And The War Came
I. Oprah Agonistes
If your viewing habits are anything like mine, you probably did not tune in to Oprah last Tuesday. I caught a teaser on Drudge. It was the day after Bush's "48 Hours" speech, and the man who wants to be Rush Limbaugh's dog was out having his morning run at the heels of liberal media. Oprah taping antiwar show! Developing! Right, I thought. What might Oprah Winfrey--Goddess of All Media, a figure nearly as shining and raceless and apolitical as Tiger Woods--have to say about invading Iraq? That war is a bad thing and harms children? That it causes distress and depression in the middle classes?
So I watched, and I am here to tell you: For anyone concerned to know where the fabled silent majority is these days, it was a revelation.
From the start the air was heavy and melancholy; Winfrey and her guests (the ubiquitous Tom Friedman of the Times and a Middle East specialist from Sarah Lawrence, Fawas Gerges) all seemed shaken by the quickening of events. Friedman looked especially cowed. The three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner spoke as though he had just wandered in dazed from a particularly brutal Dr. Phil taping. The thing is, he kept saying, America has to come to grips with the way it has hurt the world's feelings. "We've been exporting our fears, not our hopes," he scolded. Yet even the always-dependable Friedman could not exactly endorse Bush's war. The administration needed an "attitude lobotomy," he suggested. But now that we were going, "My column is gonna be devoted to turning lemons into lemonade." No, I did not make that up.
In spite of him, the mood of the broadcast was quietly and vehemently antiwar. The most amazing segment came midway through, when Oprah lent her seal of approval to a lengthy and fairly devastating bit of Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine--the scene in which shot after shot and caption after caption recount bloody U.S.-sponsored coups and dictators while Louis Armstrong croons "What a Wonderful World." Now first, you rarely see this sort of thing on American television, and when you do it is always followed by a litany of credentialed hacks telling you what hogwash it is. But after the clip, and Moore's own pointed comments about our bloody empire, no one tried to deny the veracity of the claims. Well, Friedman said wearily, you could make a similar clip about Saddam. Right, said Gerges, and you could make a dozen more about the U.S.! Friedman fell silent.
What's so remarkable about this? So Oprah did an antiwar show, you might say. She's not God.
But you're wrong about that. Oprah is the author of the most successful syndicated show in television history. She presides over one of the largest-circulation magazines in the country, launched a scant few years ago. She sells millions of books magically, simply by causing their names to pass her lips. She spins the likes of Dr. Phil into gold. She knows the pulse of workaday America better than you will ever know your spouse, your children, yourself. Where the public taste is concerned, she is God. She attained this status not just by telling her audience things they already knew, as some of her critics have charged; Oprah's great gift is that she never tells them things they will not want to hear.
So you see what it means for her to step out this way. It says that, at the start of a war that will not end in the present theater of battle and may conceivably not end at all in this generation, the president of the United States is already losing the hearts and minds of the American people. A majority--or near majority, depending on the day and the poll--have opposed waging war on the present terms. (Polls since early last week have shown a large and predictable spike in support of the war, but that is an emotional reaction and probably a fleeting one.) Not only that: A shockingly large and heretofore unseen minority have begun to realize that their country is an iron-fisted world empire that is despised on nearly every corner of the globe. And now the most revered producer in American media thinks that message is ready to go mainstream.
This is something new under the sun.
II. Bush's Borrowed Crusade
The war itself--that's something new as well. The United States in its pursuit of empire has never flouted the opinion of the world with such brazenness and open calculation, and, more to the point, no imperial power since Hitler's Germany has launched an unprovoked preemptive war on anything approaching this scale. (Let's not make too much of the fact, though, because it is strictly a question of scale: There was no provocation in Grenada, or Vietnam, or any of the many coups and proxy wars the U.S. has staged in Latin America and elsewhere.) When the Supreme Court peremptorily handed the presidency to Bush a little over two years ago, no one on the outside of his circle guessed the magnitude of his ambition. Friend and foe alike presumed that he would be more or less a slacker-steward of The Way Things Are, as befitted his pedigree and his hapless business résumé, and not the most radical executor of U.S. imperial policy since--well, who? I polled a number of people by e-mail on this question. The legendary Injun-killer Andrew Jackson took the popular vote; well-considered cases were made on behalf of Truman, Wilson, and Lincoln. It all depends on which face of the prism you choose. I tend to conjoin W and Teddy Roosevelt. Both were not-very-promising sons of privilege (Teddy because of his physical infirmities, George his psychological ones) who grew up to seize the cause of empire with a zeal and a myth-making flair born of the very personal desire to prove they were men and not just frivolous boys.
