The War on Iraq Is a Runaway Train

Don Hazen, AlterNet
September 23, 2002

Viewed on September 23, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen: We are screwed.

The government of the United States, behaving much like a runaway train, is screaming down the tracks toward a strike on Iraq that will take out Saddam and install a more favorable regime, complete with all the mind-boggling and unknown ramifications that act will provoke.

This shocking truth has dawned on us over the past weeks. What is more unbelievable to millions of Americans is that there seems to be little we can do about it, at least at this stage. Bush is lining up Congressional approval for his plan, with the full support of the Democratic leadership, and most feel there will soon be a favorable UN Security Council resolution, as the administration wheels and deals with the Russians to bring them into the fold. After that, only a couple of months of preparation before bombing begins.

Many activists and concerned citizens are dashing to and fro searching for a response to the potential madness; a message or a strategy that might derail the Bush Locomotive. But the challenge is formidable, so dramatically have the dynamics of American politics changed since 9/11.

How did we arrive so quickly at this potentially apocalyptic moment in history? It took a unique confluence of events, topped by a whole new way of thinking in America by those in power.

The Bush approach is a radical reversal of the basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy that have been in place since World War II. "For the first time since the dawn of the Cold War, a new grand strategy is taking shape in Washington," says Georgetown University professor G. John Ikenberry. In his article "America's Imperial Ambition" published in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, he argues that the Bush administration's foreign policy since Sept. 11 is driven by the desire for global dominance rather than the threat of terrorism.

The fact that an attack on Iraq seems irrational in light of the known facts; out of proportion to other existing threats; and a dangerous adventure risking continuing conflict throughout the region for years to come, appears irrelevant to the Bush administration. The Bush approach may be mistaken, irrational, self-defeating and illegal by basic international standards, but that doesn't matter -- no one is listening. The longstanding paradigm of debate and multilateralism that many of us trusted was the American way has been tossed aside like an old shoe.

It matters not that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, the Iraqi leader has done little over the past 11 years, since U.S. policies have devastated the country and reduced its military capacity, and inspections have destroyed large amounts of nerve gas. At this point, argues Stephen Zunes, Iraq is not a threat to its neighbors nor are they in favor of an invasion.

There are 100 good reasons not to invade Iraq. But they appear irrelevant, trumped by the all-powerful legacy of 9/11 and the frame of the war against terrorism. In a world where anything can, and has happened, trying to aruge that Saddam doesn't pose a danger to the U.S. is fruitless, because nobody really knows -- for sure.

Without 9/11, none of this would have been possible. Nor would it have been feasible without the aggressive, brilliant post-9/11 framing of the global war against terrorism. Had this been a commercial ad campaign, it would have been considered an unparalleled marketing achievement, worth many millions of dollars with enormous potential to build on for the future.

The terrorist attacks enabled the Bushies to realize a long-cherished vision, first articulated by Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby, now Deputy Defense Secretary and Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, respectively. According to foreign policy journalist Jim Lobe, their position argued that the core assumption guiding U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century should be the need to establish permanent U.S. dominance over virtually all of Eurasia. It envisioned a world in which U.S. military intervention would become "a constant fixture" of the geo-political landscape.

More recently Bush set forth the logical extension of that argument in a speech at West Point on June 1. According to William Glaston, writing in The American Prospect, Bush said that cold war strategies were ill-suited to the 21st century. "Deterrence means nothing against terrorist networks; containment will not thwart unbalanced dictators possessing weapons of mass destruction. We cannot afford to wait to be attacked. In today's circumstances, Americans must be ready to take preemptive action to defend our lives and liberties," said Bush.

Several other factors, besides the doctrine, were necessary for the present situation to gel. One is that the large majority of Democrats have gone away and hid, either joining Bush enthusiastically or staying focused on domestic issues. Everyone knows that Dems who fought a principled fight against Bush the First were burned when Desert Storm became popular fare for movies and patriotic zeal. It hasn't gone unnoticed that Democratic candidates for national office since then, Clinton, Gore and Leiberman, all backed Desert Storm. Daschle and Gephardt think of themselves as candidates for 2004.

