During the two-day opera buffa that was the on-again, off-again military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice played a brief but memorable role. Throughout the long day and night that the democratically elected Chávez was sequestered and the military's handpicked provisional president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved all constitutional institutions--the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office and the national electoral commission--Rice and the rest of the Administration remained approvingly silent while sending spokesman Ari Fleischer out to say in effect that it was Chávez's own fault. Only after the elected president was rightfully restored to office did Rice take to the boards to scoldingly tell Chávez that he, not the coup-makers, should "respect constitutional processes."
Although the coup was denounced by nineteen Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush Administration publicly countenanced the military takeover. Not only did Washington demonstrate a radically selective view of the rule of law; it left itself starkly isolated in a hemisphere that has been subject to endless US lecturing on democracy. As Senator Christopher Dodd has noted, "To stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling and will have profound implications for hemispheric democracy."
The leading US papers of record so shamelessly parroted the White House in their initial editorials that the New York Times had to apologize. By midweek, Chávez back in power, the Times recanted: "Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer."
There can be little doubt the Bushies were crestfallen that Chávez didn't get the permanent hook. Venezuela supplies the United States with nearly as much oil as Saudi Arabia. And Chávez has gleefully thumbed his nose at Americans by befriending Castro, warming to Qaddafi and Saddam and playing footsie with the Colombian guerrillas. Indeed, Chávez--a former army paratrooper--rode to power as the embodiment of open challenge to the so-called Washington Consensus of hemispheric free-market economics in 1998. And he has gone out of his way ever since to enrage both the Venezuelan economic oligarchs and the US State Department with regular blasts of red-hot populist rhetoric.
That Washington wanted to get rid of Chávez is undeniable. Prior to the attempted coup US officials met with Carmona and other leaders of the coalition that ousted Chávez; and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America, met with Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, chief of Venezuela's military high command in December. Later, during Carmona's brief reign, according to a State Department official quoted by the Times, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich phoned Carmona--ostensibly to urge him not to dissolve the National Assembly. The Organization of American States panel now investigating in Caracas should probe the precise scope of any US role in the failed coup.
Whoever masterminded the ousting of Chávez badly miscalculated. The majority of Venezuelan combat unit commanders remained loyal and forced Chávez's return to power. The political alliance that spearheaded the coup--the upper and middle classes supported by the trade union movement--was also short-lived. After the military picked Carmona, a prominent leader of the business class, to run the provisional government, labor--literally overnight--withdrew its support. Within hours of taking over, Carmona found himself isolated, and his house of cards collapsed.
That said, no one should confuse Hugo Chávez with Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Chilean president overthrown thirty years ago by a similar US-supported alliance of the economic upper class and the military. Chávez has failed to produce much of the radical change he promised. He showed little of the respect that Allende did for authentic democratic institutions. Unlike Allende, whose public support increased before his overthrow, Chávez has seen his original 80 percent support drop to just over 30 percent. And Allende never turned police and armed supporters against peaceful protesters as Chávez did, provoking a shootout that injured scores and killed more than a dozen.
Allende spoke to his nation as a professor; Chávez, who staged his own failed coup in 1992, often as a thug. Chávez's undeniable charisma flirts with megalomania, his denunciations of all opposition borders on the paranoiac and his antidote to the hollower forms of democracy is often ham-fisted demagogy. Corruption within his regime, an increasingly autocratic style and an inability to make much of a dent in poverty have swollen Chávez's opposition far beyond the ranks of the pro-American economic elite.
After winning by a landslide in 1998, Chávez moved aggressively to dismantle the old system. The two traditional parties were pushed to the margins, the discredited congress was replaced by a unicameral house, corruption was exposed and punished. Vowing to lift up the two-thirds of the population earning less than $2 a day, and infuriating the economic oligarchy, Chávez issued a series of decrees increasing state intervention in the economy and beginning much-needed land reform. But Chávez's authoritarian ways and his failure to make good on deep reform suggest that consensus-winning alternatives championing social justice and authentic democracy are still works in progress.
