[GegenStandpunkt Index]

Protest against the domestic and overseas course of war
The “Other America” — Worthy of a Superpower

[translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-03, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

It goes without saying that, in the United States, there is criticism of the government’s war program. It would of course be strange if, in the oldest democracy in the world, a drastic change toward a new era in domestic and foreign policy didn’t go off without debate, opposition, and resistance. In Europe, any kind of opposition raised in America is met with the most lively interest. Voices of dissent are scrutinized for signs of alternatives to Bush’s way of dealing with old Europe, and this “other” America is called on to bear witness that the new course is not only disastrous for the NATO partners but also for America itself. If real Americans criticize Bush, then surely Europeans should be allowed to do likewise without having their criticism dismissed as the anti-American nationalism of offended fellow imperialists. And they indeed have a point there: whenever Americans criticize their President the only thing they come out with is pro-American nationalism.

In domestic policy: Protests against the national security state in the name of American freedom

Families looking for their missing fathers, sons, or sons-in-law are reporting at demonstrations, in town squares, to the authorities and the media, and demanding of the state the release of their loved ones or at least information as to their whereabouts, term of detention, and charge under which they are being held. Lawyers are protesting the denial of their professional rights. Booksellers and librarians are placing ads proclaiming their refusal to investigate the reading habits of their customers.

All this may well be courageous in the atmosphere of a terrorist hunt, and in fact the protesting minority does reject the new consensus that the fight against terror cannot tolerate any constitutional scruples. Hence they consider it all the more their duty to reassure everyone that they are in no way unpatriotic and that of course their insistence on their civil liberties should not and will not contribute towards making life easier for terrorists. There has been no letter of protest that did not declare its support for the prosecution and punishment of terrorists, and hardly any without contributions to the question of how America could better protect its citizens in the future.[1] Civil rights groups are trying to gain support for their right to protest by declaring their loyalty to the constitution and demanding the same of the government: they hurl the double accusation against the new security laws of being both unconstitutional and ineffective. On the one hand, they are only demanding what the American constitution guarantees anyway; on the other hand, they wouldn’t even know what to offer in favor of their precious constitution in this crisis situation if it weren’t for their ready argument that a breach of constitution is of no use against terror. Yet since the critics are convinced that doing wrong is futile, they go a step further and accuse the government of aiming its legal reforms in reality at civil opposition and the free political activity of Americans, not at all at terrorists. By exposing the fact that drafts of the national security laws have long since existed in the files of the administration, they try to prove that these laws are no response to the new situation, hence “9/11” is only a pretext for an antidemocratic assault by the Bush clique on Americans’ freedom. With that the remaining friends of the constitutional state strike their decisive blow: “We call on our political leaders to resist proposals that unduly and unwisely restrict the very freedoms that we as a nation now collectively seek to preserve.” With surveillance practices “not always confined to any realistic claim of necessity for national security purposes,” Bush is destroying the best advertising point for the US abroad, endangering everything that has “kept us strong and free for more than two hundred years”: free speech, political dispute, and public control of power.[2]

To a minority treated as a public enemy and to their advocates, the government gives a practical demonstration that defense of American freedom is a militant program of war at home and abroad — and those affected are simply not ready to acknowledge what they are going through to be the consequence of the national program. They are partisans of a different and positive conception of their nation’s freedom — and won’t let themselves be put off by any bad experiences with it. They would sooner doubt Bush’s aptitude for high office and reproach him for gambling away the very thing he claims to defend: the freedom and strength of the nation can’t be saved his way anyhow! On the one hand, the critics’ objection to the new security policy does not reach very far: they simply think that the responsibilities of the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence services sufficed the way they were before 9/11; the government overreacted and did not restrict itself to the needs of national security in its surveillance of American citizens. On the other hand, they have a really fundamental dispute with Bush over the true sources of the nation’s strength and invulnerability: the president underestimates and harms these sources when he resorts to surveillance and intimidation instead of trusting in and ideally closing ranks with citizens to confront terror, citizens who willingly and convincingly stand up for America. Critics who are disposed towards such arguments may well be idealists who are mistaken about how peace at home and the security of a world power function; the real killer is that they are idealists of the strength and invulnerability of their nation.

As such, they don’t even disdain to reproach the administration for failing to find the right balance between civil liberties and police surveillance: before September 11, the intelligence services were allegedly asleep, the government ignored warnings, only to throw out the baby with the bathwater after the catastrophe occurred.[3] It is indeed commonplace after such attacks for state organs to instigate a debate about the failure of the security services, and for the general public to demand inquiries to find out which services knew how much, why the existing knowledge about the assassins was not consolidated, whether there were warnings, who turned a deaf ear to them, and so on. But the fact that, of all people, the victims and critics of national security have sadly nothing better to do than to join this debate with suggestions for improvement, is less understandable.

