamest, least convincing case for war ever heard. Never in the field of human conflict have so many had to listen to so much risible nonsense from so few.’

When I speak of the Bush administration I speak of the inner circle – you can’t even call it a crowd, because they fit in one room – a group that seems to be making the most momentous decisions now: essentially, Bush himself, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, and Wolfowitz, with assists from Field Marshal Rove. With the evident exception of Powell they share a will – a will to regime extension. It’s the same will that brought them to power when they lost the election of 2000. It’s a will to power that over the decade has put their party in command of the Supreme Court. It’s a will toward unilateralism as made manifest in the treaty-busting moves of Bush’s first months in office, long before al-Qaida got this president’s attention: rejection of the Kyoto climate-change protocol, cancellation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) accord, obstruction of the bio-weapons treaty, flat withdrawal from participation in the International Criminal Court, to name only the most dramatic. Note that it’s not insuperable, this will. Backed into a political corner by Scowcroft, Eagleburger, and other sages of their own party, they tacked toward the Security Council. Even bulldozers veer around obstacles, once in a while.

It’s relevant that on 20 September, the Bush administration published a national security manifesto overturning the established order, making a long-building imperial tendency explicit and permanent. The policy paper, titled ‘The National Security Strategy of the United States of America’ – call it the Bush Doctrine – is a romantic justification for easy recourse to war whenever and wherever an American president chooses. This document truly deserves the overused term ‘revolutionary’. It displays bluster, romance, and illogic in equal measure. Hitching a ride on al-Qaida’s indisputable threat, the doctrine generalises widely and wildly. It extends beyond an axis of evil to an entire chassis, maybe a whole fleet of enemies, actual and potential. It not only commits the United States to dominating the world from now into the distant future, but declares that ‘America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed.’

The United States has many times sent armed forces to take over foreign countries for weeks, years, even decades. But the Bush doctrine is the first to elevate such wars of offense to the status of official policy, and to call ‘pre-emptive’ (referring to imminent peril) what is actually preventive (referring to longer-term, hypothetical, avoidable peril). This semantic shift is crucial. When prevention of a remote possibility is called pre-emption, anything goes. CIA caution can be overridden, al-Qaida connections fabricated, dangers exaggerated – and the United States will have a doctrine to substitute for international law.

The peace movement

But the peace movement in its way is also slapdash. If there is war in Iraq, it seems to me that the odds of one or another catastrophe in the short, middle, or long run are terribly high, and the chances of a smooth, slick, low-cost, high-gain victory are terribly low. So surely, the moment cries out for a smart, extensive, inclusive popular movement against the gangbusters approach that the Bush administration favors. Surely, the sobriety and scepticism of the American people deserve organisation and mobilisation.

But at some of the mass rallies, the strongest arguments against an Iraq war, which are pragmatic, are barely in evidence. People of good will, religious, secular, whatever, are drowned out by various flavors of old left nostalgia. Much of the anti-war initiative was taken by left-wing groupuscules who cannot find it in their hearts to find fault with Saddam Hussein; who consider the no-fly zones that afford some protection to Kurds and Shi'ites illegitimate; who, for that matter, think the military action in Afghanistan illegitimate, and whose essential views amount to: US out of everywhere, on principle. These old left remnants cherish their own version of bulldozer politics. This limits their potential, not just against the Iraq war, but against others that might well be in the offing as the Bush doctrine comes into play in the years to come.

Marc Cooper asked some necessary questions in The Los Angeles Times a couple of months ago: ‘If the left is not for war against Hussein and is also opposed to economic sanctions, what is it for? If the left is for containment instead of invasion, then isn’t it the US armed forces that must do the containing? … If, at the end of the day, Hussein does foil weapons inspections, what is to be done then?’ A movement that does not take these questions seriously is dead in the water. If you are contemptuous of, or indifferent to, Iraqi longings to be free of Saddam Hussein, you are no help to such a movement. You are not going to stand in the way of war with Iraq. And you are not going to stand in the way of the next war that the Bush doctrine requires.

Between two stools

But Cooper’s necessary questions can be answered.

If wishes were arguments, the strongest argument for an American war would be the most ambitious, which is Kanan Makiya’s – the wish that by deposing Saddam Hussein and occupying Iraq, the US would install the first democratic regime in the Arab world; a regime that, in turn, would undermine the autocratic consensus that governs the region, reverse the Islamist movement and foster the growth of anti-Islamist tendencies elsewhere. Such an outcome is devoutly to be desired. I take it especially seriously coming from Kanan Makiya, from whom I’ve learned more about the monstrous tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party than from anyone else. And I have to say: if only the wish sufficed.

But the world in which the wish would suffice is not the world we live in. An American war in Iraq is very unlikely to bring it about. What it is far more likely to bring about is carnage and a boost to terror. The risks are far too great to justify war. Wars get out of control and are, after all, hellish. That is why they must be matters of last resort. In Iraq’s neighbourhood, there are simply too many ways in which this particular war could get out of control.

The scenario most likely to bring about the use of weapons of mass destruction is precisely the one George W. Bush has been angling for: an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime. The scenario most likely to bring about terror attacks – even on Americans – is precisely the same. The scenario most likely to win recruits for al-Qaida is… precisely the same. Against Saddam Hussein’s future threats, there are substantial, not merely rhetorical, alternatives. The case for containment is strong. Smart sanctions (not the current blunderbuss kind), maintenance of the no-fly zones, and inspections with teeth under multilateral, United Nations (UN) auspices are the alternatives to full-blown war.

Pacifists will disagree. But in my view, the Bush circle’s imperial ambitions aren’t properly repelled if we declare that force is never justified. The negative knee-jerk is not a policy. Americans will reject it. And it deserves to be rejected.

The Bush doctrine requires of a saner, more sober America something more intelligent. If there is to be some world authority capable of acting in behalf of collective security, UN resolutions cannot be allowed to devolve into dead letters.

So the anti-war movement should accept that the UN-imposed inspections are legal, proportionate to the threat, and therefore just. The unanimous Security Council resolution mandating inspections is a testament not only to Bush’s power but to the strength of the case. The proportionate threat of force to ensure that inspectors have access to whatever they wish to inspect is justified. The use of force for ‘regime change’ is not proportionate, nor is it justified by the Security Council. The movement should endorse containment of Saddam Hussein. It should not foreswear the use of force absolutely. It should respect realistic arguments against an Iraq war, and refuse to demand left-wing fealty of its potential allies of the centre and right. An anti-war movement that takes multilateral initiatives seriously has a future. An anti-war movement that simply, reflexively opposes Bush has none.

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