To Declare Pre-Emptive War is to Declare a Bankruptcy of the Imagination

I search for the language that is also yours– Almost all our language has been taxed by war. –Allen Ginsberg, from “Wichita Vortex Sutra”

A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country. –Adrienne Rich, from “An Atlas of the Difficult World”

In 1991, President George Bush Sr. seemed to search almost nightly for new ways to justify the Gulf War. The most eye-popping explanation occurred the night Bush Sr. glared into our nation’s TV cameras and seriously declared that war against Iraq was needed to protect American jobs. I recall thinking at the time that this was a surprisingly desperate move, testing such a new and ridiculous excuse for war on U.S. audiences. But I also remember acknowledging the creativity of the president’s handlers, and realizing sadly that there was an element of honest confession in this terrible excuse for war, since the U.S. economy for decades has been shamefully tied to the growth of weapons industries–and expensive missiles once launched would need to be replaced.

Now George Bush Jr.’s administration is playfully testing their own ever-shifting menu of explanations for war. At first, the threat of war was necessary to insure unfettered inspections, which it was claimed that Saddam Hussein would never allow. Now that inspectors have been given unfettered access, the goal posts have moved, with the new claim being that it is up to Saddam to lay his biochemical weapons on the table. If he refuses, he is lying and in material breach of resolution 1441. If he were to reveal banned weapons after filing a report saying he had none, he would presumably also be a proven liar and in material breach.

Of course, the question of weapons matters most on those days when the goal of pre-emptive war is to disarm Saddam. On other days, the goal morphs to become regime change and bringing democracy to the Iraqi people. This is especially the case on those days when the public seems unconvinced that Saddam is currently a tangible threat to Americans, when it indeed seems like a war on Iraq may make us less safe by driving more people around the world into terrorist camps and eroding the international law-enforcement goodwill that will be needed to prevent future terrorist attacks from being planned and carried out. Other factors cited on different occasions for pre-emptive war include Saddam’s prior use of chemical weapons (during a period of U.S. support) and the allegation that Saddam once tried to kill Bush Jr.’s father. The newest reason for military action, offered by President Bush in his speech on February 27th to the American Enterprise Institute, is that the war in Iraq “will set in motion progress” towards the creation of a Palestinian state. In true Orwellian fashion, he noted in this speech that “we will act to restrain the violent and defend the cause of peace.”

All of his cited explanations may indeed play a role in the current Bush administration’s thinking on Iraq. From a distance, one cannot easily distinguish between a president’s heartfelt, and his stated, motivations. Sometimes it seems that, like his father, Bush Jr. is trying out a host of different reasons for war, with his fingers crossed, hoping one of them will stick in the American psyche and with the international press. At other times, it seems like the Bush team is hoping to make a heavy case via the haphazard accumulation of medium-weight objects. One thing is sure: Since it first named Iraq as a member of the “axis of evil,” the Bush administration has been putting its full creative and imaginative energies into designing excuses for war.

The ultimate theatrical act in this regard was Colin Powell’s speech to the Security Council. What incredible creative effort went into writing this speech: combing intelligence archives for aerial photos that could be described in the most incriminating of narratives; excerpting audiotapes of bugged phone conversations that could be presented in the most criminal of contexts; scripting graphic novellas to explain how illegal weapons sites are regularly scrubbed clean just moments before the inspectors arrive.

It wasn’t too long before key aspects of Powell’s speech began to be discredited. Hans Blix maintained that it would be near impossible for major weapons sites to be freshly doctored without leaving behind signs that his inspection team could easily notice. Reporters on the ground contradicted the administration’s assertion about a chemical weapons plant in Northern Iraq. It was discovered that a British government document cited approvingly by Powell had been plagiarized from a post-grad student’s old research paper. Partly as a result of these credibility fissures, Powell’s speech did not sell well in Europe, though there was a small spike in war-support here in the U.S., where the mainstream press exhibited hardly any skepticism about the details of our Secretary of State’s presentation.