In foreign policy: Idealists of the world power see America’s mission discredited

An unnecessary and therefore criminal war …

Some Americans are simply appalled by the series of wars in the Middle East. They oppose the general war mood, demonstrate, take part in blockades, and allow themselves to be beaten up and arrested for doing so. Whenever they justify their rejection, they speak as concerned citizens of a superior world power called to true leadership. In contrast to the German peace movement of the eighties, their indignation is not nourished by the fear their country would be affected by a new world war, but from their high opinion of the superpower’s responsibility for peace, freedom, and democracy all over the world. For all their belief in the values with which the U.S. ennobles its imperialism, these alternative Americans condemn its reality. They measure Bush’s campaign against the standards of a just war; i.e., they examine the credibility of governmental justifications — and take the fact that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction have never been found as evidence that Bush is lying. The asserted threat to the United States does not exist, hence the war is not being waged to defend the nation but for other purposes that the deceived citizens do not share. Nor does it make sense to the critics that the Iraq war is a just punishment of those responsible for the attack of September 11, when bin Laden is spared while “our president drops bombs on innocent people.” A gracious jazz musician apologizes to the world for it. Liberation? What a joke! — the way he sees it, the inhabitants of Baghdad are lost for the cause of freedom and democracy. How could they ever trust America after such lessons? He holds good examples to be more promising for the export of democracy: “We cannot impose our lifestyle on other peoples with force of arms.” The fact that it is and should be a matter of exporting a lifestyle, that this lifestyle would really benefit the others — all this is settled for good when someone condemns the dispatch route as unworthy of an exemplary world power.

The war opponents stick to the good reasons for the war presented as propaganda — defense, punishment, liberation — and find them implausible. The contradictions they harp on are easy to be had, since the justifications for war that are calculated to win domestic and foreign approval are never the real reasons why one state attacks another. Conversely, war doesn’t become any better just because wonderfully plausible reasons have been put forward for it. But that is exactly what these idealists of foreign policy demand; they never leave the field of — necessarily —hypocritical justifications and wish they were “true.” So the actual offence they are denouncing consists in the president’s lies — not the war. The war, though, is characterized by lies and nothing else: it is a crime because it is not honestly justified.

… is imperialism

The absence of a sound justification, this non-verdict, constitutes their positive statement about this war. Harsh words such as “act of aggression in violation of international law,” “imperialism,” “arrogance of power,” etc., have no other substance. Veteran groups, of all people, make a sharp distinction between an honorable defense of the homeland and aggression, and call on their comrades in active service to refuse to serve and desert. In order to open their eyes, they tell true stories about the wars they took part in, in which comrades died or were crippled. Having wised up to U.S. imperialism by paying these very personal costs, they don’t remind succeeding generations of their interest in survival, for instance, but rather of their moral responsibility as good GI’s: in an unjust war of aggression, collateral damage is not a pardonable side effect, but murder. And “there is no honor in murder!”

In the same vein: this unjustified war must have an unjust reason, which Bush could never ever have dished up to the American public: Iraqi oil. Honestly, the government can’t be said to have concealed much here — it has never made a secret of the fact that it regards American control of the Middle East as crucial due to its oil. But the insinuation of a secret materialism behind the military campaign does indeed achieve something: it dissociates Bush’s war — with Bush acting accordingly not as president but as lobbyist for his buddies in the Texan oil mafia — from the nation’s true concerns. The latter at any rate are and will remain beyond all doubt. The condemned evil must not and therefore cannot have anything to do with “our way of life.”