Democrats don't want the issue of patriotism to be on the agenda in November when the midterm elections take place. "There are many Democrats who have great misgivings about this war, but who feel there is no payoff for them if they oppose it," said Alan Brinkley, a professor of American history at Columbia University. "This is the first war in modern history in which we have been the instigator, so you would assume there would be more debate," Brinkley told the New York Times.

Additionally, the power the dominant political party has over the media is a key ingredient. Our so-called free press, dominated by television (a majority of Americans get their news from TV), rabid talking heads and the power of the president to frame the story and shape the message day after day, becomes the virtual equivalent of state-controlled media.

The successful demonizing of Saddam is like a product, or a public narrative the Bush adminstration repeated over and over until it is drilled into the public consciousness. Without powerful opposition by other party leaders or polls showing significant dissent there is little chance to derail the juggernaut. The Bushies -- especially the relentless Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz -- have been very effective at creating a clear and unmistakable narrative. "We have to get the bad guy. We have to kick ass, before he does anything bad to us. Just like on television and in the movies." Americans like winners and enjoy being number 1. So why not in this global Super Bowl?

The transfer of evildoer status from bin Laden back to Saddam was a striking success. It also makes sense, since grabbing bin Laden achieves nothing in terms of geopolitical or economic interests. Maybe they are saving Omar and bin Laden for Bush's reelection bid.

Not only is it a challenge to build a competing narrative to getting Saddam -- a heroic effort -- there are no competing spokespeople who can command front page. At first, the pragmatic Republicans spoke out, questioning the Bushies' judgment, but they have quickly moved to the sidelines, steamrollered by unilateralists.

For its part, the business community has been absent from the discussion. A story in USA Today, "Many CEOs silent on prospect of Iraq war," reported that "business leaders have been curiously mute, especially considering the current state of the economy, the potential costs of a $200 billion war, the rising cost of fuel."

The barrage of corporate scandals has left chief executives in a state of shock, said Jeffrey Garten, dean of Yale School of Management. "It will be a rare CEO who sticks his head up and opines on foreign policy," said Garten.

Fears that the U.S. might go ahead with an attack on Iraq have already begun to affect oil prices. In her Sept. 13 testimony, Miriam Perriman told members of congress, "Oil is already trading close to an 18-month high of $30 a barrel. Ten months ago, the price was half that. So the war fever premium has already been high."

Following the last Gulf War invasion, oil prices doubled, and stayed high for the better part of a year. According to Perriman, most analysts expect that a U.S. attack on Iraq could send the price of oil beyond $50 a barrel. "Estimates by Wall Street analysts indicate that a $10 per barrel rise in oil prices -- half the amount of the last Gulf War effect -- would over a year's time reduce U.S. GDP growth by about half a percent, and add nearly 1 percent to inflation," Perriman said.

The Congressional Budget Office projects increases in military spending of $450 billion over the next 10 years, based on the President's requests. But, as Perriman points out, their figures don't factor in the cost of a war with Iraq.

We have absolutely no understanding or knowledge of what it means to be a modern-day military empire -- including all the costs of increased anti-American terrorism, staggering economic costs and the need for constant military intervention.

For example, Scott Feil, a retired colonel and expert on post-conflict reconstruction, estimates that a force of 75,000 would be necessary during the first year, at a direct cost of $16.5 billion. Former national security advisor Sandy Berger recently testified that rebuilding the Iraqi economy would cost between $50 and $150 billion.

A war on Iraq could fundamentally alter the American way of life as we know it, raising gas prices to $3 or $4 a gallon (making those popular SUVs very pricey to own and operate). An invasion of Iraq could unleash more terrorism and make it unsafe for Americans to travel anywhere outside the country. Unemployment rises, as does inflation, as airlines go bankrupt and the economy suffers a ripple effect. Portions of the economy -- aerospace, arms, security, the military and other areas -- will feel a boom and lots of people will get rich. But just like the recent boom, most Americans will be left holding the bag.

And, as Seattle activist Geov Parrish reminds us: "Empire building is not good for the ordinary American, working harder and harder and falling behind, as more jobs go off shore."

Those trying to slow down the runaway war train have an enormous challenge in front of them. Since it will be very difficult to get Iraq onto the Election Day agenda, the final window of opportunity may well be November and December -- possibly the last chance to rouse America's passions to derail the Bush-Iraq Express.

Don Hazen is the executive director of AlterNet.

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