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Headlong Into a Tar Pit

FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS. This anti-war movement continues to mount faster than anyone could have predicted. History was made last week, virtually unreported, when, for the first time in American history, the mainstream of organized labor openly broke with a sitting U.S. president's war policy as the AFL-CIO executive council unanimously passed a resolution on Iraq favoring inspectors over invasion.

On the international front, and in direct contradiction to the traditions of its wonderfully cynical realpolitik, France continues to hold firm against unnecessary war. As one very smart colleague of mine put it in regard to French resolve, "After President Chirac opportunistically climbed up the flagpole of principle, he found a lot of other folks scurrying up behind him blocking his way down."

Foremost among those others are our new friends in the Turkish parliament. The Bush administration's offer of a $30 billion bribe as a lure to join the Coalition of the Coerced and Suborned backfired, and the Turks pulled the rug from under U.S. war plans to use their territory as the staging ground for the invasion of Iraq from the north.

Now, the bad news. The domestic peace movement remains compartmentalized outside of the political process. So far, not as much as a single heavyweight Democrat has stepped forward to champion the anti-war position and begin to construct a viable alternative pole to Bush (though poor old Teddy Kennedy is fumbling toward that position). Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean — now running for president — is saying many of the right things, but his campaign is still in its infancy and his credentials are unproven. As for anti-war Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, also edging into the presidential race, well, let's be diplomatic and say Dennis isn't quite ready yet for prime time.

Nor has the choice of war or peace yet reached enough critical mass to fully dominate the national consciousness. When, last week, Dan Rather offered up the first American TV interview with Saddam Hussein in 10 years, twice as many Americans opted to watch Fox TV's Joe Millionaire, which was on at the same time. A good friend of mine once quipped that, in the end, a nation that watches Beavis and Butt-head wasn't serious enough to ever go completely fascist. Perhaps. But the inverse also seems true: A society transfixed by the tribulations of Joe is probably incapable of fully defending its own democracy.

Worse news. The White House is now openly talking about pulling back its second and explicit resolution for war, now languishing without majority backing on the U.N. Security Council. In its place, Washington would issue a simple unilateral ultimatum to Iraq and then plunge its tanks and warplanes toward Baghdad.

With a quarter-million U.S. troops now in place in the region, it's unlikely, though not impossible, that the momentum toward war can be stopped. If it is, it isn't going to be because of moral concerns. There's elevated grumbling from Wall Street as the already suffering U.S. economy continues to be sapped by the reluctance of war-jittery investors. And there does seem to be a dawning inkling among the political class that the staggering cost of war and ensuing occupation — literally hundreds of billions of dollars — would strangle domestic budgeting for a decade or more. Back last decade, when he penned his memoirs, It Doesn't Take a Hero, former General Norman Schwarzkopf explained why the Daddy Bush administration didn't take Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War. "I am certain, that had we taken all of Iraq," he wrote, "we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit. We would still be there, we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs of that occupation. This is a burden I am sure the beleaguered American taxpayer would not have been happy to take on."

Not then, and not now. Perhaps that's why one of the unintended and more felicitous consequences of the Bush policy is to provoke regime change prematurely and not exactly where desired. Polling this week reveals that ardent U.S. allies Tony Blair of the U.K. and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar are becoming so unpopular that they are in dire danger of losing their political grip. And, for the first time, George W. Bush's re-election numbers have now dipped below 50 percent. But that Bush's imperial dreams could crash on the same hardscrabble political beach where his father washed up would be little recompense for the damage that this adventure will wreak on the Republic.

All that said, I am compelled to express once more my alarm that too much of the peace movement still can't get it straight about Iraq itself. Simple rhetorical genuflections about Saddam being a "bad guy" are grossly insufficient and morally suspect. Saddam is a bloody fascist by whose side characters like Pinochet and Somoza are mere little leaguers. A group of mush-headed British "human shields" found that out the hard way this week. The Daily Telegraph reports that almost the entire group packed up and left Baghdad after being given an ultimatum by Saddam's regime to either anchor their bodies to "strategic sites" like government-run oil refineries, power plants and water works or leave. The "shields" had gone to Baghdad naively wanting to position themselves at civilian venues like schools and hospitals. But, of course, Saddam was right. As misguided as Washington may be, its targets are not the schools and the hospitals.

Anti-war protesters are quick to sloganize about "Freedom for the Palestinian People" but are oddly mute in proclaiming that same freedom for the Kurds or, God forbid, the Iraqi people themselves. Opposition to the war must be coupled with an unwavering call for regime change in Baghdad, not only for the introduction of vigorous weapons inspectors but also for permanent international human-rights monitors, for the freezing of financial assets of anyone connected to the ruling crust, and, last but not least, a call for the convening of a Bosnia-style international tribunal that would indict and try Saddam and the hundreds of other vulture henchmen who compose his execrable regime.

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