Why this unjust war nevertheless takes place

The politicizing novelist Norman Mailer[4] is radical in that he does not stand up for the good American against his wicked president; instead he fashions a more or less self-contained system of delusions out of the self-righteous world view of a better America. He tries to shed light on a puzzle that only people like him pose: why has it come to a war that everyone can see is irresponsible and senseless? He briefly mentions those contemptible reasons for the war — hegemony in the Middle East and access to a whole lot of petrodollars — in order to come to the decisive question: why do we stoop to things like this? “Why did we go to war?” Drawing up a profile of his fellow citizens supplies him with the “covert but real” causes of war. National self-confidence was supposedly so shaken by “9/11” that retaliation became a genuine need of the collective psyche: … we very much needed a successful war as a species of psychic rejuvenation. Any major excuse would do.” Mailer identifies the “we” that has lost its customary self-assurance more precisely as the “good average white American male.” This very important voter needed urgent moral rearmament. This is firstly because the collapse of the labor market has ruined his job opportunities; secondly, the victory of the women’s movement has unsettled his machismo; and thirdly, the rise of black sports heroes has increasingly spoiled his identifying with any winner he watches on TV. War as balm for the soul of white middleclass men, whose depressions are caused by everything other than questions of foreign policy; reducing towns and whole countries to rubble for a bit of feeling good on the part of his staunch supporters — Mailer believes his president is capable of all this at any time. It makes no difference to him whether Bush yielded to the psychological needs of his supporters or exploited their psychic defects for himself, for votes, or for any other self-serving interests. One thing is certain for Mailer: if the American is really so emotionally unstable, he needs at the minimum a president with a firm moral grasp who doesn’t heed the vox populi! The author, who shows his concern for the future of American democracy in his article, can only warn of the dangers that democracy poses in matters of war — all the more when leaders and electorate suit each other so well in their depravity. In this manner, his cultural-critical rejection of the object of his sympathetic concern comes, only a few lines after the psychoanalysis of the unsound mind of the citizenry, to a complementary insight into the unworthiness of the leader: “The motives that lead to a nation’s major historical acts can probably rise no higher than the spiritual understanding of its leadership.”

Political scientists translate the peace movement’s “unjust” into “useless” and are regarded as torch bearers of the protest

The philosopher Richard Rorty[5] does not shrink from using harsh words, which go down well in Europe: “The Bush administration's view [is] that a permanent pax Americana, one whose terms are dictated by Washington alone, is the world's only hope…” and America will not tolerate any independent nations alongside itself. He calls Bush’s “unilateralist arrogance” a “humiliating subservience” of old allies. The political scientist Stanley Hoffmann[6] sees a “not-so-benign soft imperialism,” which, “drunk with power,” is about to throw overboard everything in the way of international cooperation” and “international law,” instituted not least of all by the U.S. itself. He says the leading nation is breaking up NATO and splitting the EU: “It is sad to have to remind those who endorse such positions that in a world consisting of almost two hundred States … a pure and simple return to the rule of the strongest would be a catastrophic regression.”

In the circles centered around European philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, such statements are regarded as leftist, pacifist, and reasonable, while at the same time, the denunciation of the most recent acts of U.S. imperialism actually presages and leads to a warning: it’s not going to go well! In the long run, America’s leading role will only be weakened, not strengthened. Rorty reminds the Bush entourage that “American economic and military dominance is bound to be transitory” and that insistence on perpetual military supremacy will, sooner or later, produce a confrontation with China, Russia, or both — a confrontation that may end in nuclear war” Hoffmann accuses the administration of imperialist incompetence: “Recent U.S. doctrines and actions have damaged that legitimacy it … now enjoys in the international system.” “The language of ‘you're either with us or against us,’ of punishments and rewards, sounds imperious (and imperial). It is likely to be counterproductive in the long term” “During the cold war the U.S. … showed itself aware of the advantages that regional and global cooperation provide to the dominant power. International cooperation had the benefits of lightening the military and financial burdens of the US as well as giving it more influence and providing ways of monitoring and shaping the behavior of others.” “American unilateral preventive action … [is] a recipe for turning the world into a jungle.”

It does not bother the antiwar activists at all that experts like Rorty and Hoffman change the meaning of their criticism. They regard the expert warnings — that all too many foreign military adventures can lead to “imperial overstretch,” and that pride, even for a superpower, goes before a fall — as reinforcing their own arguments. So as to affirm that their notion of responsible politics does not make them unrealistic screwballs, but only expresses the dictates of reality, they gladly take sides with those whom they had just denounced as criminals and murderers, in order to explain to them that they harm their own cause most with unjustified wars. These idealists of a better, truly benevolent hegemon that selflessly helps other peoples liberate themselves and on no account employs force for national gain see themselves as the defenders of a wholly sensible status quo, which the national leadership can only contravene to the detriment of the nation. “Ill-gotten goods never prosper!” — critics of U.S. imperialism in the peace movement and academic warners of failure of this imperialism unite in this belief that America is basically good. Both voices together are perfectly normal, to be taken seriously so to speak, in the public to and fro over the proper directions for military and foreign policy. Half a year after the official end of hostilities, they are not at all as alone in their opposition to the Iraq war as they were formerly. Criticism is now to be heard from a corner completely different from the cosmopolitan one.

