Friday, March 07, 2003
A few comments on President Bush's news conference last night. He's a man who doesn't put much stock in words. He's a man of action, of clear vision--words are deceptive, obfuscating. But the truth is, even though they are those things--and every honest blogger will admit it--speech can be more revealing. A good poker player will spot a "tell" instantly--some quirk of body or speech that reveals what his fellow player is thinking. I'm not much of a poker player, but last night, I couldn't help but pick up the President's tell. Did you catch it?
For all the support the President tried to give to his argument last night, you couldn't help but feel it was deeply personal. The way he characterized the argument showed, time and again, what the real problem was:
• "We have arrived at an important moment in confronting the threat posed to our nation and to peace by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of terror."
• "Saddam Hussein is not disarming. This is a fact. It cannot be denied."
• Saddam Hussein has a long history of reckless aggression and terrible crimes."
• The cause of peace will be advanced only when the terrorists lose a wealthy patron and protector, and when the dictator is fully and finally disarmed."
• And I've [not] made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully. Hopefully that as a result of the pressure that we have placed--and others have placed--that Saddam will disarm and/or leave the country."
For Bush, the problem's personal--it's Saddam. In the course of the news conference, the Presdident used the word Saddam or Saddam Hussein 39 times; add to that 6 times he referred to him not by name (though personally) as "dictator." Throughout the entire news conference, the word "Iraq" or its variants only appeared 36 times together--and many of these referred to the "Iraqi people" and so on.11:09 AM |
I think it's very clear, too--despite the President's objections about words--what's going on in his mind in the last comment I quoted (if you overlook the mangled first sentence). Despite all the talk of disarmament, the danger of the Iraqi regime's weapons and their availability on the open terrorist market, the President will be satisfied if Saddam (not Iraq) disarms or leaves the country. Leaves the country? That's not consisent with anything we've heard from the White House. But it is consistent with getting back at Saddam personally. Which, when you read the transcript, is the unmistakeable tell the President gives about his real intention.
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
American Nationalism Nationalism (n) the conviction that the culture and interests of your nation are superior to those of any other nation. (Princeton) This next post is more midstream rumination on the historical significance of the invasion. It was one of the more popular posts I ever wrote.
Nationalism (n) the conviction that the culture and interests of your nation are superior to those of any other nation. (Princeton)
This next post is more midstream rumination on the historical significance of the invasion. It was one of the more popular posts I ever wrote.
Last night I watched I Am Cuba, a 1964 Soviet-produced anti-American movie about the Cuban revolution. (And not because—as the suspicious among you might imagine—I was in an anti-American pique after the President’s announcement of unilateral pre-emption. Actually it was because a friend had loaned us that DVD, left the country, and is due to return tomorrow: I couldn’t face the prospect of confessing I hadn’t watched it in the five months he was gone. I was, of course, caught in the throes of an anti-Bush pique as well.)
The film is a product of the socialist realism school, and it’s claim to fame is the extraordinary camerawork of director Mikhail Kalatozov. Deservedly so. But beyond that it’s a pretty lousy film, because the dogma is so obvious and cartoonish. It shows creepy American businessmen in the Batista era indulging their basest, capitalist-imperialist desires at the expense of hard-working Cubans. One narrative follows a prostitute whom we realize in 1.3 seconds is a metaphor for Cuba—prostituted to imperialists. And so it goes.
The film’s failure as art is revealed in 2003 much more obviously than it would have been 40 years ago. The hypotheses that saturate the film—that capitalism is the root of all evil, and assorted manifestations—seem silly and quaint at best. Film is most successful when it challenges the viewer to think. I Am Cuba doesn’t, because all the issues are settled in our mind: the result is an oddity from a lost age with bitchin’ camerawork.
Or maybe not. Watching a movie like I Am Cuba reminds us that so much of what we “know” is actually what we assume. It is instructive because we know that at one time, such a film—and films like it—were effective because people held different assumptions. Through the eyes of history, all nationalist rhetoric looks silly and quaint and often deadly dangerous. Nazi nationalism, particularly, fills me with dread because its so easy to see where it came from. Out of the desperation of WWI, Hitler fashioned a nationalism of pride and rage.
