Selling the War
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 10, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: Vice President Cheney was on “Meet the Press” today. He’s there to make the case for the war and for Administration policy internationally, to promote their record on national security. As Jim Warren on “The McLaughlin Group” and others pointed out, the strategy is to switch the focus off of Iraq per se, because the Iraq war is so unpopular, to the broader concern of national security…
Newman: …And to the “War on Terror.”
Salit: And to the “War on Terror,” yes. Russert went through the history of the war, the history of the Administration’s rationale for the war. At a critical point in the interview, maybe about halfway through, Cheney says essentially ‘Whatever disagreements we might have and whatever criticisms you might have of how this White House has conducted the war, the fact is that there has not been a terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, and you’ve got to give credit for that.’ That’s a persuasive argument at the moment, because that’s true. Yes, there have been American casualties in Iraq, and yes, we’ve spent 300 billion dollars on the war, which could have been spent in a whole host of other arenas, some of which are national security-related. But, there has not been another attack here.
Newman: There hasn’t. So their plan to move the “War on Terror” to Afghanistan and Iraq has been, in that regard, successful. Although, we don’t know why there hasn’t been an attack. After all, there hadn’t been a terrorist attack inside the borders of the United States in the five years before 9/11 either.
Salit: The strategy of moving the front of the war on terror to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to the Middle East and off of American soil has been successful. Still, Cheney has to defend the position that this makes us safer for the long-term.
Newman: Well, even the Administration doesn’t claim that the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil for the last five years should incline anybody to think that there won’t be one in the next five years. Even they don’t take that position, though they do represent that the war on terror will make us safer in the long-run.
Newman: But, I’m sufficiently cynical to think that the main “run” that Bush was concerned with was the “run” to get himself, and now his party, re-elected. I don’t think there’s a solid long-run foundation to the Bush war strategy.
Salit: Cheney argues that previous administrations took the position that our posture towards terrorism should be what is essentially a series of law enforcement actions. After 9/11, this administration took a different posture, which is to shift from a law enforcement strategy to a war on terror because the threat was so great. His point is that the law enforcement strategy failed or wasn’t really up to the task. ‘So,’ he explains, ‘we had to shift our strategy. This is the shift that we made. We went into Afghanistan; we went after the Taliban. We went into Iraq. So,’ says Cheney, ‘here we are. We’ve made this shift, and this is where it’s led us, and we continue to go forward.’ Now, a question that gets raised by this is, what is the long-term road that that puts you on? If you spin this thing out, the American presence needs to be greeted, if not as “liberators,” then at least as a force that can establish new social contracts between stable governments and their societies. If that’s in the cards, then you have some chance that your strategy makes sense, because you go in with a strong military intervention, you knock out the Taliban, you knock out Saddam Hussein, you put these new structures in place, and then there’s a capacity to knit a social contract with the society as a whole. On that scenario, you can see the end game for U.S. involvement. But that’s not what’s transpired, at least as of the current moment. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that there’s no basis for that fundamental paradigm here. So, what’s the alternative? Well, the alternative is a long-term, very expensive, strong military presence in that part of the world. That’s the Bush-Cheney plan. So far as there is a plan, that’s the neo-con plan.
Newman: The neo-con plan was an imperialist plan to take over the entire region by military force. That overall goal has failed the test of political action. It hasn’t worked. It’s profoundly unpopular.
Newman: So, if you reject that long-term goal, then it’s not clear that the whole plan holds together. That’s more important than the issue of whether there were or weren’t weapons of mass destruction, which is a non-issue.
Salit: I agree.
Newman: Although Russert persists in raising it. It’s really a non-issue.
Newman: So, let’s look at it this way: Let’s grant Cheney everything he’s saying.
Newman: Let’s say, it is working. Let’s take that to its logical conclusion as currently understood. What does it mean? Well, it means that the old plan, which was to try to control the region by virtue of deals with obviously corrupt regimes, including some of the most corrupt kings and princes and whatever, well, the old plan was shattered on 9/11. Because the deal was that everybody would profit from the oil, we’d have various outposts, and America wouldn’t be touched by terrorism. Well, on 9/11, we were touched by it. So, now a plan is underway to create new so-called democratic regimes in a variety of places – Iraq being one, Afghanistan being another – so that we can deal with the new democratic regimes rather than the old royal regimes, and that ultimately secures America. Is that to be done with military force? Well, that’s a variable. Okay. Well, suppose we’ve achieved that so far. Suppose Cheney is right in everything he’s saying about Iraq.
Newman: Leave aside the issue of whether we could accomplish that anywhere other than Iraq, where you had a weak Saddam Hussein. Suppose that is accomplished. That still doesn’t touch the question of the disparity or disconnect between whomever may be ruling any of these countries and the impoverishment of the people of those areas.
Newman: So, there’s always going to be fertile ground for civil war, for massive discontent, whatever you’d like to call it. Will that take the form of sectarian fighting? Will that take the form of terrorist groupings? And, what about all of those forces? How are they going to be dealt with? At the moment, we have a new, so-called democratic regime, which arguably is not necessarily very disposed towards the United States. But let’s suppose they even are more oriented towards the United States. That doesn’t enhance their capacity to rule the impoverished masses. The impoverished masses are still there. That’s what I don’t understand about the plan. I don’t see how it works, even if it works.