Chávez presides over a fractured and volatile Venezuela. The military split is perilous. The class divide has been ripped wide open. Now is the time for Chávez to talk a whole lot less and do a whole lot more. When Gabriel García Márquez met with Chávez earlier in his tenure, the Colombian writer was "overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country; the other, an illusionist who could pass into the history books as just another despot." And just as it seemed Chávez was succumbing to the latter fate, almost magically he has been granted another chance to achieve the former.
Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.
I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans
experienced a mixture of fear and warmth, a quickening of the national
spirit. The extraordinary heroism of the firefighters, police and others
in coping with death and destruction rebuked the mood of "infectious
greed" generated by this era of market dominance. Civil servants and
soldiers, even government itself, were accorded new respect in the face
of real dangers and collective need. These developments contained a
hopeful thread for reconstructing our frayed democracy.
Adding to the sense of possibility were the expressions of sympathy and
solidarity from around the world. We Americans, so often the object of
envy or criticism, found ourselves the recipients of a great outpouring
of concern, with countries all over the globe condemning the callous,
fanatical terrorism that could turn an airplane full of ordinary people
into a weapon of horrific destruction.
But the moment was brief and did not last. One year later, we mark not
only the terrible loss of life suffered that day but the tragic failure
of American leadership since then.
Abroad, the Bush team's initial military victory in breaking up Al Qaeda
cells and routing their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan has been
tarnished by a stream of postwar revelations of needless civilian deaths
from US bombs and of mistreatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
Meanwhile, the United States is failing the challenge of rebuilding
Afghanistan, leaving its people facing the same chaos, violence and
extortion that prevailed under the warlords whose depredations helped
usher in the Taliban regime.
America's early success in mobilizing an alliance against Al Qaeda has
been squandered. Rather than pursuing a limited military action in
Afghanistan designed to strike a swift blow against the terrorist
leadership responsible for the attacks and then joining in a sustained,
worldwide policing action to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, the
Bush Administration has exploited the tragedy as a license for an
endless war against endless enemies. It has used September 11 to
consecrate an American empire claiming the right to impose its writ
When the President targeted his spurious "axis of evil" and announced a
new doctrine of "pre-emptive attack," he alarmed allies everywhere. As
Jonathan Schell writes in this issue, Bush has claimed "a radically new
conception of America's role in the world," asserting that it has "the
right to overthrow regimes by military force at its sole discretion."
And now, under this unexamined doctrine, the President and his national
security team relentlessly tout inevitable war with Iraq, dismissing the
opposition of many US generals and much of the Republican foreign policy
Whether it is on the issue of invading Iraq or the desirability of an
International Criminal Court or what must be done to bring about peace
in the Middle East or the need to take seriously the dangers of global
warming, the Administration disdains the opinions of even our oldest
allies, making US leadership a source of resentment rather than hope.
Such actions, South African Breyten Breytenbach writes, have led to the
feeling that America is a cowboy state that "has made the world a much
more dangerous place for the rest of us." No US government has been this
isolated since the 1920s.
While pursuing its grandiose Pax Americana, the Administration has
failed to use this opportunity to honestly examine flaws in America's
past policies toward the rest of the world, and at the same time it has
pursued new policies that lose sight of moral means and goals. It
dismisses any attempt to probe the roots of terrorist attacks. Merely
asking, "Why do they hate us?" is deemed "objectively" pro-terrorist.
Terrorism is defined as metaphysical evil, divorced from its context.
Human rights as a foreign policy objective are jettisoned, and
friendships are sealed--no questions asked--with repressive regimes that
seem to be on "our" side. Russia, Indonesia, China, Pakistan and Egypt
have been allowed to hijack the rhetoric of antiterrorism to justify
repression of citizens opposing their current regimes. The lack of a
coherent US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has allowed
extremists to drown out the voices of peace.