So it was interesting to watch that film on the day our own President (sort of) declared war. Over the coming days and weeks, Americans will be thrown into deep ambivalence: support for the troops on one hand, resentment and fear that the whole endeavor is a massive debacle on the other. Polls already show that the country is rallying around the President and the troops. Presumably, when the slightest events turn negative, those numbers will drop, reflecting the fear and resentment.
Standing on the edge of the abyss, I can’t help but think that the President’s arrogance is of the same, garden variety arrogance the world has seen so many times. I am willing to bet the farm that in 40 years, his nationalist rhetoric will look as quaint and silly as the Soviet Union’s does now. Americans are not patriots if they follow his blind arrogance—they’re nationalists. The commitment to the ideals of the Constitution are not embodied by a United States that invades countries pre-emptively and against the wishes of its allies. American nationalism is particularly alluring because we all participate in its manufacture—it doesn’t come from the propaganda ministry. But it’s still the same old nationalism. Real patriots question their leaders: patriotic leaders welcome the questions.
Oppose Bush's folly.
The United States finally did the inevitable and invaded on March 20. This is the post from that day. It was unsurprisingly long-winded.
Thursday, March 20, 2003
The bombs are falling. Early reports from the Pentagon are hopeful that in these first hours, Saddam Hussein may even be dead. The war is on—and it will now play out however it can play out, with peace activists and diplomats mute on the sidelines, hoping now that all the intelligence and all the might of the US armed forces will amount to a very quick, very successful resolution.12:51 PM |
Meantime, there’s a surge of support for the US at home, abroad, and among foreign nations recently opposed to the war. There are backlashes against those who criticized the White House’s actions leading up to the war, and now, there are even those encouraging progressives to support the war—for progressive reasons.
In an article on Salon, Edward W. Lempinen tries to make this point:
“What are we doing to make sure that not another woman is raped or beheaded as a form of political terror? What are we doing to make sure that not another man is humiliated and rendered mute and powerless as the ex-general was? What are we doing to shut down the headquarters of General Intelligence? In the community of human rights monitors, work toward these goals is heroic and often dangerous. These would seem also to be urgent goals for all who consider themselves progressive. But for the most part, in all the angry debate over the war, the left rarely discusses these issues. We acknowledge Saddam as a ruthless dictator and lament his human rights abuses, but we focus our rage on Bush.”
War is a time of extreme chaos. As people slide into increasingly reactive states of mind and opinion, it’s critical to remind ourselves why this is a bad war: not for leftists or anti-Bushies or pacifists, but for America.
The Pre-emption Doctrine
This war is the first war of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. The White House has given many reasons why we should invade Iraq, but this is the heart of the argument: because of the “clear and present danger” Iraq poses to the United States, the US is justified in taking a pre-emptive strike. That the US is its own final arbiter in choosing which nations to attack—and when and how—was made clear when the it ignored the will of the UN and began bombing Baghdad today.
The precedent this doctrine establishes is as counter to the United States’ ideals as a democratic nation, and it places the country outside the scope of international law or world oversight. Whether this is relevant to American citizens isn’t exactly the point: rather, the very position the US has placed itself strategically—as an uncooperative member of the world politic—should alarm a nation fighting terrorism.
The Moral War
The second-most cited argument for this war is that we must defeat a ruthless dictator. This argument is well-established; it’s the emotional counterbalance to the realpolitik of pre-emption. It is the argument that appeals to good-hearted people, from Ma and Pa Main Street to Edward W. Lempinen to President Bartlett on the West Wing. But it is a hollow and simplistic argument.
1.) There are some dozens of dictatorial regimes throughout the globe. If the United States is prepared to make the argument that it is going on a campaign of ridding the world of tyrants, so be it. But: let’s have an open dialogue about which regimes are going to be targeted; let us hear which countries are next and why they are more or less dictatorial than others on the list; let’s be very clear that impediments like, say, the presence of nuclear weapons, will not deter us from our righteous cause. If a country is prepared to make foreign policy priorities based on the protection of human rights and liberty, it better damn well get in the business of protecting human rights and liberty—not just use it as an excuse when the opportunity arises.
2.) If the US is serious about protecting human life and liberty globally, Americans should demand that it sever ties with famously repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. If we’re about human life and liberty, then we’re about human life and liberty.
3.) If the US is sincerely committed to the protection of human rights, we should expect to see serious cooperation with foreign governments at all levels—not just invasions when it suits the White House. This means addressing the economic, natural resources, nutritional, educational, and medical needs of the countries that are destabilized by these problems. It means seriously dealing with Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, Russia-Chechnya, and so on.
