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A Template for the U.S. War in Iraq

The composition of a coherent historical narrative is no easy task. Fortunately, the aspiring historian of the current U.S. war in Iraq can draw upon earlier narratives to ease the burden, merely substituting a word here and there in order to make the text accord with the specific names and places that are now pertinent. As the following illustrative statements show, however, basic patterns tend to persist, so one need not suffer through a protracted new search for how a particular war has come to be fought. My textual changes to apply the model to the present war appear in brackets.

To gain popular support for so useless a policy [as attacking and occupying Iraq] Republicans were unrelenting in their efforts to arouse jingo sentiment in the country.

The Democrats, too, were eager for a foreign adventure.

. . . the American people could indeed be diverted from their domestic concerns if the right sort of foreign crusade was offered.

By inciting hatred of [Saddam], by crying up interventionist pretexts, by encouraging the rebels to prolong their struggle, by entangling America officially in [Iraq's] affairs, the interventionists bent themselves to the task of turning passive, if promising, sympathy [for oppressed Iraqis] into active, fighting support.

. . . interventionist sentiment ran strong in both parties.

. . . there was nothing independent about the American press. It was, overwhelmingly, a party press, a press that echoed to the point of slavishness the policies and propaganda of one or the other major party.

Of the mendacious warmongering journalism of the American press, suffice to say that everything that would inflame public sentiment against [Iraq's regime] was prominently reported, exaggerated, or fabricated.

[As George W. Bush took office in 2001] . . . the major eastern businessmen looked forward to a business-minded administration with zeal neither for domestic reforms nor for any drastic departure from America’s traditionally modest foreign policy, a topic on which [Bush] never spoke.

On the whole, men thought him amiably weak.

There was nothing subtle about [Bush's] dealings with [Iraq]. From the start he claimed the right to dictate [Iraq's] conduct . . . and to intervene by force should that conduct fail to meet the American government’s approval.

The Democrats, by now, were a united, vociferous war party . . . .

. . . the [9/11 attacks] wrought a profound change in American public sentiment.

Although the [9/11 attacks] produced no clamor for war [against Iraq], it had made the great majority of Americans impatient for the first time to see matters settled in [Iraq], by American intervention if necessary.

The American ultimatum [to the Iraqi government] was harsh.

Had [Bush] been seeking a peaceful solution, the [Iraqi] concessions certainly provided the basis for one.

Few sovereign nations have ever made such concessions to a foreign power in peacetime over their own internal affairs. It availed [Iraq] nothing.

[On March 19, 2003] . . . the President delivered his war message . . . . the President concluded quite falsely that he had “exhausted” all diplomatic means to secure peace. ["Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly — yet, our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder," Bush declared.]

Popular support for the war was more than overwhelming. It was joyful, exuberant, ecstatic. Americans greeted the war in a tumultuous holiday spirit . . . .

What was there to fret about? America was good! America was true! [Free Iraq!] In that spirit, generous and giddy, righteous and irresponsible, the American people rallied to war against a fifth-rate power under the leadership of their ostensibly peace-loving President.

To conquer and rule [Iraq] as [a de facto] American colony was [George W. Bush's] principal war aim.

The [U.S. armed forces] . . . . in about [a month's] time, . . . . destroyed the hapless hulks that passed for the [Iraqi army]. The battle was no more perilous than target practice since [U.S. bomber crews, tank crews, artillerymen, and cruise missile crews] simply fired at will out of range of the [Iraqi] guns. . . . News of [quick U.S. victories] sent the populace into a fit of ecstatic rejoicing.

Logic is no help to the vanquished.

. . . international law is no help to the vanquished either.

Reluctant acceptance of a fait accompli was the keynote of the propaganda campaign. . . . The American people were invariably described as already demanding what the propagandists were trying to get them to accept.

The debasement of language by political mendacity was never more aptly illustrated than in the [neoconservatives'] desperate pretense that imperialism was a popular movement. . . . Above all, the propagandists, again following [Bush], made frantic efforts to deny any imperialist intentions. . . . It was attributed to the working of “destiny.” It was deemed not the design of men, but of “Providence.” . . . America’s control of [Iraq], so the propagandists insisted, brought distasteful but unavoidable “duty” in its train, namely the duty to rule [Iraq, either directly or via Iraqi puppets]. . . . [Bush] himself sternly repudiated the term “imperialism.” . . . If America was becoming an imperial power, it was an empire purely by inadvertence. So the propagandists insisted.

Had the Democrats marshaled their party strength against [Bush's] designs, those designs would never have succeeded. Even without a Democratic opposition, the American people, with nothing to guide them save ceaseless [war] propaganda, were painfully divided and confused about [Iraq]. Even at war’s end, with the American flag flying over [Baghdad], there was no grass-roots demand for retaining [Iraq] and no evidence that a majority even favored it. . . . For the success of [Bush's] imperial design the silent complicity of the Democrats proved decisive.

To supplement his secular argument from chance, [Bush] also invoked the Deity.

The very politicians who had castigated [the Iraqi regime] for trying to crush [Kurdish and Shiite] guerrillas now supported American’s military efforts to crush [Sunni] guerrillas.

