Back when the first Gulf War was being debated, I gave a speech at an anti-war rally in Charleston, Illinois. A university student interrupted to heckle. I stopped and looked at him: “You look like you could carry a gun. If you think this war is such a great idea, why don’t you sign up for it?”
He didn’t have an answer. But it wasn’t merely a rhetorical question. During the first Gulf War, only two out of 535 members of Congress, and no cabinet members had children who served there. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, recently noted that “many of those who want to rush this country into war . . . don’t know anything about war… They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”
That includes President Bush, who — like many privileged young men — avoided Vietnam by serving in the National Guard; and Vice President Dick Cheney, who got a student deferment and beat the draft altogether.
Today’s “economic draft” continues a long tradition of having poor and working people fight and die for the ambitions of the rich and powerful. And it is perhaps more clear than ever that this is what our troops will be fighting and dying for.
While the Bush Administration has (for now) given up on its attempts to link Saddam Hussein to September 11 or to terrorism, and has offered scant new evidence of a security threat from Iraq, there are other reasons for war. The economy is sputtering, and a number of scandals threaten to ruin this Presidency. The President himself profited from accounting scams very similar to those that brought down Enron, while he was a director of Harken Energy Corporation. Cheney is under even more suspicion for his chairmanship at Halliburton, which includes — among other things — accounting irregularities and his own $18.5 million profit from selling stock not long before bad news about the company became public. Then there is the most massive intelligence failure in American history — the ignored or unnoticed warning signals of September 11.
Add in various corporate accountability scandals (including Enron) and voters’ anger and disgust, and any of the likely domestic issues in the November elections — for example, Medicare and prescription drugs, Social Security — and it is easy to see why this administration is eager to embrace war. Without even a single shot being fired, the Bush Administration has managed to shove aside almost all the issues that could hurt them politically, and focus the media’s attention on Iraq.
People have forgotten how much domestic opposition there was to the first Gulf War, before it started. For a while it looked like Congress might not even give its approval, and opponents organized the largest national anti-war demonstration since the Vietnam era. But once the war started, President George Bush I was able to capitalize on the tendency, at the beginning of every war, for people (including journalists and politicians) to equate support for the war with support for the troops that are in combat. The war was over in a few weeks, US casualties were very few, and as Adolph Hitler once noted, “the victor will never be asked if he told the truth.”
No one knows if Bush II can repeat this scenario. First there is the problem of conquering Iraq and running the country, despite its geographic and ethnic divisions. And then there are the economic consequences of the war: a potentially serious spike in oil prices, and huge costs (the last Gulf war cost $80 billion in today’s dollars).
But even if he can pull it off, Americans will still lose. Aside from increasing hatred in the rest of the world, there is a domestic cost to these foreign adventures that pushes us toward the back of the pack among developed nations in so many areas that really matter: health insurance, poverty rates, education, infant mortality. We lose because we allow corrupt politicians to divert us from the real issues here at home, simply by pointing a finger overseas at the enemy-of-the-month. (Who is usually a former friend and ally, as Saddam was when he actually used his chemical weapons against Iran, and Washington provided satellite and intelligence data to help him).
Last year George W. Bush joked that “you can fool some of the people, all of the time — and those are the ones you have to concentrate on.” It remains to be seen if he can fool enough people to get this war going.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C.