Selling the War on Terror

The great open secret of American political stability is the way the two-party system works to insulate the ruling class from the consequences of its disastrous policies. When one party dedicated to carrying out the big business and imperial agenda falls out of favor with the voters, there’s always the other one, waiting in the wings with predictable policies, ready to take over. In this way, American voters get to “throw the bums out,” while at the same time replacing them with other bums who will carry out nearly identical policies. The election of 2004, which will have taken place by the time you read this, has been a perfect case in point.

The continuing disaster in Iraq should be proof enough to indict the Bush gang for war crimes, let alone give John Kerry his best argument for “regime change” at home. But until late in his sleepwalking campaign, Kerry seemed determined not to highlight the war. He only revived his prospects for the White House when he sharpened his rhetoric against Bush and sought firmly to hang “the wrong war, at the wrong time” around Bush’s neck. Yet in bludgeoning Bush with the issue of the Iraq war, Kerry actually rehabilitated the “war on terror,” the Bush administration’s central ideological prop.

Kerry’s main critique of Bush’s invasion of Iraq was that it diverted resources from the “real war” on terror: pursuing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, shoring up “homeland security,” and preventing “rogue” regimes like Iran and North Korea from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. By contrasting the real war on terror to Bush’s botched war in Iraq, Kerry used public distrust with the war in Iraq to build support for an aggressive and expansionist U.S. foreign policy intended to enforce U.S. dominance in the world.

On this goal, the U.S. establishment has been fairly clear since the Cold War ended more than a decade ago. Yet it had a hard time convincing a skeptical public of the urgency of this project and the blood and money it would require. The September 11, 2001 attacks provided the establishment the opening it needed, and the war on terror became the ideological justification for a host of expansionist policies.

Kerry and the Democrats are just as committed to this expansionist policy as Bush and the Republicans are. Even as they lambasted the Bush administration on Iraq, Kerry and running mate John Edwards sounded more hawkish by the day. And it wasn’t simply a question of election-year posturing. Even though Kerry/Edwards bashed Bush/Cheney for asserting the non-existent ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam, or for failing to distinguish between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they shared the same goals from the point of view of U.S. imperial strategy.

One of the rhetorical arguments made by both parties is that we don’t want any “rogue nations” getting weapons of mass destruction because they might sell them to “terrorists.” Bush used this argument against Iraq. And despite the fact that Bush’s case has been proven false beyond a shadow of a doubt, neither he nor Kerry nor any other mainstream politician is backing away from asserting the United States’ unilateral right to preempt other so-called rogue nations like Syria or Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). There’s no difference between the parties on this.

And while they beat Bush over the head with the October Iraq Survey Group Report concluding that Iraq scrapped its WMD projects in 1991, the Democrats certainly didn’t want anyone to notice that the drive against Iraq was completely bipartisan. Only two months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Kerry said:

Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator, leading an oppressive regime….He presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation .And now he is miscalculating America’s response to his continued deceit and his consistent grab for weapons of mass destruction….So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real.

One could easily replace Kerry’s quote with one from President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, or former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright-or from any other leading Democrat over the last decade who promoted either strangling Iraq with murderous sanctions, hitting it with missiles, or plotting various stratagems for ousting Saddam Hussein.

And despite his use of the Iraq war as a cudgel against Bush, Kerry still refused to disavow his vote for the invasion of Iraq in October 2002. Worse, as he vowed in a debate with Bush, “I’m not talking about leaving [Iraq]. I’m talking about winning.” Kerry also attacked the White House’s decision for not finishing the job when the U.S. Marines invaded Fallujah, killing at least 600 people, last spring: “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground. And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of the Fallujahs and other places, and send the wrong message to the terrorists.” Kerry/Edwards, the Democratic platform, and new liberal darling, Senator-to-be Barack Obama of Illinois, warned ominously that Iran can’t be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Obama, who appeared at many Chicago-area events opposing the war, is on record as advocating missile strikes against Iran.