Isolationists and anti-isolationists argue about the correct balance between the costs and benefits of world supremacy

After the American victory over a hopelessly inferior enemy, guerrilla warfare endangers the new order on the conquered terrain, claims victims daily among the occupiers, threatens to tie up forces for years and drive up the costs of occupation to new heights. Under these circumstances, no dissenting nationalism is needed to turn critical. Due to universal confidence in the indisputable superiority of U.S. armed forces, even the most run-of-the-mill nationalism turns sour over losses of troops and “tax dollars.” The troops are expected to have the situation under control, otherwise doubts about the superiority and effectiveness of Washington’s world politics will arise. Far from questioning war as such, patriots mull over cool questions like: What is it good for? What does the nation get out of it? Is the balance of cost and benefit acceptable? In this context, the reasons for war that had been good enough for Congress and the general public before the war have become the talk of the town. Now they are being rejected by many, but not in the sense meant by the better Americans from the peace front. While the latter expose the alleged threat to the U.S. posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a dishonest pretext for unprovoked aggression, the broader public takes the circumstances that weapons of mass destruction have still not been found somewhat less emotionally. Senators who voted for the war realize that the threat from Iraq was really not as imminent as Bush represented it. In truth, they say, there had not been enough time to forge a closed front of all the partners, or to try out other methods of dealing with Iraq. So then why this overhasty war, whose misjudgments, lack of planning for the postwar period, and rejection by the allies now create trouble and victims?

Faced with this patriotic scrutiny, the most outrageous and at the same time finest reason given by Bush proves to be a boomerang: America, he says, marched in to free the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator. The idealists of the world power have rejected this war hyperbole as hypocrisy, while Bush’s supporters in Republican Party circles take this hypocrisy for the truth, not for a second doubting the good deeds perpetrated by the army in Baghdad and surrounding areas — and for this reason turning indignant: Why are “we” spilling American blood for the good of these Arabs who don’t even thank us for liberating them? Public opinion has become so used to this sham existence of American imperialism, which portrays itself as a commitment to the freedom and security of other nations, that a national egoism rises in protest and reproaches the government for only burdening the country with its wars, and all that for the benefit of other nations — as if war could ever be something other than the very peak of national egoism vis-à-vis other sovereigns. Consequently they demand that America start thinking of its own interests, keep out of others’ problems, and stop always being ready to serve as a holy helper — not out of imperialistic modesty, and absolutely not from a desire to retreat from a world dominated by America. No, the point of view, called “isolationism” by its critics, is a demand for a U.S. Imperialism free of charge. They criticize the cost America incurs to utilize the world, and demand that this has to be had more cheaply, without a cumbersome policy of alliances, without all the complicating consideration of partners, without reconstruction or troop presence on the ground after the bombing campaign.

“Internationalists” like Hoffmann and Rorty counter these “isolationists” with the argument that America’s global supremacy requires partners, that in the long run it cannot keep up its solo efforts, and that the hegemon runs the danger of biting off more than it can chew if it falls out with too many states at the same time. These level-headed strategists misjudge the “truth” of the isolationists: leadership of the world of states is not to be had without ruthlessness and war, without subjugation and subordination. In this way the experts of the leading power hit each other over the head with their respective one-sided arguments. The one side insists that the world power should not forget subjugation in its leadership, and that ruthlessness alone establishes the right relationship with other nations: America has to mould and use them — and not allow itself to be used. The other side reminds them that the leader also needs followers and can only make use of them if they get some chance or other to assert their national interests in America’s dominion. In this way, the critics dispute the right balance of ruthlessness and integration — a balance the Bush administration at any rate doesn’t know how to strike, as can be seen in the current difficulties. Such a dispute among experts is not really surprising — the embarrassing thing is that all the learned or unlearned contributions to the debate on correcting and improving U.S. imperialism are regarded as good or evil, whether they come from inside or outside America, are split into leftist and rightist, or into war-happy and war-weary.

Is Bush lying? — Credibility, the telos of all criticism in a democracy

When criticism of the machinations of government leaders expresses nothing other than concern for the success of the nation, then it has arrived where it belongs in a democracy: the political arena. And it has become the business of those who populate this arena — the competitors for political power. They reproach Bush for weakening America through his fanaticism and for undermining its position in the world instead of strengthening it. They sow the seeds of doubt in the competence of the officeholder in order to offer their services as the better champion of the national cause. Even the activists involved in the protests who had pictured America’s role in the world and the defense of civil liberties a bit differently feel that the candidates competing for office are addressing them, well or badly, perhaps, but at least somehow. They themselves voiced their protest out of concern for the community and saw the good they stood up for as being required for its functioning. Thus from the very start, their strongest critical argument consisted in the warning that violations of the constitution and irresponsible world politics would have dire consequences.

