What's Left

December 17, 2002

Can war be avoided?

By Stephen Gowans

"Absolutely I think war can be avoided," says actor Sean Penn, currently on a tour of Iraq sponsored by the Institute of Public Accuracy, a U.S. group of policy analysts.

"But obviously it's going to take enormous commitment on the part of the Iraqi government as well as the United States," Penn adds.

The actor may soon have to change his name to Pollyanna Penn.

The war, sadly, has already started. Stepped up bombing raids in the illegally imposed no-fly zones attest to that.
And a war that began as the Persian Gulf war over a decade ago and has simply changed form -- morphing from high-level aggression into sanctions of mass destruction and low-level conflict marked by regular bombing sorties -- has never ended.

Granted, Penn is talking about the threat of the war entering a new, intensely aggressive, phase, one which a group of British medical professionals estimates could kill up to 500,000 Iraqis.

Already, 250,000 Iraqis have been killed during, and in the immediate aftermath, of the Persian Gulf War. And sanctions are estimated to have caused over one-million deaths. Add another one-half million to the toll, and the United States and its allies will have killed over two million people in Iraq --  a frightening addition to the mountain of dismembered, crushed, and wizened bodies that have either stood in the way, or simply got in the way, of Washington's raw imperialism.

(The American military magazine, Stars and Stripes, lays to rest any illusions about the United States not being an imperialist power. There are, boasts the magazine, some 200,000 American troops in over 100 foreign countries.)

So what is that Penn thinks is going to make Washington rethink its plan to add 500,000 more corpses to the grim mountain of bodies that is the American Golgotha?

Will George W. Bush be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future? Or will Donald Rumsfeld's heart suddenly grow three sizes, some time after Cindy Lou Hussein discovers Rumsfeld trying to rip off Iraq's oil?

I know it's churlish to point this out. Penn's courage, his principles, his efforts deserve to be lauded. But wishful thinking can sometimes get the better of reason, and while it's encouraging to believe you can last 12 rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson, one's better served by recognizing the world as it is, not as you hope it could be.

Only one besotted by an excess of sanguinity could fail to spot the utter resolve of Washington to take Baghdad. It has been on display in a thousand ways, shouted by a thousand mouths, splashed across the op-ed pages of a thousand newspapers, ever since the day after Sept. 11, 2001 when [as the journalist and filmmaker John Pilger recounts]:

"Without any evidence of who the hijackers were, Rumsfeld demanded that the US attack Iraq. According to [Bob] Woodward [in a series of articles in the Washington Post], Rumsfeld told a cabinet meeting that Iraq should be 'a principal target of the first round in the war against terrorism'. Iraq was temporarily spared only because Colin Powell, the secretary of state, persuaded Bush that 'public opinion has to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible'. Afghanistan was chosen as the softer option."

The Pew study: This survey stinks

Has the administration softened public opinion? According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, it has. Almost two-thirds of Americans favor "military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein's rule," while nine of 10 Americans say Iraq poses a danger to the Middle East. What's more, over 85 percent say Saddam Hussein should be removed from power. Only in the United States is support for the administration's claims this strong.

Public opinion research itself, it should be noted, can form an important part of the softening up campaign, serving three functions: First, as a gauge for Washington to fine-tune its propaganda efforts; second, to reinforce key administration points through the way survey questions are framed; and third, to convey the message that the American people stand behind the administration.

Let's look at the way the Pew study frames key questions.

(Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is the chair of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Albright earned notoriety for telling interviewer Leslie Stahl that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children traceable to sanctions, while regrettable, was worth it. )

The best way to do this is to imagine yourself at home, eating dinner. The telephone rings, and you pick it up.

"Hi, I'm calling from Princeton Data Source. We're doing a public opinion study on behalf of the Pew Research Center For The People and The Press. Do you have a few moments to spare to answer some questions?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Thinking about a possible war with Iraq, would you favor or oppose taking military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein's rule?"

[The questions, as presented here, are exactly as they appeared in the Pew study.]

"Just a second, I dropped my fork. Can you repeat the question?"

"Certainly. Thinking about a possible war with Iraq, would you favor or oppose taking military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein's rule?"

