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The Big What If? 

The perils and possibilities of war

Thursday, Mar 13 2003
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

There are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns — that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know, but there are also unknown unknowns — things we do not know we don't know.

—Zen Master Rumsfeld

George Bush and his control-freak handlers hate televised press conferences because, being unscripted, a few glimpses of truth always manage to slip through. One such moment came during last week's prime-time press conference, which was otherwise a small masterpiece of redundancy and evasion. Asked why so much of the world is protesting U.S. policy toward Iraq, Bush assumed his trademark constipated glower. "You know, I appreciate societies in which people can express their opinion," he said, uttering these words with such surpassing sourness that you could tell he wished America wasn't one of them.

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Not that the White House press corps was any advertisement for free expression. Aside from ABC's Terry Moran, who had the guts to imply that Bush had ducked a previous question about the world's opposition to war, these high-profile reporters groveled like a roomful of Gollums (though without the cunning). They didn't call the president on his eight bait-and-switch references to September 11, his slippery linkages of Saddam and "al Qaeda-type terrorist groups," or his refusal to discuss the cost of impending war with the citizens who must pay for it. Instead, like Gunga Dan Rather in his self-aggrandizing interview with Saddam, they were content just to be in the same room with the big guy. None dared risk the fate of 82-year-old correspondent Helen Thomas, who recently declared Bush the worst president in U.S. history, becoming persona non grata at the White House.

By now, such capitulation is second nature. Even as CNN's Barbara Starr refers to the 21,000-pound MOAB bomb as a "psychological weapon," our networks tell us nothing about how the war has already begun (those Special Ops commandos carrying out missions in southern Iraq), how the supposed evidence of Saddam's reinvigorated nuclear program was based on shoddily forged documents, or how the Bush administration's cronies are going to profit from the invasion: The contract for fighting Iraqi oil-well fires was just given to (you guessed it) a subsidiary of Halliburton, the corporation once run by Dick Cheney. When the London Observer printed a document claiming that the U.S. has been spying on U.N. Security Council members, the story became a worldwide scandal — except in the U.S., where (as a fine piece in Salon noted) the networks and press pointedly ignored it.

Now that Bush has obviously decided the war will begin soon, the official media narrative has started focusing on his "boldness" and "self-confidence" and bracing "lack of self-doubt." Whether it's The N.Y. Times' Thomas Friedman comparing the president to a quarterback throwing "the long bomb" or Time's Joe Klein portraying him as a high-stakes poker player, we're asked to see Bush as a man with a gift for direct action. Rigid in his diet, exercise regimen and world-view, this reformed alcoholic goes to bed at 10 every night confident that he's fighting (as one of his aides put it) "the biblical struggle between good and evil" — no matter how many Christian clerics oppose his war plans.

Although such peace of mind is enviable — I couldn't fall asleep at 10 p.m. if you plied me with 'ludes and tapes of Joe Lieberman — I'm frankly spooked by persistent reports that Bush is at complete inner peace with his plans for war. After all, if you lose in football or poker or the oil business, you're only losing a game or some money. But if Bush is wrong about invading Iraq, a war that even the rabid Tory George Will has termed "optional," he risks calling down horrors that fill any thinking person with dread: hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, soldiers slaughtered by chemical weapons, bloody civil war in Iraq, terrorist attacks throughout the West, the dismantling of NATO and the U.N., massive instability in the Islamic world, fundamentalists seizing power (and nukes!) in places like Pakistan, worldwide hostility to America and maybe global jihad. If only a couple of these things happen, Bush will be reviled as the man who brought on calamity — against the advice of the whole world.

Of course, those who oppose the Iraq war also face a big "What if?" What if the invasion doesn't go wrong? What if it goes "well"? (Actually, nothing so bloody as war can ever truly go well, least of all for its victims.) What if Bush turns out to be right?

Despite the many nightmare scenarios, it's not impossible that the war will go according to plan: American and British troops will inflict "acceptable" casualties, the Iraqis will quickly embrace them as liberators, inspectors will find huge caches of hidden biochemical weapons (even if the CIA has to put them there), and faced with all this, the world will view the war in a positive light. For all the president's talk of Iraq being a clear and present danger, the country has been chosen as a target precisely because it's so weak — the Bush administration wants a walkover — and because Saddam's not exactly a figure who inspires popular loyalty. (I remember traveling in Romania a few weeks after the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and everybody agreed that whoever came next couldn't possibly be worse. I suspect the Iraqis will feel the same about their own monster.)

Such a turn of events will present us with an even more powerful George Bush, while threatening to suck all the air from those who oppose him. I can already hear William Kristol, Richard Perle and Christopher Hitchens gloating that all those millions of demonstrators have been marching on the wrong side of history. In fact, easy military victory in Iraq would prove no such thing. Quite the contrary. Which is why we must remember three key reasons why the movement actually needs to grow even bigger, stronger and more far-reaching in its vision.

1. War in Iraq is a metaphor for American domination. Although the peace movement rightly worries about the human suffering caused by even a "successful" war in Iraq, nobody has been marching in support of Saddam's indefensible regime. In fact, it's unfortunate that the protests have fixated on the complicated question of this despotic state, for the underlying issue is far more crucial: We now live in a world in which an imperial America, by virtue of its military power and inviolate sense of virtue, feels entitled to make enormous global decisions that affect everyone — like remaking the Middle East — no matter what the rest of the planet may think.

2. Military victory is only the beginning. Even if the Bush administration wins the war, it's not to be trusted with the peace. The U.S. has already begun welshing on its pledges to Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai was just in D.C. begging for money). Those who took to the streets against the war need to be equally insistent that the U.S. government doesn't fall into its time-honored bad habits in Iraq — backing a strongman who favors American interests, selling out the Kurds (yet again) to cement ties with Turkey, turning this conquered country into a game preserve for American corporations. Although there may be lots of triumphalist talk in the coming months, we won't know the true outcome of this Iraqi adventure for decades. Back in the 1970s Richard Nixon asked Zhou Enlai his verdict on the French Revolution. The Chinese premier replied, "Too early to tell." Words to remember each time the Bush administration boasts of its success.

3. Bush remains a menace. While people the world over despise our president for his bullying foreign policy, his domestic policy is even scarier. Whether he's rolling back constitutional rights, skewing taxes to help the very rich, gutting environmental protections, letting energy companies shape energy policy, seeking unprecedented exemptions on testing for the Star Wars missile defense, knocking down barriers between church and state, stacking the courts with anti-choice judges, or trying to destroy the Medicaid entitlement with bribes to the states, Bush heads the most repressive and reactionary administration of any of our lifetimes. Whatever ultimately happens in Iraq, the peace movement must broaden its agenda to become a social justice movement that will resist his dire vision for this country.

Naturally, the struggle against Bushism would be much easier if the Iraq war were to become a quagmire or cataclysm; yet only a moral cretin could hope for the president to get his comeuppance over stacks of dead bodies. Lenin famously said that history is tricky, and the galling irony of the present moment bears him out. Once the bombs start raining down on Iraq, those of us who oppose the invasion will find ourselves in the unhappy position of having to pray that George Bush's divinely inspired arrogance will somehow prove to be justified.

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