Many of us who have been watching the administration cast its fishing net for a convincing rationale for war have developed our own ideas about what motivates the Bush administration to focus so narrowly on military options. Personally, I think it’s a confluence of many factors. To start with: oil, water, geopolitics, and an addiction (economic and psychological) to weaponry. I also think, based on the anonymous reports from his friends that have appeared in print, that Bush literally believes that he has been placed in the White House at this time, not by five ultra-conservative Supreme Court justices, but by God, with God’s intention being that he use the rest of his presidential term to fight the contemporary equivalent of World War II. Exhibiting the all-or-none thinking of an overzealous former alcoholic, Bush the Anointed has proven himself to be fairly immune to arguments based on logic, law, or historical distinctions. Lastly, when our unelected leader says that he is afraid Saddam will give biological or chemical weapons to Al Qaeda, I believe this to be an actual fear, even if the cited links between Saddam and Al Qaeda have been almost universally acknowledged to be weak, and even if a recent Newsweek article (March 3rd issue) reveals that at least one high-ranking Iraqi defector told the CIA in 1995 that Iraq had destroyed its chemical and biological weapons stocks (while retaining design and engineering plans) after the Gulf War. My guess is that Bush probably figures that Al Qaeda undertook its reprehensible attack with very little conceivable rationale–on the other hand, as a former ally of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations who has been humiliated for the last twelve years, Saddam might very well harbor deep-seated desires for revenge.

But even if we acknowledge Bush’s fear in this regard as a justified paranoia, such paranoia cannot be allowed to trump international law (such as article 51 of the UN charter) and to set an immoral precedent for pre-emptive war–especially when almost all reasonable observers believe that weapons inspections can be used to assure that Saddam Hussein poses little actual risk to Americans. In a recent issue of The Nation (March 10th cover date), Richard Falk elaborates on the dangers of setting such an unlawful precedent: “Imagine establishing a precedent that might be invoked by China to attack Taiwan pre-emptively, or India in relation to Kashmir.” Falk concludes, “Not only the peace of the world but the vitality of our democracy is in acute danger if the US government continues down this path of lawlessness.” the Bush administration’s paranoia and militaristic belligerence has erased much of the sympathy people around the globe felt toward America after September 11th, and has escalated tensions and dangers throughout the planet, from North Korea and the Phillippines to Colombia. The terrible risks inherent in pre-emptive war–the potential deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis, the danger to U.S. troops, the likely rise in terrorist recruitment, the long-term environmental degradation of the region through oil fires and depleted uranium, and the temptation to move on to the next war and the next generation of dangerous weaponry–simply cannot be justified by any of the reasons offered by the Bush administration or any that I could come up with on my own. It would be nice if, instead of brainstorming justifications and military strategies for a pre-emptive war, the Bush administration would devote its creativities to thinking about nonwar alternatives. But then I suppose it would not be the Bush administration.

As opposed to the Bush team, the antiwar movement has thus far exhibited a tremendous political imagination. What a beautiful, inspiring sight it was to see an international day of antiwar rallies take place on February 15th, with over 10 million people out on the streets of the planet calling for peace. What an impressive level of political and technological creativity it took to coordinate and pull off such an unprecedented worldwide event. One could see the movement’s imagination evident on every block here in New York City, just by looking at the inventive signs, banners, and puppets lining the streets–humorous, diverse, and pointed. The number of poets, actors, and artists speaking out against this war, even before it has begun, has been extraordinary–no wonder the antiwar movement has such an advantage on the level of the imagination.

