Bush's Counterattack

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A month ago, neoconservatives and Bush officials launched a counterattack against the anti-war challenge to their policies.

The campaign began with neoconservative op-eds accusing critics of lying and listing Democrat quotes supportive of war. It continued with old rationales for the Iraq War and Bush’s attacks on the anti-war salient. The campaign peaked this week with the release of a new government war strategy document and a presidential speech.

Not coincidentally, Hillary Clinton released a war policy statement of her own. Impaled on the hook of her October 2002 pro-war vote, she disclaimed responsibility for it. She accused the Bush administration of double-crossing her with empty assurances and false WMD evidence. She childishly took back her vote "Based on the information we have today."

Bush gave his speech at the U.S. Naval Academy before a contingent of midshipmen. Rumsfeld, John Warner, and Pete Hoekstra accompanied him. He pointedly mentioned Rumsfeld’s service as a navy aviator and Warner’s stint as Secretary of the Navy as well as Hoekstra’s role as Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This conveys: We’re all part of the same team, fellows. You’re important, and that’s why we’re all here.

Bush didn’t choose the venue of the speech and the officials on the podium randomly. He wanted to use the occasion to rally, confirm, solidify, and inspire this generation of warriors. They actuate the might of the State. They are part of that might. Bush wanted to hold their loyalty and keep them firm in their individual commitments, especially now, as they hear doubts and questions about their possible missions.

Bush urged his audience to meet their future challenges, as have prior classmates of theirs. In what context? In "the first war of the 21st century: the global war on terror." (Bush means America’s first war.) This he visualizes occurring almost everywhere and lasting until the enemy is everywhere defeated. In other words, forever.

On Iraq, Bush said that "the terrorists have made clear that Iraq is the central front in their war against humanity. And so we must recognize Iraq as the central front in the war on terror."

Two observations. First, Bush is fond of the term "front." The Iraq War has no fronts, but using the term creates the appearance of an ordered battlefield where there is none. Second, he talks as if the Americans have been forced into this battle by the insurgents who have instigated the guerilla war. He has no responsibility in Iraq. All the political and other interests are supposed to kowtow to the U.S. force of arms and obediently march into the hallowed halls of U.S.-shaped democracy. He’s not to blame if they do not! They are ornery and evil.

Bush, and probably many others in power, really did believe that Iraq would be subdued and remade in the American image in a jiffy. Errors like this are a general phenomenon among the powerful. Hillary and many Democrats went along too, didn’t they? They are bright and perceptive people, with vast experience in politics that you and I lack. But unchecked power causes otherwise normal and even very clever human beings to abandon their sensibilities. Politically powerful people have a reduced incentive to act rationally. They have an inflated sense of their own ability to control others.

Bush argues that "If we’re not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our borders." An alternative possibility seems more reasonable. If Americans had not gone into Iraq, thousands of terrorist volunteers would have stayed in their home countries, content to nurse their grievances in other ways, unmotivated to give their lives to rid Muslim lands of intruders, and deaf to the rhetoric of bin Laden or his followers.

Didn’t American intervention ignite and energize a resistance movement just as Europeans developed resistance movements in World War II? Why would we not predict a like event in Iraq?

A ruler who conquers a country and does not expect resistance is acting stupidly. Brutal dictators like Castro and Saddam Hussein know this because their longevity of rule depends on knowing this. Democratic rulers like Bush, who possess unchecked power for a short period of time, do not look ahead far enough. This leads to a variety of foolish acts that harm their subjects. Dictators make just as many mistakes and harm their subjects in other ways. Why would Saddam Hussein engage in a long and fruitless war with Iran if he did not mis-estimate Iran’s power of resistance?

Bush cannot admit publicly he fostered a resistance movement, but he underestimated its chances before the event because he believed that American power would easily prevail. Why would he hold such a skewed belief? He may have had many motives for making war, but being in power is one factor alone that contributed to his seeing the prospects in a biased way.

This happens to all rulers, no matter what their motives. Khrushchev criticized Stalin’s errors before making his own. Hitler’s blunders are legendary. It is a mistake to insulate anyone from accountability for his errors. This happens in all States. It is a basic reason why the rulers of States harm their subjects.

Bush says it is good we are killing the terrorists in Iraq, not in America. Maybe it seems good for some of the uninjured and surviving Americans who cheer him on, but this may be a temporary or short-run condition. Power often hampers the ability to look ahead a sensible time span. It often warps the ability to count all the costs. It often warps the judgment ability in other ways.

Bush’s statement also means that Iraqis count for nothing. Harry Browne has asked what gives Americans the right to occupy Iraq and fight terrorists there. We kill and maim innocent Iraqis as we supposedly are "defeating a direct threat to the American people." Bush’s speech explicitly says that our presence has attracted terrorists to Iraq. They then proceed to kill and maim Iraqis.

Our government proclaims that it does not even bother to keep tabs on Iraqi deaths. Power not only encourages stupidity but also immorality. Power in the form of the State removes the bonds or rules of conventional morality. It becomes right for the rulers of the American State to destroy Iraqis to protect Americans. That’s what a State is for. The State is that great fiction by which what is immoral becomes moral.

