What's Left

December 16, 2002

Regime change begins at home

By Stephen Gowans

There is much to recommend the call for a new, democratic U.S. foreign policy, signed by a group of American leftists, including historian Howard Zinn, editor of The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild, and Z Magazine's Michael Albert.

The group wants a foreign policy that would mandate an end to sanctions on Iraq, US troop withdrawal from the Middle East, and the ending of US complicity in all forms of terrorism.

It also wants Washington to take unilateral steps to renounce weapons of mass destruction, abandon support for the policies of the IMF and World Bank, and to withdraw support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

What's more, backers of the call, who say they represent "another America, made up of those who both recognize the urgent need for democratic change in the Middle East and reject [Washington's] militaristic and imperial foreign policy," intend to "rein in the war-makers and [build] the most powerful antiwar movement possible."

These are all noble objectives, and should be supported.

But they don't go far enough, and the group's attempt to build its credibility with a broader public by echoing, rather than challenging, Washington's war propaganda, is self-defeating.

There's kind of a "Gee! Gosh! Wouldn't that be nice" quality about the group's objectives. Gosh, it would be nice if Washington ended sanctions against Iraq. Gee, wouldn't it be great if Washington's foreign policy wasn't militaristic and imperialistic? Gosh, wouldn't it be nice were Washington to abandon its war on Iraq? (And we may as well speak in the present tense, since the stepped up bombing raids in the illegally imposed no-fly zones over Iraq mean the war has already begun.)

Yes, all of those things would be wonderful, but how is any of it to be achieved, including the larger, more ambitious projects, like turning a militaristic and imperialist foreign policy on its head? Does calling for it, make it happen?

The only concrete step the group proposes to a more humane and "democratic" foreign policy (the group says Iraqis should be left to themselves to democratize their own country but says the US should promote democracy abroad) is to build "the most powerful antiwar movement possible," but this is oppositional, not transformational; its aim is not to transform US policy, only to stop one aspect of it (the war on Iraq,) and at that, its chances of success as a purely oppositional program are limited.

The most powerful antiwar movement in recent times was the movement against the Vietnam War, whose questionable achievements should give one pause in advocating a powerful antiwar movement, by itself, as the solution to anything.

This view will hardly be welcome, but if you look at this in a clear-eyed, rather than nostalgic and Quixotic way, you come to the conclusion that the antiwar movement didn't accomplish a whole hell of a lot, and the reason why is that it had no ambitions beyond stopping a war. In this, the movement resembled a physician who tries to cure a cancer by cutting out each tumor as it arises, rather than also taking radical measures, like chemotherapy and radiation, to eradicate the disease, to preclude repeated, and ultimately, futile surgeries.

The Vietnam War lasted more than a decade, a lengthy war, which ground on despite the opposition of the antiwar movement. If the opposition was effective, it wasn't so effective as to prevent the war from dragging on for years, and destroying millions of lives. And when the war ended (the opposition role in ending the war in question), the antiwar movement disappeared faster than a fart in a windstorm.

But what drove Washington to mount the war endured, largely unchallenged. As antiwar activists, who conceived their role as purely oppositional, not transformational, went about their lives, deluding themselves that the job was done, the systemic imperatives remained intact. Weakened, isolated, and facing the implacable hostility of the United States, Vietnam issued a de facto, if not, nominal surrender.

And then followed a string of new US wars: Grenada, Pananama, Nicaragua, Libya, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan. US militarism, for all the anti-Vietnam War movement was powerful, has persisted, indeed, worsened.

Worse, Iraq is far less conducive to the building of an anti-war movement than Vietnam was. The Vietnam War involved the American public in more than a passive way. It was the public that furnished the soldiers, and the scars of tens of thousands of GIs coming home in caskets, or deformed in mind and body, made the war personal and ugly in a way the war on Iraq never will be. Today, there is no draft; the Pentagon fights wars, with overwhelming force, to minimize US casualties (even if it means maximizing civilian casualties); and the lessons about tight control of the media were learned decades ago. There will be few, if any, personal penalties for the American public to pay, and that will mean it won't be shaken from its quiescence.

Instead, what qualms average Americans will have, will be safely suppressed by the knowledge that the effects, if not the intentions, of Washington's aggressions, are humanitarian and desired. An "evil" dictator will have been removed; an "aggressive tyrant" will be disarmed; "democracy" will flower in Iraq; and Albert and the other signers, in their insistence that Saddam Hussein be ousted for the good of Iraqis and Iraq's neighbors, will help Americans ally whatever nagging doubts they have.

