What's Left

October 18, 2003

Can public opinion change the world?

By Stephen Gowans

In the space of a few weeks Israel has targeted Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, announced it will build 600 new homes in three large settlements in the West Bank, (adding to "a settlement population that has been growing at a rate of about 10,000 annually over the past three years" {1}), forged ahead with plans to build a "security" wall that effectively annexes Palestinian territory, attacked Syria, and left as many as 1,240 Palestinians homeless after a raid on the Gaza town of Rafah killed eight, wounded 70, and saw 114 refugee shelters destroyed and another 117 buildings damaged {2}.

None of this produces much outrage anymore. It's just more of the same.

UN Security Council Resolutions are drafted to admonish Israel for its bad behavior, but the US immediately presses its veto into service, while Israel's supporters loudly denounce those bold enough to voice their dismay at Israel's actions, accusing them of being anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, and worst, objectively following in the footsteps of Hitler.

Some press on, despite the slurs, hoping to rouse public opinion to force Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to exercise restraint.

"To Prime Minister Sharon," begins one letter of protest, your "government's disproportionate use of force in the densely populated areas is not compatible with international law. You better realize that you cannot forever play deaf towards world public opinion. The day will come that you will have to account for your deeds. Nobody is immune forever" {3}.

The letter ends, "Remember Pinochet." This is supposed to be a warning -- not a particularly effective one. Pinochet is living a life of luxury in Chile, addled perhaps, but free all the same.

Free too are: Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Wesley Clark, George W. Bush, each key figures in wars of aggression, who have either openly committed crimes against humanity or presided over the commission of war crimes. There is no rule of law where war crimes tribunals are concerned, no impartiality, no justice blindfolded, balance in hand. There is imperialism, and tribunals for those who stand in the way.

How could it be otherwise? There's no overarching authority to see to it that the leaders of the US are dragged from their homes in the dead of night to be whisked away to The Hague to stand trial for bombing North Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos or Libya or Bosnia or Serbia or Afghanistan or Sudan or Iraq. Instead, the US and its underlings appoint themselves cops of the world, and whisk their enemies to The Hague. Alternative mechanisms, the International Criminal Court being emblematic, are readily undermined, as Washington's refusal to sign onto the court, its blackmailing signatory countries to exempt US nationals from prosecution, and the UN's granting US citizens immunity in Iraq, readily attest.

So, if not an overarching authority, what? World opinion? Forget it.

While widely hailed as the world's second superpower, public opinion didn't stop US and British troops marching on Baghdad, in whose wake have followed 20,000 US contractors, to take advantage of a bonanza of profit enhancing opportunities {4}. "People must be drooling," a former military subcontractor in Bosnia said. "It's mind-boggling" {5}. Public opinion is no match for mind-boggling economic opportunities.

Nor has the confirmation of the invasion being based on an outright lie changed the course or nature of the occupation. The world spoke against the war, the war's lies were exposed, and American firms fatten their bottom-lines. And so it goes.

Still, for many people the hope is that public opinion can make some difference. Hence the warning to Sharon: You can't ignore public opinion forever.

But he can, and has. On top of remembering Pinochet, we can remember Sharon, himself. He has a long history of stepping over the line, and his infamous record includes the slaughter of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, for which an Israeli commission of inquiry held him indirectly responsible.

Even so, Sharon is free, and will almost certainly remain so for the rest of his life. He may be on the wrong side of public opinion, but he's on the right side of Washington's imperialism, and that's his stay out of jail card. Get one of these, and you can freely kill, maim, slaughter, assassinate, invade, torture, imprison, trample human rights, blow raspberries at international law, and still earn plaudits for your devotion to peace, and maybe even be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize someday. No one of consequence will prosecute you, and anyone else who tries to will soon find themselves undermined, marginalized or blocked.

Moreover, if you're on the right side of imperialism, you can be secure in the knowledge that human rights leftists--marked by their penchant for hurling the epithets monster, tyrant, dictator, warlord, strongman, thug and Stalinist at their own countries' foreign policy bogeymen--will give you a pass. They'd rather spend time chasing down someone who can be prosecuted, which is to say renitent leaders of weak countries who are on the wrong side of imperialism.