Salit: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Even Russert raises a similar issue. He says to Cheney ‘The largest demonstration anywhere in the Middle East in support of Hezbollah took place in Baghdad. One hundred thousand people came out into the street, essentially to make a political statement in support of Hezbollah in the context of the Israeli-Lebanon war.’ He’s making a different point, but a related one. He’s saying to Cheney, ‘We may have established a democratic government, there may have been three elections, there may be a constitution, and there’s now this thing called the central government. Still, it’s the case that this government and the society overall are very hostile towards America and American values and very supportive of forces that we call terrorists.’
Newman: Yes, but, one might counter that argument by saying – at least at the governmental level – that they’re saying what they’re saying for political reasons. You have to be somewhat anti-American to get elected in the “democracy” that is now in place in Iraq.
Salit: Cheney’s argument is that Washington can still sit down and make appropriate deals with all of them, even with their anti-American rhetoric.
Newman: Yes. But how does that engage the fact that they still have a huge mass of impoverished people living under dreadful conditions? How does Iraqi-style democracy impact on that? How’s it going to touch the economic factors, the social factors, the cultural factors which produce that? I don’t know the answer to that.
Salit: I take it part of what you’re saying is that they don’t know the answer to that either. Nonetheless, they believe that through a combination of military might, American economic strength and their capacity to promote non-extremist elements in the body politic that they can still stabilize the situation.
Newman: They think that democracy, democracy per se, resolves that.
Salit: You don’t agree with that.
Newman: I think that it’s only in the context of those problems being resolved that you can produce anything resembling democracy. That’s a key difference between what they’re saying and what I’m saying. I don’t think that democracy itself, even American-style, no less Iraqi-style, resolves those issues. Consequently, you need continued American military involvement. That’s the only way you can stabilize the situation, and given the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, it’s not clear you can make that work either.
Salit: The story is that there were a group of neo-cons who had their sights set on Iraq and on a U.S. imperialist/military intervention in the Middle East for a long time. After 9/11 they won the day in the White House by persuading Bush that this was the way to go. Target #1 was Afghanistan. That was something of a no-brainer for them. But the question of going into Iraq and linking Iraq to the overall war on terror was more controversial. Russert showed clips of earlier interviews with Cheney just a few days after 9/11, where Cheney says ‘We have Saddam bottled up and we have no information, or no evidence of any connection between Iraq and 9/11.’ Then Iraq does turn out to be a target and his voice changes. Saddam becomes a major benefactor of terrorists and terrorism.
Newman: Well, there have been a variety of shifts of positions. One has to analyze each of them differently. I think the strategic shift was that the original neo-con plan, for at least some of the neo-cons, entailed an overall intervention into the whole region. I think that’s been abandoned for the most part.
Salit: Because of the results in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Newman: Which didn’t play as well as they hoped with the American public and our allies. They weren’t able to push it all the way through. They couldn’t even get that by Colin Powell.
Salit: True enough.
Newman: The military intervention into Iraq had a really glorious moment when our troops first got there. But then, when holding Baghdad and other parts of the country turned into a combination of special forces and police actions, it turned into a disaster. That’s not what our military is set up to do. So, you can argue that the military intervention served you well propagandistically. But, it didn’t serve you very well in terms of dealing with the actual situation on the ground. They would have been vastly better served without a war on terrorism, but rather with an escalated, elevated police action. I think they would have been vastly ahead of where they are right now.
Salit: Instead of exposing the U.S. military to situations that they’re not trained for.
Newman: When did the casualties take place? They didn’t take place before Baghdad. They took place after Baghdad.
Salit: After Mission Accomplished.
Newman: After Mission Accomplished, exactly.
Salit: I attended a speech given by David Gergen last week on the anniversary of 9/11 at Pace University and he said two things that struck me. First, he made the point you’re making that the shift from what he called the “struggle” against terrorism based on a law enforcement framework to a “war” against terrorism, was a very, very serious mistake. But he’s not convinced the neo-cons have given up the ghost relative to pursuing a region-wide strategy of military intervention. Gergen envisions a scenario in which someone from the neo-con circles is sitting in the Oval Office with Bush. Gergen scripts the conversation, and what the neo-con adviser is saying to Bush is You’ve got to go into Iran militarily. Whoever succeeds you, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, is not going to have the stomach to do what has to be done. It’s going to be an unpopular decision, but history will vindicate you, and you must make that move. Gergen didn’t know how Bush was going to respond to that, but obviously a lot hangs in the balance on how he does reply.
Newman: That’s an interesting speculation, and maybe it’s accurate, too. But so far as I’m concerned, it’s not the stomach of potential American presidents that’s critical, it’s the stomachs of hundreds of millions of people in that region that are not being taken into account. I don’t know if it makes a great difference who’s in charge, as long as there are the same socio-economic realities on the ground.Salit: Interesting. Thank you.