What's Left

May 20, 2003

You and whose army?

By Stephen Gowans

Anyone who says the sun will rise tomorrow runs the risk of being wrong, (not that anyone will be around the next day to rub his or her nose in it.) Which is to say that when it comes to matters of prediction, only time can tell for sure. So, with the American and British occupying armies having had more than ample opportunity to uncover the nasty weapons Tony Blair and Colin Powell assured us Saddam Hussein had waiting on the shelf, ready to be deployed faster than you can say "Emmanuel Goldstein," it now appears that time has told. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at least none that anyone can find -- not UN inspectors, and now, not the US or British militaries.

Of course, you wouldn't know that people have been hoodwinked. No one really talks about it all that much, the attack on Iraq now regarded as water under the bridge, like previous attacks on so many other countries. What little discussion does go on in connection with Iraq, follows three streams: (1) it's not true that Washington lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, (2) there was a misunderstanding, but it doesn't really matter, and (3) who cares?

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who seems to follow H.L. Menken's observation that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of Americans, can be found at the center of the "it's not true that we lied" discussion. Says Rice of the Pentagon's failure to stumble over any of Saddam's banned weapons:  "It was a sophisticated deception effort, and it will take some time to untangle that," this presumably referring to a "sophisticated deception effort" on the part of the Baathist regime, not a "sophisticated deception effort "on the part of the Bush regime to conjure up a pretext for war.

All our allegations were tripled sourced, says Rice's cabinet colleague, Powell, suggesting the WMD claim must have been true. And, it follows, from this unassailable premise, that if the weapons aren't there now they (a) must have been destroyed before the invasion, or (b) have been cleverly hidden. Both assertions, it may be recalled, were invoked to explain away the failure to find the 100,000 corpses that Washington insisted were strewn across Kosovo, the ostensible reason for another Washington-initiated war, which makes you wonder whether maybe, just maybe, Washington makes all this stuff up, knowing that when the truth is finally uncovered, it will be too late for anyone to do anything about it. And by then, who really cares?

This doesn't take away from the fact that in the latest instance (as in the Kosovo case) the assertions are plainly absurd. To the first, it might be said that it would indeed be a new development in military tactics to destroy one's best weapons on the eve of an invasion by a hostile force. To the second, it might be asked that if, when it mattered most to Iraq to conceal weapons, the US was able to produce "definitive" evidence of their existence, how is that when it no longer matters whether the weapons are discovered--and US inspectors are scouring the country--the US can no longer produce definitive evidence? Surely, this is entirely improbable, and the alternative explanation, that there never were any banned weapons to begin with, is by far the more likely. But then one suspects that were Rice to change her career to astronomy from plotting the take-over of the world on behalf of corporate titans based in the US, she would undertake a vigorous effort to resurrect the unduly complicated Ptolemic model of the solar system, while banishing the Copernican view...that is, if there was something in it for her, like getting the name of the Mount Palomar observatory changed to the Condeeleeza Rice observatory.

If these questions are troubling to Americans who need to believe in their president, there's relief. For there is now a developing view that if the invasion was launched on the understanding that the Iraqi regime was violating UN resolutions by possessing banned weapons, and that understanding was wrong, it was entirely Saddam Hussein's fault. He deliberately occasioned "ambiguity," and failed to prove that he didn't have banned weapons. The problem with this, however, is that when Blair was trumpeting his dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- parts of which were plagiarized, complete with grammar errors, from a dated report available on the Internet authored by a graduate student -- there was no ambiguity at all. It was abundantly evident, said Blair, that Saddam had banned weapons. And later, Powell praised the unambiguous dossier.

Add to this the question of whether a negative can be proved. If we were to follow the view that the accused must prove themselves innocent, rather than the accuser proving the accused guilty, the police could round up anyone at will, and moreover, the prosecution could be guaranteed convictions. In this case, however, the sequence of events goes like this: Accuser says accused is guilty and produces evidence, now shown to be fabricated. When accuser is accused of lying, he says, I didn't lie, I was misled by the accused, who should have proved to me that my accusations were false.

Which brings us to a third stream of discussion, a not very involved or detailed one, for it reduces to two words: Who cares?  This is not to say that people don't care, only that life moves on, and that (1) there's not a lot that anyone can do within the comforts of their everyday life, (2) there's not a lot that anyone can think of doing, and (3) there's not a lot that anyone is prepared to do. Which is why, when someone jumps up and down about Washington predicating its attack on Iraq on bullshit, most people say, "It's too bad, but look, it hasn't hurt me, and in the end the people of Iraq will probably be better off anyway. So, you know, it's not something I'm going to get agitated about."

Pointing this out seems depressingly pessimistic, the surface manifestation perhaps of a hidden agenda to discourage activism against the Bush administration, but it's not that at all. It's only an attempt to understand something rather startling: The United States, backed by a British toady, has attacked another country, in defiance of international law and world opinion, on what, were they true, would have been dubious grounds at best, but which are now known with almost complete certainty to have been false, and the unfavorable reaction in the US, such as it is, is mild, outweighed by flag waving. Which means that the United States can continue to jackboot about the globe without a lot of bother and opposition at home, and, moreover, notwithstanding any of the wishful thinking that public opinion has become a second superpower.