Bush's new international doctrines met with little dissent in the media
or from Congressional Democrats, with the exception of brave legislators
like Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Russ Feingold and John Kerry. Most
Americans were seduced into passive consent, either prompted by fear of
further attacks or cowed by an Administration that branded criticism as
subversive. The media catered to the hyperpatriotic mood, praising
Bush's every move and rarely, until recently, offering any critique of
his Administration's actions.
At home, the President issued no call for sacrifice. For the first time
in our history, we were summoned to a global war for which the wealthy
were asked to pay less in taxes, even as the federal budget plummeted
into the red. The Administration larded the military with money,
demanding billions for cold war weaponry and missile defense. It
defaulted on the core national security imperative of reducing our
dependence on imported oil, choosing instead to prop up feudal empires
and dictatorships (insuring that we will be widely hated as a cause of
misery and oppression in the Middle East and the rest of the world).
After resisting for months, the President cobbled up a massive "homeland
security" reorganization that omits any reform--and avoids any
investigation--of the intelligence agencies and their failures leading
up to September 11.
John Ashcroft, Bush's Attorney General, has become the worst threat to
civil rights and liberties since J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy
peddled fear and division in the early years of the cold war. As David
Cole writes, "With the exception of the right to bear arms, one would be
hard pressed to name a single constitutional liberty that the Bush
Administration has not overridden in the name of protecting our
freedom." Ashcroft has asserted unprecedented license for the executive
while insisting its acts be shrouded in secrecy. It is a measure of the
Attorney General's extremism that his summary detention policies have
been lambasted by the federal courts. In its first public opinion ever,
the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a conservative body
that has never in its existence denied the Justice Department a warrant,
decried Ashcroft's abuse of authority to undermine constitutional
And now, the Administration and the Republican Party--worried about the
flagging economy, stock market collapse and corporate crime
wave--attempt to exploit September 11 and the war on terrorism for
partisan advantage. The President has used his post-9/11 popularity to
raise unprecedented sums for Republican candidates. His political guru,
Karl Rove, urges Republicans to "focus on the war" and advertise their
loyalty to the President.
The anniversary of September 11 should be a time of renewed, and
genuine, patriotism as well as of grieving. But it should also be an
occasion to reflect on where we've traveled in the past year and what
changes in course need to be made. Americans who disagree with the
direction in which this Administration is leading the country should
start building an effective challenge to its policies, with an eye first
on the fall elections--a challenge founded on the bedrock principles of
justice, human rights and internationalism. Some things have changed,
but those principles have not. Another world was possible before
September 11. It still is.
The terrorism war begins to sag.
The perpetrator we were meant to bag
Remains at large, and wartime fervor fades.
Then Bush and all his hawkish White House aides
Drop sanctions as the way to tame Iraq
And say, "Without delay, we must attack."
If that war sags, there's still a backup plan.
It's war without delay against Iran.
And when the zest for that war, too, has faded?
That's easy: North Korea gets invaded.
But then it's hard to think of what to do.
Destroy Bahrain? Bomb France? Invade Peru?
Doomed by the incoherence of a foreign policy defined largely by biblical notions of the struggle between good and evil, the Bush Administration thrashes about in its hunt for the devil.
Several weeks on from the loya jirga national council, the
streets of Kabul have an extra bustle. Whereas in January the place was
deserted by 6 pm, now the curfew has been extended to midnight, and it
costs only $5 to buy the password that can allow your taxi to careen
through checkpoints into the early hours. The chaotic rhythms of Indian
music waft over jingling bicycles and tooting cars, while chai
khanas, ubiquitous teahouses, are full--as are the growing number of
restaurants, frequented by the thousands of foreign aid workers and
other internationals. Increasing numbers of women cross through the
center of town, adorned with a light head scarf rather than the stifling
blue nylon burqa. Fresh life is palpable.