Granted, the events of September 11, 2001 afforded Bush's administration a previously imponderable opening, but that doesn't account for the size and speed of the train he has driven through it. In assessing what makes Bush tick, one errs by looking to the father. As Gore Vidal told Talk magazine shortly before the election, "The Bush family, starting with Senator Prescott Bush, father to George I, has always been a middling sort of family, undistinguished intellectually and largely ineffective politically. Nixon the Wise told Murray Kempton after Bush became president, 'There's really nothing there. He's the sort of person you appoint to things.'" Then the dark, wise old face gleamed satanically, "Now that Barbara, she's something else. Really vindictive." In this W is his mother's son. Among other things he is out to redeem his father's legacy and prove himself the better man in the process. He is also a lot like Ronald Reagan in one respect: He does an exceptional job of selling a homespun Manichean worldview (has any other president ever invoked "evil" as promiscuously as these two?) precisely because he believes in it so fervently himself. He loves lighting out after bad guys, and it shows.
But all that is merely a question of how George Bush does his job. None of it means you can understand the war in Iraq or the belligerent new course of American empire by attending to George W. Bush's personal psychodrama. Most especially it does not mean that Bush is out to wage Holy War in a literal Christian sense, as many people now fear. That shtick is just more of his underrated salesmanship, and this is serious business: a last turn at the roulette wheel of the 20th century, a bet that the post-Cold War United States can now extend its empire wherever it wishes with complete impunity, with the assurance that no nation on Earth can challenge it. This is a radical and sectarian doctrine, and Bush subscribes to it wholeheartedly without bothering himself about the particulars. But the blueprint is not his own; it has been around since the waning days of Bush I.
In 1992 the New York Times and Washington Post obtained a classified report on the future of the Pentagon and American foreign policy. Initiated shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the "Defense Planning Guidance" report--written by Paul Wolfowitz and endorsed by such future eminences as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld--pointed approvingly to a world "dominated by the United States, which would maintain its superpower status through a combination of positive guidance and overwhelming military might," as David Armstrong wrote in last October's issue of Harper's. "The image was one of a heavily armed City on a Hill."
The plan foresaw a world in which America would go it alone. It asserted that the main priority of U.S. foreign--that is to say, military--policy was to prevent the emergence of a rival global power at any cost. Every audacious step we are taking now has its portent there. The only limits on the reach of empire, per the DPG, would be measured by two things: a determination to keep on building taller and taller stockpiles of the world's most advanced and formidable weapons, and the will to use them--preemptively if necessary.
Got that, M. Chirac? And so the word is made flesh. As Armstrong notes in his excellent article, this DPG-spawned imperative to proceed boldly and walk alone makes sense of a number of seemingly disparate foreign policy moves by Bush even before 9/11: the missile defense push, the break with Russia on the venerated Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the pointed refusal to be party to a new International Criminal Court. It is all proceeding to plan in Iraq. So far.
As for those of you who still want to claim this war is somehow not about oil, because after all Americans do not even rely that much on Gulf oil, please consider the following note on U.S. policy, from a recent essay by Nick Cohen in the London Observer: "The [DPG] leak explained the thinking of a part of the Washington establishment with brutal clarity. If America didn't 'stabilize'--to use a verb which seems particularly inapt at the moment--the Middle East, [then] Europe, Japan, and China, which have a far greater dependence on Gulf oil, would move in and protect their interests. Although their interventions wouldn't necessarily bother America, in the long run they would grow into powers which would challenge its authority." [Emphasis added.] As the DPG authors foresaw, there can be only one sheriff in a post-commie world.
Among a number of none-too-hardy souls still tremulously backing the war, the wail heard regularly is that Saddam is a bad guy and therefore it can't be so wrong to take him out. Iraq deserves a little U.S.-style democracy after all this time. This is the always pernicious nation-building argument. Thankfully in this case we do not have to speculate over what the U.S. might do at some later date in the name of Iraqi liberty and self-determination. The plan is already put to paper in a secret administration report discussed by the Wall Street Journal on March 17.