They will not write letters addressed, Dear Prime Minister, or Dear President, to these leaders, and they will not importune them to please respect international law, for to do so, they argue, would be to treat demons as human beings. Besides, violations of international law are never at issue in these cases, at least not on the part of the bogeymen. That transgression, instead, falls squarely within the domain of imperialist powers who say they must violate international law to hold monsters to account, and are often applauded and backed by the same human rights leftists for doing so.

Being on the wrong side of US imperialism (which usually comes down to not giving foreign investors enough opportunities to drool) earns demonized leaders a go straight to jail card.

Recent recipients:  Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who the Canadian government is thinking of prosecuting for crimes against humanity. Zimbabwe has little trade with Canada, which leaves Ottawa free to pursue the Zimbabwean leader without opening its corporate sector to retaliation. It can't, however, go after George W. Bush for crimes against humanity. That would be suicidal. The economic arrangements that connect the two countries give Washington a stranglehold on Ottawa.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is another recipient of the go straight to jail card, which is where he is today -- in jail, being tried by a NATO kangaroo court. The very fact that Milosevic has been accused of war crimes must mean he committed them, reason the intellectually-challenged, while others figure that if he's being prosecuted, he must be guilty, even if the political character of the tribunal is abundantly apparent. It's astonishing that human rights leftists are absolutely convinced he's guilty of all manner of crimes (including those he's never been indicted on) because The New York Times, which they usually regard with great suspicion, says he is, on the strength of war propaganda passed on by a NATO spokesman. It seems that when the targets of Western imperialism are to be run through the wringer, skepticism is held in abeyance, even by those who profess to be anti-imperialist and wise to the ways of media distortion.

In recent days, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has been handed his umpteenth go straight to jail card. Castro has long been hounded by Washington for turning his attention to the material security of Cubans, and not the collective bottom line of corporate America (the only collectivity that matters in the US.) This time his presumed reason for running afoul of Washington is the jailing of fifth columnists working with the US government to replace Cuban socialism and its free health care, free education, and full employment, with a different kind of "freedom": freedom from a job, freedom from economic security, freedom from universally accessible health care, freedom from universally accessible education; in other words, capitalist freedoms.

As an indication of the horrible fate that awaits Cuba if the Washington-mediated transition to freedom and democracy is ever achieved, consider what the New York Times calls the new challenge Washington faces in Iraq: Weaning Iraqis of their "culture of dependency," {6} which means severing every connection Iraq ever had to a primitive socialism.

Hidden behind the monochromatic portrayal of Saddam as thoroughly wicked and Iraq as a Dantesque hell, lies a perspective at odds with pre-war propaganda. While Washington's allies in the Middle East were pumping oil profits out of their countries and into the US, Saddam Hussein was using oil revenue to improve the material circumstances of Iraqis. The medical system was the "jewel of the Middle East" {7}. The economy, or large parts of it, was centralized, planned and state-owned (those parts now being sold off before Iraqis have any say in the matter.)

In 1990, when the UN, with US prodding, decided that a regimen of war, sanctions, and weekly air raids was necessary to return Iraq to the Middle Ages, (the better to keep Iraq from challenging US domination of the Middle East), the Iraqi government set up a food distribution program that involved 60,000 workers delivering "a billion pounds of groceries every month a basket of rations guaranteed to every citizen, rich or poor" {8}. The program provided jobs and some measure of food security.

But with the country now under US occupation, the program is toast -- or about to become so. In place of food security and jobs, Iraqis will be freed from their culture of dependency, a high-sounding outcome that means nothing more than that tens of thousands will be free to look for jobs that don't exist and the poorest will be free to starve.

The measure, however, won't hurt US contractors, who will continue to drool, now even more so, for US occupation authorities having diverted funds that would have filled Iraqi bellies to fill contractors' coffers. Public opinion, whether Western or that of Iraqis, won't stop the wheels of capital accumulation from turning. Nor will hunger. On the contrary, hunger makes them turn more surely.

Nor will public opinion stop Israel from its drive to annex more and more of historic Palestine. Writing a letter to Sharon asking him not to use disproportionate force in Gaza is as effective as Italians having written Hitler asking him not to use disproportionate force in the Sudetenland. Public opinion couldn't check Hitler's march through Europe, and no one would have been naive enough to suppose it would. So why expect public opinion to stop Sharon? And why think that public opinion will deter the US from its wars of conquest? Because Israel and the US are democracies, and Nazi Germany wasn't?