"Well, you know honestly, I don't think a possible war would have much to do with ending Saddam Hussein's rule alone. I think it has more to do with getting control of Iraq's oil. So, I don't really know how to answer that question, because I don't accept the premise."

"So, are you opposed or in favor?"

"Well, I'm neither, because I don't accept the premise of the question."

"But I have to put down 'opposed' or 'in favor.' If you had to lean in one direction or the other, assuming you did accept the premise, in which direction would you lean?"

"Opposed, I guess."

"Okay. How much danger is the current government in Iraq to stability in the Middle East and to world peace? A great danger, moderate danger, small danger, or no danger at all?"

"Well, hold on. It seems to me that there's an imbalance here. You've given me three chances to say Iraq is a danger -- it's either a great danger, a moderate danger, or a small danger -- but only one chance to say it's no danger. And you've asked two questions. Is Iraq a danger to stability in the Middle East? Is Iraq a danger to world peace? Well, let me tell you what I think. I think Iraq is a small danger to stability in the Middle East, and no danger to world peace. And I believe the greatest danger of all to world peace and stability in the Middle East is the United States. Do you have a question on that?"

"No sir, I'm sorry, we only have questions on whether Iraq, North Korea and Iran are dangers. Not the United States."

"So, in other words, you only have questions on what Bush calls the 'axis of evil' powers, as if to say those are the only countries I could possibly see as dangers."

"Um, anyway, sir, is Iraq a great danger, a moderate danger, a small danger, or no danger at all?"

"No danger at all."

"How about North Korea?"

"No danger."

"And how about Iran? A great danger, a ..."

"No danger at all."

"Okay, thank-you. Moving to the next question. Which of these two options is the best way to deal with the possible threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Do you think he can be disarmed but left in power, or do you think he has to be removed from power."

"I already told you that I don't think Iraq is a threat. So why would you ask me how I would deal with a possible threat when I don't believe there is a possible threat?"

"Well, assuming that you did think Iraq was a possible threat, how would you deal with Saddam Hussein? Do you think he can be disarmed but left in power, or do you think he has to be removed from power."


"I'm sorry?"


"I don't understand."

"Well, I don't favor either option. I don't think he should be disarmed and I don't think he should be removed from power, at least not by us."

"I'm sorry, sir, that's not one of the options."

"On the contrary, it is one of the options."

"No, I mean it's not one of the allowable answers to the question."

"Well, then I refuse to answer the question."

"That's fine, sir, I'll just mark you down as 'don't know'."

"But I do know. The problem is that whoever wrote these questions doesn't know how to write a question that doesn't announce his or her bias. I mean, look at the options. Remove Saddam and disarm him. Disarm him and leave him in place. But there are two other possibilities: Don't disarm him and don't remove him. The other is 'remove him, but don't disarm Iraq.' What happened to these two possibilities?"

"I'm sorry, sir, I don't know. Should I mark you down as refused."

"Yeah, whatever."

"Next question. What's the greater international threat to our country, Saddam Hussein's continued rule in Iraq, or the continuing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians?"


"I'm sorry, sir. I don't have a 'neither' option."

"I thought this was a public opinion survey."

"It is."

"Well, that's my opinion: neither. The greatest threat to our country is neither Saddam Hussein nor Israel's ethnic cleansing campaign in Palestine; it's imperialism run amok that comes from Washington."

"Okay, I'll just put you down as 'don't know."

"Why don't you write down what my opinion is?"

"Because there's no option that matches your opinion."

"So you mean, this public opinion survey is just like the range of policies on offer in Washington? There are only a few options, all of them having something to do with transgressing the sovereignty of other countries, and there's no non-interventionist option, and I'm supposed to sit here and say, 'Yeah, fine, I'll be happy with whatever restricted choice you give me'?"

"I'm sorry, sir, I didn't write the questions. Perhaps I could just put you down as refused?"

"Okay, write down refused then."

"Okay, final question, sir. In your opinion, which of the following better explains why the US might use military force against Iraq? Is it more because the US believes that Saddam Hussein is a threat to stability in the Middle East and world peace or is it more because the US wants to control Iraqi oil?"