But not far below the surface, the loya jirga has changed little
in the country. The suave President Hamid Karzai ostensibly presides
with new legitimacy over a more representative administration. But
except for juggling one of the ethnic Tajik-run power ministers, the
so-called Panjshiri mafia of the old Northern Alliance mujahedeen
fighters remains firmly in control, not only at the top but among the
practical levers of control such as police chiefs, secret service heads
and army commanders.
Without his own power base, Karzai is seen by some as less a real chief
executive than a liberal opposition figure against his own
Cabinet--offering no apparent strategy for securing and unifying the
fractious country. "The only question," according to Paul Bergne, a
former British special envoy to Afghanistan, "is whether this is because
he has no interest, or simply a reasonable interest, in staying alive."
Especially with the exclusion from power of former King Zahir Shah, the
majority Pashtuns, concentrated in the south, where the Taliban emerged,
feel disfranchised and demoralized. Rubbing salt in the wound, pictures
of the martyred Ahmed Shah Massoud, the rebel leader killed by the
Taliban on September 9, adorn every checkpoint, office and street
corner, and even prayer mats on sale in the city markets.
Soon after the loya jirga, Vice President Haji Qadeer, an ethnic
Pashtun, was gunned down in front of his office by two assailants, who
escaped easily. The United States quickly agreed to provide American
soldiers to serve as bodyguards for a somewhat panicked
Karzai--doubtless a prudent security measure, but one viewed as shameful
by Afghans worried that their leader is Washington's puppet. Meanwhile,
public anger over continuing deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of
US rocket fire--such as the 175 casualties at a wedding in the tense
southern province of Oruzgan--compelled even Karzai himself to complain.
Separate UN and US investigations into the incident have been launched,
amid speculation that the reports will never be released or that the
most damaging conclusions--including alleged American removal of
evidence--will be redacted. International troops are seen as essential
for keeping the local fighting at bay, but Pashtuns bitterly question
why the bulk of civilian casualties appear to be among Pashtun-majority
areas in the south.
The overwhelming majority of the country's 20 million-odd people are
still poor, ill and unemployed. Basic statistics confirm that the
country remains at the bottom ranking of many development indexes,
whether infant mortality, girls' enrollment in primary education (under
10 percent), annual deaths from diarrhea (85,000) or chronic
unemployment, which cannot even begin to be measured.
Afghan officials--facing growing pressure from their own
constituents--have been raising ever sharper alarms about the pace of
aid payments. According to the US special envoy, only around one-third
of the $1.8 billion in aid pledged for the year at an international
donors' conference in Tokyo has been released. Kabul earns tax revenues
of less than 15 percent of its $600 million annual budget. As a result,
most aid has been spent either on humanitarian needs or simply on the
daily costs of government. There have essentially been no major
reconstruction works that would pump funds into the economy and rebuild
the country's devastated infrastructure.
The first postwar administration in any society is inevitably
problematic. Without any conditions for democracy--too many guns and
recalcitrant warlords, no free press or civic institutions for
independent organizing, no functioning economy--establishing a
legitimate and representative administration is not easy. As the Bush
Administration insists, enormous changes have indeed taken place.
Whatever the problems, conditions are vastly improved from the
circumstances of only a few months ago--when the country was plagued by
severe persecution and increasing food shortages with seemingly no hope.
Indeed, some Afghans respond sharply to any probing questions about the
costs and benefits of the US intervention. "Those are questions for a
Western perspective," remarked a senior local editor. "For us, we are
glad the Taliban are gone."