On a less hyperbolic note, if the White House is serious about addressing human rights around the globe, we should expect a very serious articulation of this plan, as fully formed as the pre-emption doctrine. Americans are prepared to give the President latitude here, but not based on the mendacious, craven arguments he has thus far advanced.
The Safety Argument
The final significant argument advance by the proponents of war is that it will ensure the United States’ safety. The superficial justification is that Iraq poses an immediate threat to its neighbors, and a distant threat to the US through “terror networks.” Yet no one buys this one: the Iraqis have been under the literal shadow of US planes for a dozen years and is no threat to its neighbors; as to terror links—not a single other country has agreed that these exist.
The more substantial argument here is geopolitical. It’s also the most appealing argument—Saddam Hussein is a dangerous tyrant, and does seem capable of anything. But here again, there’s a credibility problem. With the changed world situation after 9/11, the US for the first time has a serious threat to its own soil. Realignment after the Soviet collapse have made power centers of Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, and Pyongyang. As the White House addresses these challenges, the argument that Baghdad should consume the US’s attention, money, and resources is weak at best. Is Baghdad more of a threat than Pyongyang? Actually, it might be—but here again we have the credibility problem: Bush never made the argument. His assertions shift from misleading, absent, or untrue evidence to simplistic moralizing. Based on nothing more than that, what should Americans think?
The White House never made a clear argument about why it invaded Iraq. That’s reason enough to oppose a war. But far worse, the President introduced a number of foreign policy shifts to justify this war that remain unexamined, unexplained, and hidden behind false arguments.
It doesn’t’ mater how this war turns out. The very act of going to war establishes a number of dangerous precedents: the US is now prepared to go to war arbitrarily against whom it deems the most dangerous—without public dialogue or international collaboration—without clear disclosure to American citizens about the cost, risks, hidden political and commercial goals, or long term benefits.
This is what reasonable Americans need to separate from the chaos of war, the flashy logos, and the thunderous wartime rhetoric: we all need to keep our eye on the ball. This war is a bad war because it has no clear foundation, no clear objectives, and puts into place policy priorities that American citizens should be loth to follow.
Finally, a post about what it was like to live in that time. In this case, for a pacifist who opposed the war for months before it started.
Monday, March 31, 2003
War and Rage4:09 PM
Pure pacifism is a philosophy few people embrace. There’s something about the image of armed soldiers massing on the border that will impel most folks to take up arms—even if it means death. But there’s a simple logic to the pacifist argument that stops the majority from dismissing it altogether: that the violence of war necessarily produces hatred and violence, not peace and reconciliation.
Say what you will about pacifism, but this much is true: the war’s been magnificent for creating anger. I know I’ve sunk into a kind of torpid rage—something like being sleep-deprived but simultaneously jittery from too much coffee. Last week I pored over the news, ostensibly trying to “stay informed,” but aware that I was looking for evidence to support my growing hatred over the arrogance and stupidity of our administration’s actions. Without projecting too much, I believe I can say I saw clear evidence that others were equally falling prey to their anger.
The problem is that as my hatred grows, my certainty over its cause does, too. As the week wore on, I realized I wasn’t able to contemplate the possibility that the administration had ever had a noble motivation: every bit of information I took in enraged me, and my rage encouraged me to believe the worst. And those who support the war were either violent imperialists or stooges.
The moment I realized how far gone I was came with the report of the Iraqi suicide bomber. Suffice it to say that the thoughts I had weren’t human: they were vile and twisted.
If I could offer up one great wish for the outcome of this war, it’s that we find a way to locate each other’s humanity and to forgive ourselves for acting and speaking (and even thinking) out of our fear and suspicion. I know that everyone’s anger comes from the same kind of fear and sense of helplessness I experience. We react from that emotion in ways most of us probably later regret. But there is some hope there: we can also more easily understand why we do and say the things we do and say during these extreme times.
So I’m going to take a week off from blogging. I’m going to skip the news updates and where possible, avoid basting myself in the acid of my own bile. With any luck, the next time I hear about some horror that happened in Iraq, I’ll react with the kind of normal human compassion I actually feel for the Iraqis and US soldiers trapped in this inhuman situation.