A country's status as a democracy hardly seems to have any bearing on whether public opinion makes a difference. Leaders of Western democracies have made a fetish of ignoring public opinion, declaring with puffed up pride that they take the hard and necessary decisions, not the popular ones. And indeed, they often do ignore popular opinion. In the months before US and British troops marched on Baghdad, Tony Blair was asked what he'd do if a majority disagreed with his decision to commit British troops to Iraq. He would simply work all the harder to bring the public onside, he said. There was no question of his bowing to public pressure. That, it's often pointed out, is not what leadership is all about. Others, including Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar, backed the US-led invasion, over the objections of a majority of their citizens. And Americans have long wanted a single-payer health insurance program, need one, and can readily afford one, but don't have one, and don't appear to be likely to get one anytime soon. Few would deny that in the battle between the economic interests of the corporate sector, and public opinion, economic interests have prevailed. The US being a democracy hardly matters.

Still, it is naively believed, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that politicians in Western capitalist democracies do what's popular, and routinely pander to popular opinion. They don't. It's more accurate to say that politicians manage public opinion as best they can, while, at the same time, managing the advancement of the collective interests of their country's corporate and investment sector. How could it be otherwise? CEOs and senior managers rotate in and out of government. They manage political campaigns. They raise and contribute the lion's share of funds to elect candidates to office. By virtue of their control over the economy and its strategic assets they're guaranteed the ear of government. By virtue of their control over the media they're able to shape public discourse in directions that benefit their collective interests. And the chances of anyone being elected to a significant political office in a capitalist democracy without at least arriving at a modus vivendi with capital, is slim at best.

Once elected, those who occupy significant political offices perform a balancing act, not  balancing competing class interests, but seeing to it that corporate interests prevail over those of the majority, while keeping the public onside, or failing that, keeping it from rioting in the streets and threatening to topple the whole edifice. Politicians who can advance the interests of the corporate world, while keeping the majority quiescent, and even supportive of their actions--and without recourse to repressive measures--are highly prized. Deposed Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada -- a failure by these standards -- isn't among them.

But what if they fail to keep the public onside? To be sure, a public that enthusiastically supports whatever measures its government advances is preferable to one that merely acquiesces, but so long as the smooth functioning of society doesn't grind to a halt, it's of little moment to the corporate class, if the public doesn't like what its government is doing, or if it's prepared to turf the current government from office in the next election for offending public opinion. The next government will almost certainly follow in the same direction.

It may, however, be objected that a politician who wants to be re-elected hasn't a boundless latitude to ignore public opinion. Surely, he or she is constrained at least a bit by what the public wants.  Politicians do pay attention to public opinion. That's undeniable. But their interest isn't in public opinion as a guide, but as something to be managed. So it is that popular opposition to policies doesn't always, or even often, prevent elected leaders from implementing policies with which a majority disagree. They take their chances in the next election, and often, despite having been widely opposed in pushing through this measure or that, find themselves re-elected, sometimes with handsome majorities. Being able to raise a king's ransom to pay for a re-election campaign helps, and those who have been the most assiduous in seeing to it that corporate interests prevail over those of the majority find themselves handsomely supported with campaign contributions. And if not re-elected, their replacement is likely to be a near dead-ringer in policy-terms, as beholden to the corporate class, and as much a part of it, as his predecessors.

These days it's difficult to defend the claim that public opinion is a second superpower, and indeed there are few champions anymore, but all the same, many are unwilling to let go entirely, insisting that while public opinion didn't stop a war, it did change politics. This is grasping at straws. Today, numberless people who marched in the streets to protest an impending war on Iraq, are lining up behind a retired general who oversaw the commission of flagrant war crimes in NATO's 1999 Kosovo campaign, has written a book titled "Winning Modern Wars" and whose biggest problem with the war on Iraq is not that it was fought, but that the backing of France and Germany wasn't secured first. This is the "antiwar" candidate who's whetted filmmaker Michael Moore's interest. Wesley Clark, if elected, will almost surely follow in the same vein as George Bush, perhaps with more finesse, with more charm, with more panache, but there will be no change to corporate America getting rich on the backs of everyone else, and US foreign policy will continue to be imperialistic. "A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained control of this very best shell...it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no changes, whether of persons...or of parties...can shake it" {9}. It's an old idea, little encountered nowadays, but deserving of resurrection.

