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Liberal Icons and War

In a political culture defined by a centrist-to-reactionary political spectrum, Paul Wellstone was a breath of fresh air when he brought his progressive politics to the U.S. Senate in 1991. His death in 2002 robbed the country of a humane voice on the national political stage.

I lived for a time in Minnesota and followed Wellstone’s career closely. The last time I saw him speak was December 1998 when I was part of a peace group that conducted a sit-in at his office to protest his support for a U.S. attack on Iraq and force a meeting to challenge the former anti-war activist’s hawkish turn. Yes, that’s right — a group sat in at Wellstone’s St. Paul office when he supported Bill Clinton’s illegal 1998 cruise missile attack on Iraq, which was the culmination of a brutal and belligerent U.S. policy during that Democratic administration.

It might seem odd to recall such a small part of contemporary history when the United States is mired in a full-scale occupation of Iraq, but there’s an important lesson in this little bit of history — one that’s is often difficult for many liberals and Democrats to face:

Illegal and immoral U.S. aggression is, and always has been, a bipartisan affair. Democrats and liberals are responsible for their share of the death, destruction, and misery caused by U.S. empire-building along with Republicans and conservatives. I mention the Wellstone incident not to suggest he and George W. Bush are equally culpable, but to make the point that even politicians with Wellstone’s progressive politics can be twisted by the pathology of power and privilege.

Precisely because we face such crucial policy choices in Iraq, the Middle East, and the world, we must remember that while W. and the neocons are a problem, they are not the problem. Sweep this particular gang of thugs and thieves out of office, and what? A kindler-and-gentler imperial policy designed by Democrats is still an imperial policy, and imperial policies always have the same result: The suffering of millions — others that are too often invisible to us — in support of policies that protect the affluence of us.

Name a politician at the national level today who has even come close to acknowledging that painful reality. Go ahead, think about it for a minute — I can wait.

I’m reminded of a meeting that a group of Austin activists had with our congressman, liberal Democrat Lloyd Doggett, as part of a national grassroots organizing effort in the late 1990s to end the punishing embargo on Iraq that the Clinton administration imposed for eight long years. Those economic sanctions were killing an estimated 5,000 Iraqi children a month, and it’s likely that as many as a million people died during the Clinton years as a result of this aspect of the U.S. policy of dominating the politics of the region. We asked Doggett — who had courageously spoken out against U.S. aggression in the past — to challenge this policy of his Democratic leadership, which he declined to do. One of us mentioned our opposition to this in the context of a larger critique of U.S. empire. Doggett’s response: “That was never my analysis.”

In other words, even though the United States has been pursuing imperial policies since it was founded — first on the continent it eventually conquered and later around the world — that wasn’t his analysis. In other words, his analysis was apparently to deny the reality of how the United States became the most powerful nation-state in the history of the world. In other words, his analysis required obscuring difficult truths, which might be called a I’ll leave that sentence for you to complete.

Again, my purpose in pointing this out is not to suggest that there is no difference in the policies of Doggett and Bush, but rather to point out the disease at the heart of conventional politics in the United States: The willingness to lie about the history and contemporary policies that have made us the most affluent society in the history of the world.

The political elites of the United States of America are united in their acceptance of these historical fabrications and contemporary obfuscations. Whatever their particular policy proposals, they all lie about the nature of the system that has produced U.S. power and affluence. They all invoke mythical notions of the fundamental decency of the United States. And because of that, they all are part of the problem.

Here’s a gentle corrective: People can be decent, and many in the United States — just as everywhere in the world — are incredibly decent, but no imperial nation-state has ever had any fundamental decency. The rich First World nations of this world got rich through violence and theft. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing positive about the U.S. system, but is simply a reminder that if we start with a lie, we end up telling lots of lies and doing lots of damage.

So, let’s tell the truth, not only about our political opponents but about our alleged allies. Let’s tell the truth about the so-called “human rights” president, Jimmy Carter, a man who has accomplished some good things since leaving office and lately has been brave in standing up to critics who denounce him for telling part of the truth about the Israel/Palestine conflict (the part that ignores his own contributions while in office to the entrenchment of Israeli power and control, and hence to contemporary policy failures).

But Jimmy Carter as president — the person he was when he held power — was a person who backed the brutal rule of the Shah of Iran and, after the Iranian people has overthrown that dictatorship, allowed the shah to come to the United States. Carter continued to support and arm the military dictatorship of Indonesia through the worst of the genocidal atrocities in its illegal occupation of East Timor. Not exactly human-rights kinds of policies.

Nor was a concern for human rights in evidence in Carter’s policy toward El Salvador. By coincidence, yesterday (February 17) was the 27th anniversary of a letter that Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote to Carter, pleading with him to support human rights by ending U.S. funding and arms transfers to the authoritarian government of El Salvador. Romero wrote to Carter that “instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.” Carter’s response was to continue support for the brutal military dictatorship that put guns in the hands of death squads, including one that would assassinate Romero a month later.

And then there is the famous “Carter Doctrine” proclaimed in his 1980 State of the Union address, in which he made “absolutely clear” his position on the oil-rich region: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

In other words: Control over the flow of Middle East oil must remain in U.S. hands. Hmm, does that seem familiar? There was, of course, no outside force attempting to gain control of the region. But plenty of forces within the region — then and now — have wanted to break decades of U.S. domination, and those forces have been the real targets of the doctrine of Carter, and every other post-WWII president before and since. While the primary responsibility for the mess we have created in Iraq should be laid on the doorstep of Bush and the neocons, there’s a lot of responsibility left to go around.

Let me be clear one more time: I am not saying that there is no difference between Paul Wellstone, Lloyd Doggett, Jimmy Carter on one hand, and George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell on the other. There is, and sometimes those differences make a difference.

But ask yourself: Are the victims of these bipartisan policies around the world likely to be so concerned about the differences? When Lloyd Doggett and many other Democrats in Congress were supporting Clinton’s sanctions policy — fully aware that children in Iraq were dying by the thousands due to a lack of clean water, medical supplies, and adequate nutrition — should we have expected those children to be grateful that the Democrats had a better record on the minimum wage? When Jimmy Carter shipped weapons for death squads in El Salvador, should the campesinos murdered with those weapons have been grateful that Carter wasn’t as reactionary as the Reagan gang that would come next?

Yes, Paul Wellstone was in many ways an inspirational progressive figure at a time of right-wing backlash, and he often was politically courageous. But if we ignore the ways that politicians — even the best of them — can come to accept the illusions of the powerful that so often lead to pathological delusions and disastrous policies, how can a peace-and-justice movement hope to hold power accountable?

I’m not arguing for a holier-than-thou purism on all doctrine at all times; we have to be strategic in offering support to politicians with whom we inevitably will have some disagreements. Instead, I’m arguing for an honest assessment of politicians, and of ourselves. If we are willing to excuse so quickly the pro-imperial policies of our so-called progressive leaders, might that be in part because we haven’t broken with the imperial mindset ourselves?

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan crumble under the weight of this imperial madness, we owe it to the people there not only to critique the policies of the psychotically self-righteous madmen of the Bush administration, and not only to point out that the current Democratic leadership is too timid in its opposition to these wars. We owe it to Iraqis and Afghans — and to all the people living in places that our empire targets — to critique the allegedly more humane and liberal face of empire.

If we look in the mirror, whose face is that?

ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at


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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached or online at

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