People Get Ready

DURING THE WAR on Afghanistan, there was a paranoid theory among the opposition that after the U.S. defeated the Taliban (themselves never quite tied to 9/11), the Bush administration would find a way to include Iraq in its War on Terror, and that this unfounded and opportune move would prove, once and for all, how transparent the present aggression was.

It was by no means a difficult thesis to come up with. When the administration was asked about the possibility of war with Iraq, its spokespeople–all the way up to Spokesperson Bush–said that while they needed to concentrate on the job at hand, they wouldn’t rule out possible future action against Iraq if it was shown that Iraq knowingly harbored or abetted terrorists. So while for cynics the theory seemed true from the beginning, it was also useless. The country was so caught up in post-9/11 hysteria that no one in Washington dared challenge Bush’s payback style of foreign policy. By the time the administration began making serious overtures toward a second war, the first one was over, the lives lost, the destruction done.

The atmosphere that supported or allowed the war on Afghanistan to go off with almost no official protest has dissipated somewhat, and while part of that is simply the passing of time, and also the frightening decline of the economy, some of it is due to the semblance of the war’s military success. The administration can say it took steps to retaliate against our enemies (or the friends of our enemies, or just the people who happened to be geographically near our enemies), and that show of violence, if, finally, of little political significance, has slaked at least some of our thirst for vengeance.

There’s been a healthier and lengthier debate over the war on Iraq, further complicated, as it’s been, by the revelations surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program. But, strangely, it may be the debate itself that has prepared the public here to accept the inevitability of war.

From the beginning, the Bush administration has done an excellent job of setting the terms of the debate over going to war. In the past, U.S. presidents needed the backing of Congress to declare war, and Congress expected proof of egregious aggression by another state against the U.S. itself, its immediate allies or an important country within our sphere of influence as a prerequisite to overt military action (covert military action is a different story). This was true up to Vietnam, when Johnson basically created a pretext for war by forcing through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. That, in retrospect, the Tonkin Gulf Incident now appears to have been trumped up by Johnson’s administration so it could pursue its own shadowy goals is no more than a historical footnote to the longest war in U.S. history. Knowing it doesn’t bring back the million-plus dead.

Johnson got around the problem of debating the legality and morality of going to war in that particularly difficult case by attaching those questions to a single military incident and asserting the U.S.’s (and its allies’) right to defend itself against a state we already considered an enemy and an impending if not imminent threat. Likewise, Bush and his handlers have done an outstanding job of shifting discussion away from their untenable and even shocking position of advocating a pre-emptive strike against a sovereign nation and onto weapons inspections and, as always, the easy demon of Saddam Hussein.

Most Americans don’t see any urgent reason to go to war with Iraq, so there’s no way to rush the public into it with inflamed rhetoric. The most effective way to bring the case to the people is through a reasoned, evenly paced campaign. After thirteen years of Saddam Hussein jokes, the goal of disarming Iraq of any “weapons of mass destruction” seems reasonable. The endless repetition of the argument works as well, reinforcing its importance, wearing down those who suspect it’s just a smokescreen by drawing them into the topic.

Bush also made a smart move by giving the job of enforcement back to the U.N., knowing that, while he would be at the mercy of their inspection schedule in the short term, in the long term they’d have no way of guaranteeing that Iraq doesn’t have those weapons. How do you prove something doesn’t exist? Ultimately, the deadlines would arrive and the inspectors wouldn’t have conclusive proof. At that point, the rest of the world may not have come over to the administration’s position, but Bush could honestly say that he’d tried to cooperate by going through the proper channels. The passage of time would only make him seem more reasonable (and the general public more apathetic, tired of the legal and clerical aspects of the argument–cf. the tables piled with the 12,000 page Iraqi report, also available on CD-ROM).

That tactic has effectively banished any questions about a pre-emptive war. The focus now is solely on providing proof (even circumstantial evidence, it seems) of Iraq having these weapons–as if that itself were reason enough to invade another country. It’s not, of course, but because of the way the administration has framed the debate and the way the major news media have covered it, all the administration has to do now is present that proof, or something like it.

As the debate drags on, the odds of it having any positive effect on the outcome grow slimmer and slimmer. Because all of this time–from the tenor of the administration, from the heavy TV coverage–the war has seemed inevitable. Every speech, every press conference seems intended to prepare us for it. Gradually, all along, the reserves have been called up. The national news shows uniformed and helmeted soldiers filing into transport planes, wives kissing their sailor husbands goodbye at dockside, trucks being lifted into ships. The local news interviews families about to be split up. The papers detail where troop camps are building up in Kuwait and Oman, where the bomber squadrons are stationed in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Everyone and everything are patiently being put in place, and why would the Pentagon bother sending them–at such a huge cost–if they’re not going to fight?

History numbs us. Every war makes the next less unthinkable. This same build-up happened before the war on Afghanistan, just as it happened before the Gulf War. We recognize the pattern and expect this time will be no different. An air war (with the attendant civilian casualties) and then the ground troops cautiously mopping up afterward. Iraqi dead in the tens or hundreds of thousands, American dead between fifty and two hundred, a fair amount of those from rear-area accidents or friendly fire.

So while grassroots protest is growing and the Democrats are saying Bush hasn’t come up with compelling reasons for the war, at the same time there’s a fatalism at play. The same appears true in the international community. Yes, France and Germany have voiced their displeasure at Bush’s unilateral approach, but typically France doesn’t follow through on its Security Council threats, and while Germany disagrees with us, there’s no real political or economic pressure attached to that difference of opinion, no hard consequences. In Russia, after some mild criticisms, Putin seems willing to turn Bush’s way, and Tony Blair is doing his usual embarrassing cheerleading.

How inevitable is the war? Here, commentators are already asking what kind of government Iraq will have afterward, wondering if the U.S. might try to build a new democracy–the same question they batted around before the war on Afghanistan.

Of course, that’s not why Bush wants to go to war. Neither is the possibility of the Iraqis having nuclear or biological or chemical weapons (since, if they have them, Bush has just given them a good six-month opportunity to disseminate them and maybe even an incentive to use them pre-emptively). Many here say that the U.S. has no long-term strategy in the region, but it seems naive to imagine that Texas energy barons like Bush and vice-president Cheney don’t have plans for Iraq’s oil. Politically, not only would the war send a message to the international community (including, one supposes, rogue states and terrorists) that the U.S. will use force whenever and wherever it feels like it, but a victory over Saddam Hussein would be popular here with Bush’s supporters, and with the economy struggling, the president desperately needs some accomplishment to point to in 2004. The war may be all he’s got.

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