Still, what’s most ominous about all of this wasn’t that Kerry and Edwards took hawkish stands on the war on terror. That’s been clear for months. What’s worse is that they helped to make millions of people who hate the war in Iraq and who hate George Bush into hawks on the war on terror as well. In short, finding ways to excuse Kerry’s hawkish policies has pulled many progressives to the right.

Defending Kerry against the baseless charges flung at him during the Republican convention, the October Progressive editorialized that, “we need good intelligence, a prudent use of our military forces, and yes, the sensitivity to build alliances.” Since when has it been the task of the Left to advise the CIA, the Pentagon, and State Department about how to better combat “terrorism?”

Despite its brilliant exposure of Bush, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 also can be read as saying the real war on terror should be fought in Saudi Arabia-or on the coast of Oregon, unprotected by “homeland security.”

These examples show that once you become committed to the victory of the Democratic candidate in November, no matter how right wing, it’s easier to accept his politics as your own without even knowing it. Yet Kerry exploited a central weakness of the, at times massive, antiwar opposition that developed after September 11, 2001.

The antiwar movement largely accepted the idea of the war in Afghanistan as a “just” war, an appropriate response to the September 11 attacks. Richard Falk, one of the Nation’s chief foreign policy critics, wrote several articles in 2001 making just that case: The war in Afghanistan could win a “provisional and limited endorsement” on “just war” grounds that wouldn’t apply to a war in Iraq.

With the swift collapse of the Afghan government-coinciding with the political collapse into silence or into outright support for the war from much of the Left-opposition to the war in Afghanistan disappeared almost overnight. Yet three years later-with a CIA puppet in power, tens of thousands of Afghans killed, warlords in control of most of the country, women still facing horrendous oppression, and al-Qaeda recruitment on the increase-can anyone seriously claim that Afghanistan was a just war?

Yet Afghanistan played a key role in the ramping up of public support for the war on terror that Bush channeled into his crusade against Iraq. Today, with the Iraq war a disaster, large sections of the antiwar movement remain reluctant to demand an immediate and unconditional U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. They worry that an immediate withdrawal will leave Iraq in “chaos” or in the hands of an Islamist government. Or they argue that the U.S. and UN have an obligation to stay to rebuild the country. Again, Kerry’s pledges not to “cut and run” from Iraq exploited this weak spot in the antiwar movement’s politics.

Because the antiwar movement has yet to develop within it a substantial pole of opposition to the bipartisan project of U.S. imperialism, Kerry was able to pass off his plans for a more competent administration of U.S. imperialism while winning the majority of votes of those who marched and demonstrated against war over the past three years. And with an antiwar movement that placed itself on hold for the election season, no large mainstream voice exposed the war on Iraq and the war on terrorism for what they really are-two pieces of U.S. imperialism’s plan for the early twenty-first century.

Right-wing New York Times’ columnist William Safire’s October 4 prop to Kerry, “Kerry, Newest Neocon” should be a warning to antiwar activists:

“[Kerry’s] abandoned antiwar supporters celebrate the Kerry personality makeover. They shut their eyes to Kerry’s hard-line, right-wing, unilateral, pre-election policy epiphany.”

If Bush managed to salvage a second term, it should be yet more proof that an election without a real choice always benefits the incumbent. The antiwar movement will have to raise itself from demoralization and take the fight to an administration that has made no secret of its desire to launch more wars. But if Kerry won on November 2, the antiwar movement should not have any illusions, nor offer Kerry any honeymoon.

Throughout his campaign, Kerry made clear that he intends to continue the war in Iraq. The antiwar movement must respond. It will be more effective in building the opposition that’s needed when a substantial section of the movement concludes that it doesn’t just oppose George Bush the person, but that it opposes U.S. imperialism itself–for which Bush and Kerry are interchangeable figureheads.

LANCE SELFA is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Laselfa@hotmail.com.


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