The most troubling new element in his speech is Bush’s open talk of marginalizing Sunnis whom he tags as "rejectionists." What happens to people who do not choose to participate in the ongoing state-building process? Official policy is to marginalize them. Bush says he is "working with Iraqis to help them engage those who can be persuaded to join the new Iraq and to marginalize those who never will." This process supposedly helps Iraqis "build a free society, with inclusive democratic institutions that will protect the interests of all Iraqis."

The U.S. kneads and mashes Iraqis into a pliant dough that bakes into a democratic bread. If you cannot be swayed to join, then you are relegated to the lower or outer edge of society. Join the gang running the state or be left out in the cold. Is this freedom? Is this the protection of every individual’s interests?

Bush is tilting American policy further in favor of Shiites. Reports of Shiite police forces torturing and killing Sunnis are growing. This is one unfavorable by-product of American state-building. Bush is also strengthening the hand of fundamental Islam everywhere and that of Iran in particular.

The majority of Bush’s speech asserts the progress of Iraq’s homegrown security forces under American tutelage. In this portion, one would think that Americans would soon be coming home.

However, Bush emphasizes that American withdrawal will not occur until the insurgent movement is no longer a threat to the country’s political stability, until Iraqi forces handle the security of the new state, and until Iraq is no longer a safe haven for terrorists. These are tough conditions to meet, and they mean an American presence for years to come.

Bush is hanging on to his vision of an Iraq democracy that is a staunch American ally. How this is supposed to be assured is anyone’s guess. Such a political situation is then, according to Bush, supposed to inspire democratic movements in Damascus and Teheran.

We agree with the President that there are some very bad guys out there, be they terrorists or whatever, who have not only killed innocent Americans again and again, but also have killed the innocents of many other nationalities. They operate in a subterranean way without sophisticated weapons and with shoestring financing. They are often willing to die for their cause. Their aims vary, but some important ones can usually be identified.

The issues are how to characterize and understand this battle and its sources. We’d like to find effective ways to reduce the numbers and presence of the bad guys to acceptable levels.

Consider how our powerful rulers have responded to terrorism. Has there been an open debate among our rulers, or a debate that broadly engaged the public about the nature of this problem and the alternative methods of handling it? This issue goes back several decades. Have we ever had this debate? Have there been due consideration and action to address it? If there had been, the chance of 9/11/01 occurring would have been greatly reduced. I do not make this statement lightly.

Look at recent history. It is, I think, fair to say that Bush rushed headlong into his war on terror with Iraq as the current centerpiece. He declared his oversimplified vision, and that was that. Now we must reckon with the fallout from a hasty and flawed approach that short-circuited well-balanced and measured consideration of the problem.

Thoughtful consideration of problems is a casualty of the concentration of power in a handful of rulers. Power pits might against mind.

Our rulers claim a monopoly on lawful violence, violence in defense of legitimate rights. If no one can lawfully challenge this claim, then they have a free hand. They need not think matters through thoroughly. They need not consider a broad range of interests. They can act on impulse, or whim, or emotionally. Or they can dawdle and let Rome burn.

Our system of concentrated power places us in the hands of people who can act irresponsibly to us and get away with it for a long enough time to harm us greatly. Impeachment requires some of our rulers to investigate and try others. This is akin to asking the Supreme Court to limit the power of the federal government. We can’t expect this check upon power to be used very often or used wisely.

The moral and ethical issues involved here run deep. By what right does the American State take sides for or against the ruling House of Saud, the Shah of Iran, Somoza, Aristide, the Contras, Egypt, Israel, etc., not just verbal support but force of arms, covert intelligence and other operations, and packages of aid? How do we face up to the fact that the aggressions of terrorists and others upon innocents are means that we ourselves have resorted to with even greater deadly impact for a long, long time?

Moral facts are highly pertinent in any battle. Morality conditions whom we fight, where we fight, why we fight, what we hope to achieve, how we fight, how long we fight, how we motivate ourselves to fight, what price we are willing to pay, and how we know when we have won or lost.

Bush knows this. This is why he repeatedly characterizes the terrorists and the Iraq War in terms to his liking. Bush has the immense power of the bully pulpit to influence the moral context of thought about the war. This is yet another drawback to the concentration of power in rulers.

Most everyone has difficulty in acknowledging his own errors, maybe because we are insecure or underestimate the reservoir of forgiveness in ourselves and others. Add to this normal tendency the possession of great power and you get a ruler capable of making big errors and then not being able to recognize, admit, and correct them. This ruler will self-righteously and stubbornly dig in his heels even as his subjects suffer. Even hugely popular entertainment figures with a seeming monopoly on audiences are prone to turn into monsters.

It is one thing for one of us to be optimistic and make a decision. If we are wrong, we lose. It’s quite another for the power of office to encourage grandiose visions that can end up making us all lose. Such power encourages stupidity, immorality, and warped judgment. The judgment biases show up in all sorts of ways, such as excessive optimism or pessimism, or excessively long or short time horizons, or placing too much or too little weight on bits of information. It is always hard to make decisions under uncertainty. Unaccountable and focused political power make the decisions all the more fallible and all the more costly and serious.

What solution is there except for individual freedom and the accompanying responsibility? This means an about face in many of the directions we are now heading in.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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