But then, there's nothing really new in this, for the United States has, on other occasions, attacked other countries, in defiance of international law, contemptuous of global public opinion, and on entirely contrived grounds, and got away with it. And it gets away with it for its leaders can utter, now, more than ever, and without any hubris at all, that playground challenge: You and whose army are going to stop me? It can also rely on its adventures not stirring up too much discomfort among its own population, if any, or of demanding any clearly apprehended sacrifice on the part of Americans. Americans' penchant for obedience and deference to authority, doesn't hurt either in keeping the population largely quiescent, a proclivity which has led a Canadian pollster to marvel that despite Americans' cherished belief that they are rebel individualists, the description is now more aptly applied to their northern neighbors, who, if the received wisdom were to be believed, are supposed to be the more inclined to politely submit to authority.

"American deference to patriarchal and hierarchical authority...has led to much rallying around the flag," says pollster Michael Adams. "Even half of Democrats feel it is unpatriotic to question their president."  But in Canada, notes Adams, "[n]ot questioning the prime minister is seen as a failure if not of democratic verve, then of intelligence."

"Who is the leader of the opposition in the United States," Adams asks. "Michael Moore?"

Which isn't to say that Canada is a hotbed of anarchism, only that when compared to Americans' knee-jerk flag waving, it's not hard to come off looking like the true rebel individualists. ("Neighbours growing apart," The Globe and Mail, May 20, 2003.)

Indeed, there are disturbing parallels between Nazi Germany and the US, parallels in the value placed on deference to authority, as well as parallels between the two in strong militarism, and in robust nationalism (called patriotism in the US), the latter of which leaders are able to tap into to set immense evil into motion. Hitler, who is widely decried for his wickedness, was able to manipulate what was perhaps the greater evil -- German nationalism and unquestioning obedience. And yet, nationalism, and unquestioning obedience, are unlikely to get a television series made about them. Instead, following in the tradition of the great man theory of history, we get "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." But, when last I checked, Hitler wasn't the sole denizen of Germany in the 30's and '40's. But like all those fluff pieces that business writers like to pen for Business Week about hard-driving, risking taking corporate CEOs, we're to believe that the world, and major businesses, are run by a few, well-paid, powerful, individuals. The rest of us apparently just exist, doing nothing more than spectating.

Of course, this is all wrong. A better television series, by which I mean closer to the truth, would be called: "German Nationalism and Unquestioning Obedience: Wellspring of Great Evil", which could be followed by, "Zionist Nationalism: The Rise of Evil" and "American Patriotism: How Washington Gets Away With Mass Murder."

To deny that Bush, and presidents before him, have played the patriotism card, relying on a heavily indoctrinated populations' readiness to click its heels and fall in behind its "commander in chief," is to deny what's staring everyone in the face, and would be noticed, if critics weren't too busy dreaming up new ways to ridicule Bush and pin the blame on him alone and "patriots" weren't too busy rooting out all references to France in the national vocabulary. The common practice of referring to the military's commander in chief as being the commander in chief of all Americans is an egregious example of US militarism and also a glimpse into America's sympathy for dictatorship, an institution that is all right, it seems, just so long as the dictator is replaced at least once every eight years by a carbon copy of the last. To Americans, the charge that the country is largely fascist is considered too loony to be worth considering, but then, the guy who eats three bowls of roasted garlic soup hardly ever notices his own stink.

Meanwhile, those Americans not so inclined to share in the heel-clicking deference to the uniquely American version of a dictator, are mostly engaged in letting their attention roam the world in search of human rights violators, while allowing their own government to get on with the business of outraging the sovereignty of other countries, while perpetrating outrageous human rights violations both at home and abroad. So it is that there can be a high-profile campaign of denouncing Cuba for executing three hijackers and jailing scores of people who were working with Washington to return capitalism to Cuba, while nothing with quite the same profile has greeted the imprisonment under deplorable conditions of hundreds of people from dozens of countries in a concentration camp at Gautanamo Bay, well out of reach of US law; nor has much been said about Washington joining Tel Aviv in the practice of extrajudicial assassination.

For all that it matters, my own view is that capital punishment is wrong, no matter who does it, or what the context (context becoming a nice word for "apologetics,") but on the other hand, a good deal of the repression, human rights violations and killing that goes on in official US target countries happens as a defensive manoeuvre against US depredations (which doesn't make them any less wrong, but does make them less likely to happen if Washington backs off.) Westerners who are truly concerned about repression and killing would be better served by mustering the courage to keep pressure on their own governments to stop pressuring small countries, while taking their own governments to task for their own repression and killing. Better still would be getting on with the business of replacing Western capitalist democracy with something better, something that isn't driven to outrage the sovereignty of other countries in an inexorable quest for new markets, new resources and new sources of cheap labor. Unfortunately, it is much easier to criticize foreign governments, and especially those that are objects of ritualistic abuse, than it is to criticize one's own government, especially in the US where political opposition on foreign policy is considered almost tantamount to treason, and where critics are either ignored, or ridiculed and traduced when they can't be ignored, just as much by fellow activists as by the establishment. It is also much easier to talk about helping people in other countries throw off tyranny and build better societies, than to get around to the far more difficult task of building a better society at home.

While it might be pessimistic, it is not unrealistic to predict that the sovereignty of other nations will soon be outraged, yet again, on grounds as dubious and false as those on which Iraq's sovereignty was outraged. Once it becomes clear that Washington's new outrages were, as all others, based on deception, the likely response will be a resigned, ho-hum...yet again. As to the activist corps, it will take time from its accustomed practice of slamming each other, to organize a few demonstrations, before returning to hurling accusations of Stalinism or left infantilism or whatever particular slight is favored in whatever particular clique the accuser resides. As to any kind of real political opposition in the US, that will be left, as ever, to Michael Moore.

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What's Left