Yet the risks of an unattended Afghanistan remain high. The transitional
administration faces an enormous challenge, aiming to pave the way for
truly democratic elections in 2004 while striving to balance conflicting
and often violent local interests, and struggling to sustain
international support. The core conflict, however, may be between
America's pursuit of Al Qaeda and Afghan democracy itself: The US
military directly supports many Afghan warlords as allies in its effort
to stamp out Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. Continuing that policy will
have a devastating effect on efforts to establish democratic central
government and a meaningful civil society. This is especially true
considering that, despite US training efforts, the establishment of an
effective Afghan national army is years away, and Washington and other
Western governments repeatedly reject Afghan calls--recently joined by
Senators Joseph Biden, Richard Lugar and Barbara Boxer--to extend the
international security assistance force to major cities other than
As a result, the government's authority effectively ends at the
capital's edge. As a result, too, peace could be short-lived. As BBC
regional specialist Behrouz Afagh-Tebrizi notes, "There is a consensus
to avoid a return to war, but there has not been any change in political
culture. Unless the unresolved conflict between the warlords of the
1990s is transformed into a purely political struggle, it is not hard to
see Afghanistan descending back into violence."
This past week confirmed that the American political establishment is
not united in support of the Bush Administration's policy of forcible
"regime change" in Iraq. Odd as it may seem, the strongest expression of
doubt came from a key member of the GOP's right wing, House majority
leader Dick Armey. Expressing concern that an unprovoked attack on Iraq
would violate international law, Armey was quoted as saying that such an
attack "would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or
what we should be as a nation." Meanwhile, Armey's colleague across the
aisle, Carl Levin, voiced the thinking of many of his fellow Democrats
when he argued that "containment of Saddam is so far working."
Armey and Levin are just two of a number of important political
actors--including several prominent senators, forces within the military
and worried figures on Wall Street--who have recently expressed qualms
about the proposed military invasion. These voices need to be amplified
and reinforced by others if the United States is to avoid a potentially
disastrous intervention in the Middle East.
Arguably the most important doubters, because only Congress is
empowered by the Constitution to declare war, are the members of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At their July 31-August 1 hearings on Iraq, chairman Joseph Biden Jr. and other committee
members--while taking pains to make clear that they, too, think Saddam
Hussein must go--emphasized that the aim of the hearings was not to
rally support for or against an invasion but rather to raise questions
and concerns. "Here we have a situation [about] which, clearly, we need
to know much more," Republican Senator Richard Lugar explained in his
opening remarks. Intense questioning of possible US moves is essential,
he added, because "the life of the country is at stake."
Another significant indication of elite concern was articles in the
New York Times and the Washington Post reporting serious
divisions within the US military and business class over the merits of
the proposed invasion. If these articles are accurate--and there is no
reason to assume otherwise--many senior military officers fear that US
intervention will produce chaos in the Middle East and lead to a costly,
dangerous and long-term American occupation of Iraq. Likewise, senior
corporate officials are said to fear a drop in consumer spending
resulting from rising oil prices, as well as a heightened risk of
None of these groups can be described as flat-out opponents of an
American invasion. Most would probably support the President--even cheer
him wildly--if US intervention was thought certain to result in a
speedy, casualty-free occupation of Baghdad and the replacement of
Saddam with a democratic, pro-Western, peace-seeking regime. The
problem, in their eyes, is that Bush can guarantee none of this. And
while readers of The Nation might wish to raise more fundamental
issues--such as whether the United States has a legal or moral right to
initiate a unilateral assault--the concerns among the country's elite
deserve widespread public attention. They can be compressed into nine
1. Why engage in a risky and potentially calamitous invasion of Iraq
when the existing strategy of "containment"--entailing no-fly zones,
sanctions, technology restraints and the deployment of US forces in
surrounding areas--not only has clearly succeeded in deterring Iraqi
adventurism for the past ten years but also in weakening Iraq's military
2. Why has the Administration found so little international support for
its proposed policy, even among our closest friends and allies (with the
possible exception of Britain's Tony Blair), and what would be the
consequences if Washington tried to act without their support and
without any international legal authority? Isn't it dangerous and unwise
for the United States to engage in an essentially unilateral attack on
3. Is the United States prepared to accept significant losses of
American lives--a strong possibility in the projected intense ground
fighting around Baghdad and other urban areas?
