CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
Many of those disappointed by the defeat of John Kerry voted for him because they were appalled at the invasion of Iraq — and quite reasonably feared that neocons and assorted “friends of Israel” would manipulate the US into further wars in Iran or Syria, or even do something equally dangerous in northeast Asia. In this view they were undeterred by the fact that Kerry’s attitude to the Iraq war was at least as belligerent as Bush’s; that Kerry tried to outflank Bush on the Right in support for Israel (the government, not the people); and that Kerry’s foreign policy advisers were people like Richard Clarke, whose objection to Bush’s war on terrorism was simply that he was killing the wrong Arabs — we should have killed more, and earlier, said Clarke.
Kerry’s charge that Bush was neglecting the War on Terrorism in order to launch a war on Iraq may be refuted by the second Bush administration, as they prosecute both even more vigorously, killing Americans and many others, and using the war to justify everything from a bad economy to the suppression of liberty at home and abroad. (Bush’s choice for replacing the departing Ashcroft as Attorney General is one of the architects of the grossly illegal torture policy that characterized the first Bush administration, not just at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.)
It’s clear that the Global War on Terrorism, as the administration prefers to style it, takes the place in contemporary American political mythology once occupied by the crusade against Communism. The Communist threat to the US from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union was never what American propagandists said it was. It is generally acknowledged now that the Soviets never threatened the US and its satellites militarily — from 1945, when its exhausted army, which had borne by far the bulk of the fighting against Germany, included mechanized divisions drawn by horses, down through the 1980s, when the Soviet economy never even reached half the size of that of the US. The exception was the possibility of a nuclear war — which we now know the US came within an ace of starting by its belligerence during the Cuban missile crisis: only the good sense of a Russian submarine commander prevented a nuclear exchange in November, 1962.
The real threat to the US from the USSR (and then China) was a model of development that the US feared would be attractive in Europe and then in the Third World. But Communism was also a glorious excuse. When the US brought foreign countries to heel, making them safe for American business, it was done we said to fight Communist subversion. Similarly, when the Soviets used force to retain their much smaller empire, as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, they said it was to stifle the threat of the restoration of capitalism, plotted by the CIA. The Cold War was functional for both (really quite unequal) super-powers.
But the end of the Cold War left the US without a two-generation-old excuse for imperialism. In 1991, Colin Powell, then Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, blurted out, “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” Then, like a neocon godsend, came 9/11, and a whole new range of enemies opened up for American propaganda: we could have a global war now not against Communism, but against terrorism. Shortly after 9/11, war secretary Rumsfeld was asked how we would know when we’d won such a war. He replied that victory would consist of convincing the American people that it would be a long war. The primary goal of this new and peculiar war was to form the mind of the American populace, as anti-Communism once had.
But of course there was an attack on 9/11. What should have been done? The answer was clear immediately, and it was set out by people including the conservative military historian, Michael Howard, who said just after 9/11 that what was needed were “patient operations of police and intelligence forces” — “a police operation conducted under the auspices of the UN on behalf of the international community as a whole, against a criminal conspiracy, whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court.” His views were published in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs (Jan 2002), but they were dismissed along with many similar suggestions by the US government, which wanted to launch invasions. So, when the Taliban government of Afghanistan offered to discuss handing over Osama bin Laden for trial, the US rejected the offer and began bombing the country. Bush was right to say (although he denied it in the debates) that “I truly am not that concerned about [Osama bin Laden]” — the GWOT was the goal.
Given that the Global War on Terrorism and the War on Iraq, as they are now being waged, are put-up jobs, what then should be done? Their primary purpose — propagandizing the American people to support an imperial agenda — succeeded in the elections that the Bush people have had to face — barely in 2002 and more clearly in 2004 (in part owing to general agreement on the propaganda account by the so-called opposition party). So the first and most important task is to talk to those whom the GWOT is actually aimed at — the propagandized American populace, and particularly Bush voters and non-voters.
That task becomes all the clearer when we consider the situation thirty years ago. It is said to be a cardinal error to fight the last war, but the end of America’s last imperial adventure — when the US killed more than three million people in southeast Asia — may have some lessons for how to end the current one, despite the widely different circumstances. History does not repeat itself, but as Mark Twain said, it does rhyme.
Although by 1968 major business sectors in the US had turned against what we call (too narrowly) the Vietnam War, the American slaughter continued for another five years. It finally came to an end because of  the brave resistance of the Vietnamese;  the revolt of the conscript American expeditionary force in Vietnam (the principal reason that the Bush administration will probably not bring back the draft); and  the increasing revulsion among the American people at the effect of the government’s actions in Vietnam. In the 1970s and ’80s, while the corporate media debated whether the US attack on South Vietnam (our supposed ally) had been a good idea or not, polls indicated that about 70 percent of the American population regarded the war in southeast Asia not as a “mistake,” but as “fundamentally wrong and immoral.”
But it’s important to recall that bringing to bear the American disgust with the Vietnam War was not generally accomplished by changing office-holders. It’s true that the architects of the war, the Democrats, were defeated by a large majority in 1968 by a presidential candidate who said he had a secret plan for ending the war, but four years later that same man — Richard Nixon, who clearly had not ended the war — defeated an explicitly anti-war candidate, George McGovern, by carrying every state except Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia). It may be heartening for those disappointed by the much narrower loss in 2004 to reflect that the impeachment campaign against Nixon in his second term was seen by some at the time as in part an expiation for the crimes committed in southeast Asia, in spite of the fact that there was no explicit mention of them in the articles of impeachment.
The Vietnam War ended in part because Americans came to realize that it was not a blunder but a crime, and the US government had to follow, however unwillingly, the growth of that opinion among the populace — who after all were the main object of the government’s propaganda campaign. Those opposed to the Global War on Terrorism should not just talk to themselves. They must talk to the rest of America, especially the Bush voters, as Nixon voters were once addressed by the anti-Vietnam War movement. The task as always is, as Shakespeare’s Hotspur says, “O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!”
Carl Estabrook is a Visiting Scholar University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at: email@example.com