"Iraqi oil."

"Thank-you sir. That's all the questions I have for you tonight."

Public opinion as a public management problem

Unusual are public opinion surveys that don't have a bias, either deliberate or unintended, so it's hard to say just how strong American support for a stepped up phase of the war is. Optimists could point out that despite the Pew survey being clearly biased in Washington's favor  almost one-quarter of Americans believe their government is after Iraq's oil wells and oppose an all-out attack.

Still, it's unlikely that a majority are opposed, or more significantly, it's unlikely a majority being opposed would make any difference -- not by itself. It's not as if legislators and the administration are waiting for polling results to come in to tell them what to do. Yet, so deep is American naiveté about how immaterial their own views are to public and foreign policy, that it sometimes seems it's believed that all you have to do is have public opinion on your side, to invite a Christmas visitation to the White House by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future to redeem George W. Bush.  Public opinion, by itself, matters only insofar as it points to large numbers of people being willing to commit themselves to disrupting the orderly functioning of the society, but public opinion; by itself, is one ingredient short of making any difference.

To official Washington, on the other hand, public opinion matters only insofar as it threatens to lead to disruption, and is treated, therefore,  as a public management problem, not as a policy bellwether. The usual response to public opinion shifting against policy is to step up "our communication efforts." So it is that when Britons in a majority expressed reservations about Prime Minister Tony Blair's passively following wherever George W. Bush led him, Blair vowed he would step up efforts to sway public opinion, not acquiesce to the public will (this being the 'democratic' thing to do. When the people don't want to follow, we make them follow. That's the kind of democracy we'd like to bestow upon the benighted regions of the world.) What's more, with America's liberals and progressives willing to buy into administration propaganda as a too-clever-by-half tactic of expressing their opposition ("Sure, we think Saddam is a menace and democracy should be promoted in Iraq, but here's how we'd do it") managing public opinion is a snap.

A radicalized Sean Penn

A radicalized Sean Penn may have spoken different words.

"No, I don't think a new aggressive phase of the slaughter can be avoided. And that's what it is, isn't it -- a slaughter, not a war? Look, this war, this slaughter, has been going on for over 10 years, and for most of those 10 years the American public had no idea it was going on. In fact, even today, we ask whether it's possible to avoid war when the war is already raging, maybe not as furiously as it will soon, but raging all the same.

"But Iraq's only one of many slaughters Washington has perpetrated. Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Pananama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan. And that's only the instances of direct military intervention. It doesn't include all the proxy wars Washington has sponsored, all the meddling in foreign elections, all the economic warfare. What about Venezuela right now? And Colombia?

"This isn't a problem of this administration or that, of one party or the other. It's a recurrent pattern of behavior, that happens over and over. It's an institutional pattern of militarism and imperialism and almost always has to do in some way with enlarging the interests of US firms and investors, or making the world safe for American capitalism, or crushing the idea that there's a different way to organize societies and economies than one that puts corporations at the top.

"So, no, you don't overthrow that kind of destructive institutional behavior with a few antiwar marches or getting public opinion on your side or writing letters to legislators, not alone anyway.

"You do it by a commitment to replace those institutions, by changing the political and economic arrangements that allow a minority, by virtue of its wealth and economic clout, to rule the Congress, to elect the President, to run the Pentagon, to own the media, to press the military into service to outrage the sovereignty of other countries to accumulate more wealth and more power.

"This war is about Iraq's oil. But it's only part of a larger campaign, that stretches back decades, and is marked by names like Korea and Vietnam and Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and will be marked in the future by names like Iran and North Korea and Syria, and later China and Russia.

"A campaign that's lasted that long, and that has spanned many administrations, doesn't depend on the qualities of the president, good or otherwise. Or public opinion. It has to do with wealth, with plutocracy, and the only way to stop it is by replacing wealth and plutocracy with egalitarianism and democracy. And that means radical change, change that takes economic power out of the hands of the few and puts it in the hands of the many, under public control, for the good of the many.

"When that happens, we'll be able to say, 'Absolutely, a war like this avoidable.' But only then."


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What's Left