In the days since the historic antiwar rallies, the main charge I have seen leveled against the movement–from right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to East Timor’s Jose Ramos-Horta–is that it does not sufficiently recognize the atrocious nature of the Saddam Hussein regime, and that a war to remove Saddam is necessary in order to bring democracy and human rights to the people of Iraq, a cause which the left ought to support. Of course, the equating of “support for war” with “support for democracy in Iraq” has been a rhetorical tactic of the hawks all along, from the old hawks like Perle and Rumsfeld, to the recent converts like Christopher Hitchens, whose arguments for military intervention can sometimes sound persuasive when he is citing the names of progressive Iraqi exiles who favor a bombing campaign.

As a response, it should first be pointed out that it is difficult to believe that bringing democracy to Iraq is really all that high on the Bush agenda given that:

1. The Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations supported Saddam Hussein during the most despotic era of his regime;

2. War in Iraq, according to administration plans, is likely to be followed by a long-term American occupation;

3. There are other dictatorial regimes around the world being supported by the current U.S. administration;

and 4. The Bush-Cheney team has shown little respect for open government and popular democracy here at home. Indeed, as journalists are increasingly reporting (see, for instance, Katha Pollitt in The Nation’s issue dated March 10, or Paul Krugman in The New York Times on February 21st), prominent Iraqi exiles have begun complaining publicly about the Bush administration’s antidemocratic postwar plans.

Almost nobody on the left disputes the totalitarian nature of the Saddam Hussein regime, but the obvious needs to be stated: It is simply too risky a gamble to bomb the very people one claims to want to liberate, especially amid the dense population of five million people living in Baghdad. In mid-January of this year, a group of about 30 progressive “US Academicians Against War” went on a fact-finding trip to Baghdad. In addition to their pre-arranged schedule, a few in the delegation were able to arrange a conversation with two progressive Iraqi professors which took place beyond the range of official Baath Party minders. During the conversation, excerpts of which will be published in the next few days in the online journal, Logos (, these Iraqi professors were able to express their disapproval of Saddam. But they clearly did NOT think bombing Iraq was a very appealing idea. They dislike the Iraqi regime, but did not want to die to get rid of it–as one noted, “there would be too many sacrifices.” It should not be too surprising that progressives living in Baghdad would disagree with exiles about the desirability of a bombing campaign!

The Iraqi professors were not asking to be ignored by the world community. They supported international pressure to promote human rights in Iraq. And they noted that, in the past, the U.S. itself has successfully used economic incentives to help promote democracy without the use of military aggression. (They also expressed their belief that Iraqis would never accept the leadership of U.S.-allied exiles, they called for the lifting of sanctions which have hurt mainly civilians, and one of them expressed support for an independent Kurdish state.) These Iraqi professors acknowledged that nonviolent, long-term democratic change in Iraq would be a slower and more difficult process than building democracy in a nation that was not under such tight social control. But political vision ought to enable us to come up with nonwar alternatives to support Iraqi desires for democracy and human rights. To believe (ala the Bush administration, Sean Hannity, and Christopher Hitchens) that the choices with regard to Iraq are the extreme poles of either war or status quo is simply unimaginative, all-or-nothing thinking that does not recognize the dynamic complexity of our lived world.

The most progressive traditions of the left have always been internationalist, solidarity-filled traditions. And, more and more, I have been seeing ideas being suggested for demonstrating solidarity with the Iraqi democratic opposition that do not include war. On a recent Hannity and Colmes show, independent Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont suggested that, in addition to continuing inspections, the UN could flood the country with human rights observers, an idea that would seem consistent with the views of the Iraqi professors cited above. Even Christopher Hitchens acknowledges that Saddam is weak right now, comparing his reign to the final period of Ceaucescu’s rule in Romania. In such a weak moment, a flood of human rights observers might help to hasten his fall.

In mid-February, a group of European left parties (including the Left Party of Sweden, the Party of Democratic Socialism of Germany, and the French Communist Party), along with the Communist Party of Iraq, issued an Appeal that declared “Another world — without wars — is possible.” Arguing against the principle of “preventive wars,” their Appeal includes “Support for the struggle of the Iraqi people and their democratic opposition forces to depose Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship,” and recommends an international convention convened by the UN, with participation of the Iraqi opposition, to “develop effective means, based in international legitimacy, for assisting the Iraqi people to depose the despotic dictatorship, establish genuine democracy and avert the dangers of war.”

