What's Left

March 10, 2003

The war that must be won before the battles end

By Stephen Gowans

The American war machine rolls on, ever closer to an all-out attack on Iraq, rolling over the objections of world opinion, ignoring the views of religious leaders and legal scholars and UN arms inspectors, as if they don't matter…and they don't. Millions march in the street, and then go home, and the war planners stay at their desks, planning.  Protests, one million strong, two million strong, invigorate the protestors, for a while, until they realize the war planners are still at work, undeterred, and that an attack will go ahead anyway.

"We've had an impact," the protest organizers announce. Gamely, they add, "There's still time to avert this war." But everyone knows, deep down, there isn't. Not by holding another protest.

Neither the pope nor the head of George W. Bush's church nor Bush's Christianity (empty and pro forma) will stop the attack, and nor will the UN Security Council. This too everyone knows. Nor will warnings from the UN that numberless Iraqis will be killed, disabled, dispossessed of their homes, and driven into refugee camps, stop the US war machine. Human shields – Americans, Canadians and others who've traveled to Iraq to put their bodies between American bombs and Iraqi powerplants and sewage treatment facilities, harboring naïve ideas about how important their lives are to the US government – will have no effect. And least of all will democracy stop the attack.

Two hundred and fifty million Americans could shout, "No to war!" and still Iraqis would be slaughtered in the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands. The majority of the world's people could say – and have said --  "No, this war is wrong!" but still an attack will come, because what the majority of the world's people think or want or feel is a matter of no moment. We're not in charge.

Instead, in a world in which democracy is revered (in words), in a country that claims to be a beacon of democracy to the world (in a public relations fantasy), a small group of unelected men, who surround an unelected president, calls the shots. And that small group decided long ago that Iraq will be attacked – for oil, for control, for a geopolitical advantage over America's competitors. This has been clear for sometime.

Astonishingly, some Americans, and others, think the plans of their government are occult – hidden, disguised, lurking behind high-sounding principles. Which is not to say that government leaders don't invoke high-sounding principles to justify mass murder abroad. They do. But at the same time, they're always pretty clear about what they plan to do. From the moment Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--hours after the Sept. 11 attacks--sought to connect Iraq to the atrocities of that day, it was clear that a final, all-out onslaught on Iraq (to top off a decade of low intensity warfare) was inevitable. Some would say this was clear earlier than that, even before Bush was appointed to the presidency, when key Bush advisors ordered a think-tank to draw up a plan for a new American century, in which the United States would use an indomitable military to consolidate its primacy through force and threat of annihilation, with Iraq one of the first targets.

Later, the administration's warnings that a war on terrorism could last decades, the promulgating of a doctrine of preemptive attack, and then President Bush's declaring Iraq, Iran and North Korea to be an axis of evil, signaled there would be many wars to come.

Astonishingly, some Americans, and others, either weren't listening, or were, and thought the warnings were nothing but empty rhetoric, psychological warfare, aimed at intimidating other countries. And so they thought the administration could be deterred if the weight of public opinion could be swayed against war. And while the depth and breadth of the antiwar movement that has arisen is unprecedented and impressive, it is not disruptive enough to stop this war.

This may sound churlish and be unwelcome and dispiriting, and may be seen to be aimed at undermining opposition to war. But the point is to be clear-eyed, to see what works. To paraphrase a German philosopher, the goal is to change the world. Demonstrations aren't doing that.

Clearly, mass protests, designed to be high-profile expressions of opposition – while useful in many ways -- are impotent in deterring governments from pursuing policies set without regard to public opinion. The usual points about public opinion mattering because governments have to worry about being elected are silly. Who has to worry when your main opponent agrees on the broad strokes of your policy? Who has to worry when your main opponent is subordinate to the same interests that furnish you (and them) the money to run election campaigns?  Who has to worry when the same interests furnish you and your opponent key personnel?

So too are claims that governments seek legitimacy, and therefore can be swayed by highly visible expressions of opposition, more wishful thinking than reality. It's true that governments seek legitimacy, but they seek legitimacy within the context of the policies they intend to pursue, and do so by seeking to change public opinion, not by changing their policies. So it is that British Prime Minister Tony Blair can quite truthfully say that in the face of widespread opposition to Britain joining the attack on Iraq, he will work harder to convince the British people of the merits of war. He won't change his policy. That would not show "leadership," and it's more important to do what is "right" than what is merely popular.

High-profile campaigns of civil disobedience, designed to disrupt the smooth functioning of society, offer more promise, but the costs of civil disobedience to those who would carry it out, are too severe to expect many people to be recruited to the task. And civil disobedience, even among many fervent opponents of the war, is likely to be regarded as undesirable, counter-productive, and hostile to the goal of sustaining mass support. What's more, because the personal costs to Americans and Britons of an attack on Iraq are indirect, difficult to pinpoint, and far from devastating, the motivation for a widespread campaign of civil disobedience lacks a galvanizing personal element. And so it may be that any chance of averting this war is lost, and that the best that can be done is to focus attention on how to avert future wars, not by putting impediments in the way of the war machine, but by dismantling the war machine itself.

Americans have had decades to see that Democrats as much as Republicans are prepared to press the US military into service abroad with devastating consequences for foreign populations to achieve the overriding US foreign policy objective of domination, and the Labour party in Britain has hardly proved less belligerent than the Tories. Clearly, the best hopes for peace do not lie with the Democrats or New Labor.

Nor, it seems, do hopes for peace lie in apolitical, oppositional movements alone. While American radicals place considerable faith in organizing outside the political arena, invoking such slogans as "If voting made any difference it would be illegal, " Americans have also had decades to see that a vigorous opposition to American war in Indochina, to NAFTA, the WTO and IMF, hasn't stopped the US war machine, or threatened the hegemony of neo-liberal economics.

The greatest fear today should be that those who have become engaged politically, will disengage, once it's realized that expressions of opposition, no matter how widespread, have at best postponed an attack, but have done nothing to deter the march to war. While illusions of democracy may be shattered for some, many others will sink into inertia, clear-eyed about the nature of the world in which they live, but unsure whether it can be changed, and what to do to change it. Telling people that war can be averted, if only we write more letters, petition more congressmen, and hold more demonstrations, is not only a lie, it's guaranteed to intensify feelings of helplessness.

A more promising, though by no means difficult and uncertain path, is a political course which seeks systemic change in the institutions that unremittingly push countries to pursue wars of conquest. In the United States, and throughout the Western world, this would involve efforts to elect those committed to establishing democratic control of public policy, removing that control from the hands of defense firms, the oil industry, and large corporations more generally, whose interests are served by military build-ups and wars to control the labor, markets and resources of other countries.

The aim of the program would be to prevent a minority, through its ownership and control of the economy, from dominating the political and economic life of the country. That program would equate the concentration of power over political affairs with the concentration of economic power in the hands of an unelected minority, and would seek a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, and public control of the commanding heights of the economy, as a means of dispersing political power and establishing a robust democracy.

Public opinion, mobilized in opposition to a state that is weakly democratic at best, doesn't put the people in control, and nor does it stop wars. Putting the people in control, by changing the nature of the state, does. That is the war that must be won, if the battles that are foreshadowed in countless ways, in North Korea, in Iran, and beyond, are to be averted.

Go to protests, write letters, sign petitions, but at the same time don't squander those efforts by voting for a Democrat (or New Labour or the NDP) at the next election, or by staying away from the polls. Instead, join or work towards building a political alternative, or supporting one that already exists, that seeks to change the systemic imperatives that drive countries to go to war over and over again. This is the war that must be won before the battles end.


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What's Left