4. Is the United States prepared to inflict heavy losses on Iraq's
civilian population if, as expected, Saddam concentrates his military
assets in urban areas? Would this not make the United States a moral
pariah in the eyes of much of the world?
5. Wouldn't an invasion of Iraq aimed at the removal of Saddam Hussein
remove any inhibitions he might have regarding the use of chemical and
biological (and possibly nuclear) weapons, making their use more rather
than less likely?
6. Are we prepared to cope with the outbreaks of anti-American protest
and violence that, in the event of a US attack on Iraq, are sure to
erupt throughout the Muslim world, jeopardizing the survival of pro-US
governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and further inflaming the
7. Can the fragile American economy withstand a sharp rise in oil
prices, another decline in air travel, a bulging federal deficit, a drop
in consumer confidence and other negative economic effects that can be
expected from a major war in the Middle East? And what would an invasion
mean for an even more fragile world economy and for those emerging
markets that depend on selling their exports to the United States and
that are vulnerable to rising oil prices?
8. Even if we are successful in toppling Saddam, who will govern Iraq
afterward? Will we leave the country in chaos (as we have done in
Afghanistan)? Or will we try to impose a government in the face of the
inevitable Iraqi hostility if US forces destroy what remains of Iraq's
infrastructure and kill many of its civilians?
9. Are we willing to deploy 100,000 or more American soldiers in Iraq
for ten or twenty years (at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a
year) to defend a US-imposed government and prevent the breakup of the
country into unstable Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite mini-states?
So far, the Bush Administration has not provided honest or convincing
answers to any of these questions. It is essential, then, that
concerned Americans ask their Congressional representatives to demand
answers to these (and related) questions from the White House and hold
further hearings to weigh the credibility of the Administration's
answers. It is vital that our representatives play their rightful
constitutional role in this fateful decision. The American public
clearly would welcome such moves: A recent Washington Post-ABC
News poll found that while a majority support the President at this
point, they want him to seek authorization from Congress and approval of
America's allies before going ahead. And when asked whether they would
favor a ground war if it were to produce "significant" US casualties,
support plummeted to 40 percent and opposition rose to 51 percent. If
you worry about the future of America, clip or copy these nine questions
and include them in letters to your senators and representative. In
addition, get involved locally: Help organize a teach-in, write a letter
to your newspaper, raise the subject at civic meetings.
They want not just a US invasion of Iraq but "total war" against Arab
The American Constitution at the very beginning of the Republic sought
above all to guard the country against reckless, ill-considered recourse
to war. It required a declaration of war by the legislative branch, and
gave Congress the power over appropriations even during wartime. Such
caution existed before the great effort of the twentieth century to
erect stronger barriers to war by way of international law and public
morality, and to make this resistance to war the central feature of the
United Nations charter. Consistent with this undertaking, German and
Japanese leaders who engaged in aggressive war were punished after World
War II as war criminals. The most prominent Americans at the time
declared their support for such a framework of restraint as applicable
in the future to all states, not just to the losers in a war. We all
realize that the effort to avoid war has been far from successful, but
it remains a goal widely shared by the peoples of the world and still
endorsed by every government on the planet.
And yet, here we are, poised on the slippery precipice of a pre-emptive
war, without even the benefit of meaningful public debate. The
constitutional crisis is so deep that it is not even noticed. The
unilateralism of the Bush White House is an affront to the rest of the
world, which is unanimously opposed to such an action. The Democratic
Party, even in its role as loyal opposition, should be doing its utmost
to raise the difficult questions. Instead, the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, under the chairmanship of Democratic Senator Biden, organized
two days of hearings, notable for the absence of critical voices. Such
hearings are worse than nothing, creating a forum for advocates of war,
fostering the illusion that no sensible dissent exists and thus serving
mainly to raise the war fever a degree or two. How different might the
impact of such hearings be if respected and informed critics of a
pre-emptive war, such as Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, both
former UN coordinators of humanitarian assistance to Iraq who resigned
in protest a few years back, were given the opportunity to appear before
the senators. The media, too, have failed miserably in presenting to the
American people the downside of war with Iraq. And the citizenry has
been content to follow the White House on the warpath without demanding
to know why the lives of young Americans should be put at risk, much
less why the United States should go to war against a distant foreign
country that has never attacked us and whose people have endured the
most punishing sanctions in all of history for more than a decade.
