On Progressives Who Support the War

Leon Wofsy's Journal
December 22, 2001:

I'm thinking again about people who are committed progressives, but who support the Administration's war on terrorism. They surely have not transferred their loyalties to big business and their anathema list still includes Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Perl, the Enron CEOs and, most likely, George W. Bush. The war has divided us despite all that we share, including our recognition that organized acts of terrorism demand powerful and effective counter measures.

Now, well into the first round of what Bush promises will be a protracted war, it's worth looking anew at what divides us. In fact, it's absolutely necessary, because even before Afghanistan is behind us, what's next is upon us. Will more and ever wider war continue to be the core response to terrorism?

To support the war, a progressive has to conclude that war is central to the defeat of organized terrorism, and that the events of 9/11 confer historic responsibility on the United States and the President for waging that war. Other considerations and corollary consequences are, therefore, necessarily subordinate.

So it's fair to ask: What is the war achieving and how likely is it to deter terrorism? And just what are the corollary consequences, now and looking ahead? Then, we can reconsider what progressives should try to do about the war and terrorism.

Supporters of the war point to the termination of the Taliban regime and the disruption of bin Laden's headquarters and Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan. Those consequences indeed resulted from the overwhelming US military campaign. For the moment we won't try to calculate the collateral cost in civilian lives and devastation. Whatever the aftermath, no regime can be more barbarous, benighted and viciously anti-woman than the Taliban.

It remains to be seen what the impact will be on terrorism. Whether or not bin Laden is eliminated, whether or not the Al Quaeda leaders who escaped are eventually captured, the Bush Administration says the "global war on terrorism" will have to go on for years. In other words, we are not to expect that war will substantially reduce the terrorist threat any time soon.

The list of upcoming targets is long. Today's SF Chronicle maps "potential terrorist threats": Somalia, Philippines, Sudan, Yemen, Indonesia, Algeria, Kosovo and Bosnia, South America ("a lawless area in the region where the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge"), and, of course, Iraq.  (The Chron overlooks North Korea, although Bush has made it clear that he doesn't.  And what about Palestine?) The map of terrorist threats is certainly global, but should we agree with Bush that global war is the solution?

If one supports the unfolding war agenda of the Bush Administration as obligatory for opponents of terrorism, what are the corollaries that get subordinated? One has to downplay the dangers of trying to impose a "new world order" by way of overwhelming US military force. One accepts that any US Administration, even the one now in place, is the world's best hope as the guarantor of human rights and justice. One accepts that the US is privileged as no other country to wage war, override international law and ignore the United Nations whenever it wishes. Above all, one has to put aside fears that the immense power seized in the "global war on terrorism" will be turned into the right to confront any government or popular movement that withholds allegiance to "our" interests.

Is this a case of "Cheerful Carrie", crying about unlikely accidents that might befall us in the future? Hardly. The "war emergency" is already the excuse for a domestic grab bag of prizes long the object of reactionary ambitions. Isn't the assault on civil liberties and dissent already alarming? Aren't big business lobbies scrambling to get war bonanzas from Congress? Aren't the recession, the critical needs of the jobless, and the Enron scandal getting much too little attention in the noise of war?

Is it raising a false alarm to picture a similar grab bag of reactionary ambitions on a global scale served by the war on terrorism? Can one doubt that the Bush's advisers see a country at war at least through 2004 as an investment in "four more years"?

Some will no doubt say that supporting the war in Afghanistan doesn't mean accepting all the corollaries. No progressive will buy into the Ashcroft program or the greed of big business so favored by the Bush Administration. Nor will progressives fail to object to contempt for international agreements on ABM, germ warfare, arms control, global warming, and on and on. As for the corollary dangers involved in expanding the war itself, it is no longer possible to say "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it". The time is now. Colin Powell may oppose expanding the war to Iraq, but for Rumsfeld and his shadow war cabinet, it's not whether but when. Easier targets are imminent.

When all is considered, the negatives of the "global war on terrorism" are not just corollaries. They are central. Keeping the country and the world on a war footing with no end in sight won't end terrorism, but it will surely make a sick world sicker and life in the USA uglier.

Does opposing the expanding war mean giving in to terrorists? Does it mean ignoring the acquisition of more terrible weapons by terrorists? The assumption here is twofold: 1) war can defeat or effectively contain terrorism, and 2) there is no viable alternative.

While war can eliminate or make things hard on some terrorists, the phenomenon of terrorism is no more likely to be expunged by war than is traffic in drugs and international crime. On the contrary, short-term military victories over particular culprits are subject to being offset elsewhere by worsening conditions and increased hatred. The world is full of lessons along that line: Israel/Palestine, Ireland, France/Algeria, and many, many more. A succession of devastating bombings around the world won't insulate us from that reality.

Given the state of the world, there is no good and quick remedy. That, however, is a poor excuse for making things worse by sticking to the illusion that war can succeed. There are alternatives that can improve public safety substantially while building active international cooperation against organized terrorism. There is a lot we can learn from the people of other countries, almost all of whom have long experienced such problems of public safety. If we made an effort to foster collaboration based on international law and the United Nations, there could be a much stronger coalition than can ever be built around a US imposed global war. The climate could begin to be more favorable for justice and peace than for recruiting new generations addicted to hate-based religious extremism.

By whatever route, there is a long way to go. The hope is that support for the Bush war agenda will fade as the futility, damage and costs become hard to ignore. That return to sanity is beginning to appear on domestic issues. Progressives should do everything possible to convince people to oppose the looming next war adventure, whether in Yemen, Somalia or Iraq. What's done is done. Let's not be silent while Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz drag the world further into the deep muddy.