Their belief that their ideals correspond to the inherent necessities for sensibly running the country makes them receptive to the ultimate election campaign issue: whether Bush can do “it.” It is only a small but decisive step from doubts as to whether the president is a good leader who deserves the trust of his fellow countrymen, to the question that all citizens of a democracy are ultimately qualified to answer, whether they deal with foreign policy and basic rights or not: is the president a person that can be trusted? That is, can a citizen believe what he says? The relationship of trust between leader and led, this being-able-to-believe, is the only level at which citizens are actually allowed to question and check their politicians; and with this, they subscribe to their lack of responsibility in all matters that have to be decided by those in positions of responsibility.

It is precisely on this point that the debate about falsified evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction takes on an importance on the domestic stage it has long since lost internationally. The President might be allowed to lie to allies for the benefit of the nation, but not to the American people! Now, investigating committees are appointed to examine whether Bush falsified intelligence reports or exaggerated their findings, i.e., whether he lied. Furthermore, they are examining whether the White House out of pure revenge blew the cover of a CIA agent — the wife of a former deputy chief of mission in Baghdad who right before the war had contradicted its grounds — and thus endangered national security. Any evidence in this sphere (comparisons to Watergate are being drawn over and over again) could harm the president more than the whole war and its American victims — no one mentions the other victims anyway.

*

All criticism of Bush, the routine criticism of political rivals as well as the radical criticism of the protest movement, ends up attempting to undermine his credibility, thus also questioning his worthiness to hold high office. Doubts as to the personal qualities of the president, suspicions of his being an agent of big business, that he would lie and deceive — these are the quintessential political controversies. Radicalism, where it arises, is radical in this field. Judging and failing the president according to the standard of true leadership can, compared to congressional practices, definitely be taken up a notch. The satirist Michael Moore[7] and others feel free to heap abuse on the illiterate in the White House with his stolen presidency, and thereby directly make the transition from political protest to entertainment of the people with their sophisticated demands on government personnel. Moore has come to fame in Europe by splitting up Mailer’s “spiritual understanding of our leadership” into its two meanings: they are wicked and stupid — in fact the one from the other: “Stupid White Men,” then! What great laughs! — a dry alcoholic who can’t put together three consecutive grammatically correct sentences and then starts a war; who is too stupid to lie to the American people without insulting their intelligence with all-too-obvious lies; or how about a macho who portrays himself as a warrior in his pilot’s uniform, but who himself shirked military service during Vietnam and wasn’t even able to properly perform his alternative service in the Texas Air National Guard; or how about a son of wealthy parents who makes capitalism increasingly harder for the broad masses but who bungles every business he gets his hands on. It is better not to take seriously the criteria by which Moore fails this moral and practical loser, as it’s enough to give one the creeps. This humor producer and alternative patriot feels that he is just as poorly represented by Bush junior as German intellectuals once felt about their President Heinrich Lübke and Chancellor Helmut “Pear Head” Kohl.

Notes

1 Noam Chomsky constitutes an exception . He answers the question of what should be done in light of the terror attacks with an invitation to seriously consider Bush’s deliberately uncomprehending gripe, “Why do they hate us?” This then would provide an insight into what would have to be changed in American foreign policy if it intended not to create any more such enemies for itself — and into what it certainly doesn’t intend to change at all. (Noam Chomsky, “Wars of Terror,” New Political Science, Vol. 25 No. 1, 2003)

2 Freely quoted from “The USA Patriot Act Six Month Later: a Statement by Members of the Free Expression Network,” April 26, 2002, freeexpression.org. For similar views see also Jennifer Van Bergen, ”The USA Patriot Act was Planned Before 9/11,” May 20, 2002, truthout.org; and Jessica Azeley, “Resolutions as Resistance (anti-USA Patriot Act Resolutions),” Z magazine, March 2003, thirdworldtraveler.com.

3 Whenever criticism of this kind turns radical, it crosses over into persecution mania. People who reject the surveillance practices, but find them nonetheless to be somehow logical consequences of the attacks, lapse into a dreadful suspicion: it could be that Bush intentionally ignored warnings at various points in order to exploit the people’s angst and horror and abolish once and for all the freedom of decent Americans. But that’s another topic, dealt with under the heading, “conspiracy theory.”

4 Norman Mailer, “The White Man Unburdened,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 12, July 17, 2003.

5 Richard Rorty, “Humiliation or Solidarity?” Dissent, Fall 2003. First published in German in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, May 31, 2003.

6 Stanley Hoffmann, “America Goes Backward,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 10, June 12, 2003

7 Author of the bestseller Stupid White Men and the film Bowling for Columbine.