So, boys and girls, you see that there’s no trouble at all to manufacturing a war in the modern United States. The same blueprint serves for all occasions; the U.S. regime need only employ the raw materials at hand; and the people fall for the same tricks every time — or, at least, by the time they wake up to what has been done, it’s too late.

For those who wish to examine the original source of my template, it is as follows:

Notes on the Spanish-American War, from Walter Karp’s Politics of War

The following statements are excerpted from Walter Karp, The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920) (New York: Harper and Row, 1979). Page numbers appear in brackets.

To gain popular support for so useless a policy Republicans were unrelenting in their efforts to arouse jingo sentiment in the country. [31]

The Democrats, too, were eager for a foreign adventure. [41]

. . . the American people could indeed be diverted from their domestic concerns if the right sort of foreign crusade was offered. [48]

By inciting hatred of Spain, by crying up interventionist pretexts, by encouraging the rebels to prolong their struggle, by entangling America officially in Cuban affairs, the interventionists bent themselves to the task of turning passive, if promising, sympathy into active, fighting support. [49]

. . . interventionist sentiment ran strong in both parties. [56]

. . . there was nothing independent about the American press. It was, overwhelmingly, a party press, a press that echoed to the point of slavishness the policies and propaganda of one or the other major party. [57]

Of the mendacious warmongering journalism of the American press, suffice to say that everything that would inflame public sentiment against Spain was prominently reported, exaggerated, or fabricated. [58]

[As William McKinley took office in 1897] . . . the major eastern businessmen looked forward to a business-minded administration with zeal neither for domestic reforms nor for any drastic departure from America’s traditionally modest foreign policy, a topic on which McKinley never spoke. [66]

On the whole, men thought him amiably weak. [69]

There was nothing subtle about McKinley’s dealings with Spain. From the start he claimed the right to dictate Spain’s conduct in Cuba and to intervene by force should that conduct fail to meet the American government’s approval. [80]

The Democrats, by now, were a united, vociferous war party . . . . [85]

. . . the Maine explosion wrought a profound change in American public sentiment. [88]

Although the explosion produced no clamor for war, it had made the great majority of Americans impatient for the first time to see matters settled in Cuba, by American intervention if necessary. [88]

The American ultimatum was harsh. [91]

Had McKinley been seeking a peaceful solution, the Spanish concessions certainly provided the basis for one. [92]

Few sovereign nations have ever made such concessions to a foreign power in peacetime over their own internal affairs. It availed Spain nothing. [92]

On April 11, the President delivered his war message to Congress. . . . the President concluded quite falsely that he had “exhausted” all diplomatic means to secure peace. [93]

Popular support for the war was more than overwhelming. It was joyful, exuberant, ecstatic. Americans greeted the war in a tumultuous holiday spirit . . . . [94]

What was there to fret about? America was good! America was true! Cuba Libre! In that spirit, generous and giddy, righteous and irresponsible, the American people rallied to war against a fifth-rate power under the leadership of their ostensibly peace-loving President. [94]

To conquer and rule the Philippines as an American colony was William McKinley’s principal war aim. [96]

The [U.S.] Asiatic Squadron . . . . in about an hour’s time, it destroyed the hapless hulks that passed for the Spanish fleet. The battle was no more perilous than target practice since Dewey’s ships simply fired at will out of range of the Spanish guns. . . . News of Dewey’s victory sent the populace into a fit of ecstatic rejoicing. [98]

Logic is no help to the vanquished. [103]

. . . international law is no help to the vanquished either. [104]

Reluctant acceptance of a fait accompli was the keynote of the propaganda campaign. . . . The American people were invariably described as already demanding what the propagandists were trying to get them to accept. [104]

The debasement of language by political mendacity was never more aptly illustrated than in the annexationists’ desperate pretense that imperialism was a popular movement. . . . Above all, the propagandists, again following McKinley, made frantic efforts to deny any imperialist intentions. . . . It was attributed to the working of “destiny.” It was deemed not the design of men, but of “Providence.” . . . America’s control of the Philippines, so the propagandists insisted, brought distasteful but unavoidable “duty” in its train, namely the duty to rule the islands. . . . McKinley himself sternly repudiated the term “imperialism.” . . . If America was becoming an imperial power, it was an empire purely by inadvertence. So the propagandists insisted. [105]

Had the Democrats marshaled their party strength against McKinley’s designs, those designs would never have succeeded. Even without a Democratic opposition, the American people, with nothing to guide them save ceaseless expansionist propaganda, were painfully divided and confused about the Philippines. Even at war’s end, with the American flag flying over Manila, there was no grass-roots demand for retaining the Philippines and no evidence that a majority even favored it. . . . For the success of McKinley’s imperial design the silent complicity of the Democrats proved decisive. [106]

To supplement his secular argument from chance, McKinley also invoked the Deity. [108]

The very politicians who had castigated Spain for trying to crush Cuban guerrillas now supported American’s military efforts to crush Filipino guerrillas. [110]

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Against Leviathan.

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