What's really at issue is not what Washington, in its efforts to engineer consent, says is the issue. It doesn't matter that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant, and the question of whether Iraq does or doesn't have weapons of mass destruction is neither here nor there. The issue is whether Iraq has attacked the United States (which it clearly hasn't) and whether the United States (or any other country) has the right, legally or morally, to attack first. That's the issue, full-stop. The larger issue is why the United States persists in behaving in this way; why it's becoming increasingly more outrageous, indeed, fascistic in its foreign policy; and how to transform its institutional patterns of militarism and imperialism.

But to Albert and Rothschild and Zinn and all the others calling for a new U.S. foreign policy, Saddam Hussein's being a tyrant is so important, that it's mentioned in the second sentence of the group's declaration. "Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who should be removed from power, both for the good of the Iraqi people and for the security of neighboring countries."

Presented with such a picture, the conclusion ordinary people come to nine times out of 10 is, "Right, so if we send in the bombers and troops, I'm not going to worry too much," a conclusion it's easy to arrive at when the chances of success are astronomically in the Pentagon's favor; when US casualties will be low; when professional soldiers, and not oneself or progeny or parents will assume all the risks. It's easy too to go along when the media cooperates in and the Pentagon limits what the American public can see and know. For these reasons, whoever thought it was a good idea to conspicuously establish the antiwar movement's bona fides by joining the administration in demonizing the "enemy" has a lamentably weak grasp of human psychology. Which isn't to say that Saddam Hussein isn't a tyrant, only that bringing it up is not only irrelevant, it's stupidly naive and self-defeating.

The problem, which seems to have escaped the group's notice, is that Saddam Hussein isn't the problem -- Washington, and Washington alone, is, and not just this administration but every administration. Still, with the group's emphasis on "the urgent need for democratic change in the Middle East," and "promoting democracy in the Muslim world" and "corrupt and authoritarian states" in the Gulf region and "regional demilitarization in the Middle East," you would think the rather black and white issue of whether Washington has the right to jackboot around the world is not the issue at all; nor is the issue how to radically transform the United States to relieve it of its institutional patterns of militarism and imperialism; instead, the issue, if Albert et al. are to be believed, is authoritarian governments abroad and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and "How can we truly promote democracy abroad?" How about, "How can we truly promote democracy at home?"

For, if there's a urgent need for a democratic change in the Middle East, isn't there doubly an urgent need for democratic change in the United States?  And shouldn't we be talking about promoting democracy in the Western world and how to permanently put a stop to the militarism and imperialism of Washington, before we talk about the corrupt and authoritarian governments of the Gulf region?  Which is more dangerous?

Moreover, what kind of systemic changes need to be carried out to achieve the wholesale transformation of US foreign policy the group desires?

Compare, by contrast, the words of Ramsey Clark, who has been criticized by Michael Albert for failing to do his part to demonize Saddam Hussein (it's not what he says that's the problem, it's what he doesn't say, Albert says.)

Here's Clark:

"Regime change needs to begin at home.

"We need to liberate the United States from 'militarism,' for God's sake. Don't you see what we are doing? Who has the weapons of mass destruction? We do.  Who is spending more money every day for more weapons. We [are].

"We've got to liberate this country from corporate oligarchy. They control our lives. This is not democracy. It's a plutocracy. The people don't rule here. Wealth rules. The corporations rule.  They rule the Congress. They elect the President. They run the Pentagon. They own the media."

There's more in these three paragraphs than in dozen of paragraphs endorsed by Albert and Zinn and Rothschild. Clark sticks to the point. It is US imperialism that is the problem, not Saddam Hussein and corrupt and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. And he identifies the root of the problem: plutocracy. The solution lies not in building a powerful antiwar movement (though an antiwar movement is needed). The solution lies in more than that; it lies in transforming a plutocracy into a democracy; a country where wealth rules, into a country in which the American people rule. And that means a wholesale transformation of US society.

On the other hand, we could simply try to build a powerful antiwar movement. If you like that kind of thing, this is the route to pursue. You'll get plenty of opportunity to build antiwar movement after antiwar movement, for there will be US-led war after US-led war. For those who are tiring of more of the same, you might want to think about going beyond a purely oppositional program, to a transformational one.

And you may also want to think about whether straying into such irrelevant areas as whether Washington's latest victims have undesirable characteristics, makes your case more credible, or only strengthens Washington's hand.


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