Human rights observers, economic incentives, an international convention–these are just a few proposals I’ve seen mentioned in my various readings and TV watchings. Surely, with all of the brilliant minds we have on this earth, we can come up with others as well. My own pet theory for a nonwar alternative, admittedly unrealistic at the moment, is that our government ought to be pressured into supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC). If the U.S. were to demonstrate its own willingness to allow a select few of its own former officials to be judged by history, then perhaps a murderous leader like Saddam could be indicted, further weakening his standing and hopefully empowering people in Iraq or a UN law-enforcement body to attempt an arrest. This idea might fall under the utopian rubric of “make arrests, not war.” In the January 2003 issue of The Progressive, Iraqi exile Faleh A. Jabar wrote an article entitled “Opposing War Is Good, but Not Good Enough,” in which he offered a similar idea–though without mentioning any specific legal venue–arguing against war and simultaneously urging antiwar activists to help apply pressure to remove Saddam Hussein: “One, threaten Saddam with indictment. Two, give him an alternative for safe passage at the same time.”

Specific ideas for nonwar alternatives to support democracy and human rights in Iraq will likely be too complex or controversial to be agreed upon by mass movements or large coalitions at this time, when a resounding and united “No War” seems more immediately called for as the possibility of impending conflict draws near. And, in different countries and contexts, different sorts of proposals for solidarity would surely be needed. But I do think that we will need to dig into our deep well of political vision and imagination to research and develop proposals for solving world problems as nonviolently as possible–if not for the near term, than for the possibility of a humane future in the 21st century.

Within the peace movement and the American left in general, there seems to be a broad agreement that America needs new priorities in both domestic and foreign policy. In domestic policy, we need a higher priority placed on social issues like education, health care, housing, living-wage jobs, the environment, and the elimination of discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. In foreign policy, there seems to be widespread understanding that the U.S. and the world would be safer if U.S. foreign policy was based more solidly on human rights, international law, the reduction of nuclear weapons, and a vastly increased level of multinational cooperation, from treaties on environmental protocols to agreements on fair trade. (At least one national group, Peace Action, has begun promoting such a wide-ranging program in a Campaign for a New Foreign Policy.) With inventive political and communication strategies, it should be possible to turn these sensible progressive ideas into majority viewpoints, and even successful electoral platforms, in the years ahead.

In the meantime, the time between the world mean as is and the world we mean to become, while we think about peaceful strategies for the 21st century, I hope we can succeed in stopping this very risky war and lowering the Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric (and exorbitant military budget) that is escalating tensions and dangers across the globe. The Bush team continues its straight-ahead approach to war. But despite the administration’s rhetoric and a fairly compliant mainstream press, the American public seems more and more to believe that the case for war has not been made, and that this war will not make us any safer. Inspections in Iraq are supported by the vast majority of folks around the world and should continue. As long as the inspectors are in Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime is contained, and far less of a threat to his own people than he was during the years in which he received the support and military assistance of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. There is no need for a war that would risk killing so many. At the end of a poem I wrote shortly after 9/11, I noted that our choices for the future seemed to me: “The sometimes bitter juices of justice, human rights, law, and peace / Or shot after shot of eternal bloodthirst.” During the next 97 years, it will take a great deal of political imagination to build a peaceful century.

ELIOT KATZ is the author of three books of poetry, including Unlocking the Exits (Coffee House Press, 1999). He is a coeditor of Poems for the Nation (Seven Stories Press, 2000), a collection of political poems compiled by the late poet, Allen Ginsberg. A cofounder of Long Shot literary magazine, he is the new poetry editor of the online politics journal, Logos.