The fact of the matter is that ordinary Americans are being screwed, so corporate America can fatten its bottom line. Admittedly, this isn't always clear. Many Americans believe the $87 billion price tag for reconstruction and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan amounts to an $87 billion handout to Iraqis. "So many people in our country are hurting, needing," observed one American, "I just hate to see so much money going to look after other people, when we can't seem to take care of our own" {10}. To be sure, somewhere near one-fifth of the $87 billion will go toward the reconstruction of Iraq. The country's civilian infrastructure being rebuilt (after it was destroyed by American bombs and missiles) will incidentally benefit Iraqis. But the direct and intended beneficiaries are Bechtel, Halliburton and other corporate recipients of reconstruction contracts. It would be more accurate to say, "With so many people in our country, hurting, needing, I'd hate to see our money being given away to corporate giants, first to build bombs to destroy other countries, and next to rebuild the infrastructure the bombs destroyed."

Average Americans picked up the tab for the cruise missiles and the bombers that wrecked Iraq's civilian infrastructure. Companies like Lockheed-Martin, TRW, General Electric, Raytheon and Boeing, who pocket billions making weapons of mass destruction, come out winners. And the destruction of Iraqi power plants, sewage systems and water treatment facilities by the same American weapons of mass destruction created a new reason to lavish corporate America with reconstruction contracts. Had Iraq's oil facilities not been in a state of disrepair, courtesy of over a decade of US bombing and sanctions, revenue from sales of Iraqi oil would have gone straight to the bottom lines of American contractors in Iraq drooling over the mind-boggling economic opportunities. They still may. In this, there is no antagonism of interests between Americans and Iraqis, but between corporate America on the one hand, and ordinary Americans and ordinary Iraqis on the other. The former profit, the latter foot the bill, some of them serving as corporate America's foot soldiers, others getting bombed.

Imagine for a moment that Iraq hadn't been taken over. There would be no danger from weapons of mass destruction, because Iraq didn't have any (and if it did, does that mean Iraq had any intention of using them aggressively?) The billions of dollars that Washington will collect from ordinary Americans to give to Bechtel and its fellow contractors, on top of billions more funneled to Lockheed-Martin and other WMD manufacturers to destroy the facilities Bechtel and company will rebuild, could have been used at home, not only to help the needy and hurting, but to help everyone. It could have been used to provide jobs and freedom from the terror of being thrown on the dole; to furnish everyone with free health care; to provide universally accessible education for free, and freedom from worry about whether you can send your kids to a good school and whether you can scrape together enough to put them through college.

It would be nice if public opinion mattered, if letters to Ariel Sharon had the power to deter Israel from its bad behavior, if peaceful demonstrations involving millions could restrain the strong from crushing the weak. But these things don't happen, much as we'd like them to. Israel's drive to conquer all of historic Palestine will be stopped by the actions of Palestinians themselves, and by Americans acting to radically reform the systemic imperatives that drive the state to furnish Israel with the means of Palestinian oppression. Want, economic insecurity, and imperialist wars will stop, when the majority no longer wants the corporate class to carry on. At that point it will be action that matters.

1. "Israel to Build 600 Homes in 3 Settlements; U.S. Officials Are Critical," The New York Times, October 3, 2003.

2. "UN official: 1,240 Palestinians made homeless by Rafah raid," Haaretz, October 14, 2003.

3. "The Tunnels -- Reason of Pretext?", from the Portside mailing list, October 13, 2003.

4. "Spending On Iraq Sets Off Gold Rush," The Washington Post, October 9, 2003.

5. Ibid.

6. "Another challenge in Iraq: Giving up food rations," The New York Times, October 12, 2003.

7. "Fixing Iraqi health care comes at expense of US needs, critics say," The Washington Post, October 17, 2003.

8. Another challenge in Iraq....

9. Vladimir Lenin, State and Revolution, in Arthur P. Mandel, "Essential Works of Marxism," Bantam, 1961.

10. "Taxpayers are restless on billions in aid for Iraq," The New York Times, October 16, 2003.

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