The draft document unearthed by Journal reporter Neil King Jr. allocates an initial $1.5 billion to private American companies to oversee reconstruction; by comparison, relief groups such as CARE and Save the Children are to get $50 million. The unprecedented private venture "would sideline United Nations development agencies and other multilateral organizations that have long directed reconstruction efforts in places such as Afghanistan and Kosovo." King also notes that the key private contract for rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure, worth some $900 million to start and sure to grow fatter, has already been bid in a manner that violates government rules. Three of the four finalists are profligate donors to the national Republican party. One of those three (Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney's old company) has already won a contract for putting out oil-field fires in postwar Iraq. It's a sign of the times that such shame-free banana republic patronage barely registers as a pressing matter, given the bigger picture.
No matter who wins the main contract, there will be plenty of work to go around. The Bush plan promises a full-scale postwar assault by the best and brightest from many walks of American business and government. "Within weeks of a war ending," King writes, "the administration plans to begin everything from repairing Iraqi roads, schools, and hospitals to revamping its financial rules and government payroll system. Agencies such as the U.S. Treasury Department would be deeply involved in overhauling the country's central bank, and some U.S. government officials would serve as 'shadow ministers' to oversee Baghdad's bureaucracies." American education bureaucrats would likewise "obtain payroll lists and assess teacher salaries," and no doubt advise Iraq's teachers on the finer points of dulling young and potentially seditious minds beyond the point of redemption.
Make no mistake: The U.S. plan is to run the place in perpetuity. And if they don't like it, that doesn't change the most salient fact, which is that it's our planet now.
III. Old Wars and New
What makes the Bush plan doubly audacious is that it violates not only world opinion but the emerging consensus of military tacticians regarding the contours of modern war. The president's men think they can subdue all threats and challenges by virtue of U.S. firepower incomparably superior to that of other countries the world over. The trouble is that future wars will be less and less a contest of nation-states--or so it is argued by proponents of a notion called Fourth-Generation Warfare, or 4GW. The theory was first articulated in a 1989 treatise in the Marine Corps Gazette (and reprinted in City Pages this week; see p. 22).
At each step in the long evolution of war, the authors write, there has been a tendency toward greater diffusion of battlefields and targets, until at last we have come to this: "In broad terms, fourth-generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between 'civilian' and 'military' may disappear..." No more "collateral damage" and no more war crimes, in other words: We are all combatants, as the citizens of New York and Washington, DC learned firsthand on September 11.
One can find a lot of cultural, political, and tactical "reasons" for the evolving face of war, but the root cause is a simple fact of technology and economics. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made direct conflict between powerful nations too deadly to contemplate; meanwhile, the development of cheap, compact weapons of mass destruction has allowed non-state elements to begin waging sporadic and decentralized wars of their own, and to score victories without abundant resources. In this sort of war, many of the things that make the U.S. so indomitable in conventional wars--such as its huge array of military and economic assets around the world--become points of vulnerability instead.
This bodes ill for W's big adventure, but tells us little, if anything, about the more immediate prospects in Iraq. On the eve of war last Wednesday, I phoned William Lind, one of the authors of the seminal 1989 4GW essay, to ask what he thought. He laughed: "That depends on something we don't know. Will the Iraqis fight? The Shi'ites probably won't fight us initially. The Sunnis, or many of them, probably will. But maybe not. And if not, this will be over in a matter of days. But the day we say Saddam is gone and the war is over, that's the day the real war begins." Lind believes a power vacuum in Baghdad coupled with a U.S. occupation will sooner or later plunge America into the middle of a protracted civil war. "It may begin slowly and escalate," he allows, "but it is likely to spread throughout Iraq and past its borders to other countries in the region and to the United States." Apart from the last bit, this may conjure visions of Vietnam, but the resemblance is superficial. Iraq is riven to its core by factional animosities far more complex than anything we encountered in Southeast Asia. They extend past the distinction of Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurd; there are some 300 tribes within Iraqi borders, 30 or so of which are prominent. And in these tribes the intermarriage of Sunni and Shi'ite is not uncommon. Their alliances shift like the sands and the United States lacks even a rudimentary understanding of most of them.
Back here in the homeland, there is really no counting all the ways the Iraqi invasion could turn sour on Bush and his gang sooner rather than later. Besides civil war a host of other prospects suggest themselves. The obvious ones include:
- U.S. casualties. If they mount into the thousands, Americans' shaky popular support for Bush and the war at home will be toast.
- More domestic terror attacks. However much they might inflame the public and win Bush a brief rally, over the long haul they will only erode public taste for the path of unending war.
- Regional dominoes. Thanks to press accounts of the dress rehearsal in Afghanistan, many Americans now realize that there is a huge and growing mass of average Arab citizens who despise America, and that they pose a clear and present danger to U.S.-friendly regimes in several key states. If the government in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or especially nuked-up Pakistan should fall as a result of pressures created by Bush's war, we will find ourselves living in even more interesting times.
- Israel. Like many others, I have always presumed Israel would come safely to heel in the event of crisis, lest we take away their credit cards. No one seems so sure anymore. "I think Israel will stay in step with the U.S.," says one longtime Pentagon watcher. "If they don't, it's a historical precedent almost as stunning as Bush's preemptive war." On the other hand it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which Israel might flout the U.S. for its own ends. If the Iraq war causes a flood of refugees into Jordan, for instance, and that wave spills onto the West Bank, Israel might seize the opportunity to announce a crisis of its own and expel all Palestinians and other Arabs from the West Bank--and then simply present the U.S. and the world with a fait accompli. (The longer the war goes on without massive casualties in the Iraqi populace, however, the unlikelier such a flood of refugees becomes.)
IV. Quitters Never Win
The entire world would like to see American voters dump Bush in 2004, and the Internet is full of chatter suggesting it's already a done deal. Not so. Forget for a moment the absolutely unprecedented scale of antiwar sentiment in the land and remember two things that W has going for him: first, a sizeable and utterly bellicose minority that will support any war, anywhere, anytime, and second, the Democratic presidential field.
If you still want proof that our national politics is a thoroughly rigged game and that the Democrats are useless, then please, have a stab at explaining what follows in any other way: A regime takes power under dubious and widely resented circumstances. This regime proves to be extremist in its foreign and domestic policies in ways no one had expected. The public rises in growing waves of outrage. Presented with so many avenues of attack, the opposition party surveys the situation and--coughs up backer after backer of the president's war! All those so far anointed as "serious" candidates (Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, the dread Lieberman) support not only the war abroad; they have spoken as one to condemn Bush for being soft on homeland preparedness. No breaks from the Patriot Act to be had with this crowd. And thus, without even pausing for breath, the loyal opposition has already caught up with the Republicans' radical lurch to the right.
There are a pair of "dark horse" antiwar Democrats out there in Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, but of the two only Dean has even the faintest hope of emerging as a contender should the war go south on Bush. More likely the Democratic nomination will wind up in the hands of Palatable Candidate X, who is bound to seem a lesser evil to many people, but perhaps not enough to counterbalance the segment of the population that believes President Bush has shown some real 'nads, man.
The polls offer a last word on the sickly Democratic field: As it now stands, less than 50 percent of the public supports Bush's reelection. Yet in head to head polling against the Democrats who are running, Bush edges every one. Does it matter to beat him? Yes. He's the most radical U.S. president in any of our lifetimes, and not in a good way. Does that mean a Democratic successor, particularly one with the me-too gene, will be able--or willing--to extricate himself from what Bush has wrought by then in Iraq? No. Maybe he will and maybe he won't. Impossible to say from here.
We can speculate all we want, but there really is no telling how the war will go and the W claque will fare in the months ahead. All of the previous scenarios for trouble notwithstanding, it is also quite possible that things will go smoothly enough for Bush for the duration of the only future that matters to him, which is the period between now and November 2004. He only needs a couple of things to go his way. First, and most critical, he must depose Saddam quickly and as bloodlessly as possible to quell uprisings elsewhere in the region and mollify world opinion. We'll know that answer in a matter of days or weeks, because that will be all the time he's got to make it happen. If it does go down that way, Bush is halfway home. For the remaining year and a half he mainly has to dodge bullets, to make sure that any outbreaks of civil war or any attacks on U.S. troops are kept at a low intensity and spun dismissively in the media. It's unlikely he can pull it all off, but it's possible. If there is one thing the rest of the world would do well not to underestimate about the Americans, it is our uncannily inventive knack for deferring our troubles to another day.
Four more years?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.