This is not just a procedural demand that we respect the Constitution as
we decide upon recourse to war--the most serious decision any society
can make, not only for itself but for its adversary. It is also, in this
instance, a substantive matter of the greatest weight. The United States
is without doubt the world leader at this point, and its behavior with
respect to war and law is likely to cast a long shadow across the
future. To go legitimately to war in the world that currently exists can
be based on three types of considerations: international law
(self-defense as set forth in Article 51 backed by a UN mandate, as in
the Gulf War), international morality (humanitarian intervention to
prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing) and necessity (the survival and
fundamental interests of a state are genuinely threatened and not really
covered by international law, as arguably was the case in the war in
With respect to Iraq, there is no pretense that international law
supports such a war and little claim that the brutality of the Iraqi
regime creates a foundation for humanitarian intervention. The
Administration's argument for war rests on the necessity argument, the
alleged risk posed by Iraqi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction,
and the prospect that such weapons would be made available to Al Qaeda
for future use against the United States. Such a risk, to the scant
extent that it exists, can be addressed much more successfully by
relying on deterrence and containment (which worked against the far more
menacing Soviet Union for decades) than by aggressive warmaking. All the
evidence going back to the Iran/Iraq War and the Gulf War shows that
Saddam Hussein responds to pressure and threat and is not inclined to
risk self-destruction. Indeed, if America attacks and if Iraq truly
possesses weapons of mass destruction, the feared risks are likely to
materialize as Iraq and Saddam confront defeat and humiliation, and have
little left to lose.
A real public debate is needed not only to revitalize representative
democracy but to head off an unnecessary war likely to bring widespread
death and destruction as well as heighten regional dangers of economic
and political instability, encourage future anti-American terrorism and
give rise to a US isolationism that this time is not of its own
We must ask why the open American system is so closed in this instance.
How can we explain this unsavory rush to judgment, when so many lives
are at stake? What is now wrong with our system, with the vigilance of
our citizenry, that such a course of action can be embarked upon without
even evoking criticism in high places, much less mass opposition in the
With the drumbeat for war on Iraq growing louder in Washington by the
day, the latest United States-backed Iraqi opposition group--the Iraqi
Military Alliance--was established with great fanfare in London in
mid-July by some eighty former Iraqi officers. If this was an attempt at
priming the Iraqi opposition pump as a prelude to overthrowing the
regime of Saddam Hussein, holding a much-hyped press conference seemed
an odd way to proceed.
An incisive comment came from an independent-minded Iraqi lawyer. "The
American policy-makers believe that if you scare Saddam and threaten
him, he will yield," he said. "They think this high profile meeting in
London will ruffle his feathers. Also, it gives a military dimension to
the predominantly civilian Iraqi National Congress." But Saddam does not
scare so easily. In his televised address to the nation on July 17, he
asserted that "evil tyrants and oppressors" would not be able to
overthrow him and his regime. "You will never defeat me this time," he
Behind this bravado lies Iraq's well-tailored policy of reconciliation
with its neighbors, which its foreign minister, Naji Sabri, has been
following doggedly for the past several months. A Christian and former
professor of English literature at Baghdad University, the smooth and
sophisticated Sabri started the year with a groundbreaking trip to
Teheran to resolve the prisoners-of-war exchange issue with Iran. The
following month he flew to Ankara, where he expressed flexibility on
renewed UN inspections. At the Arab summit in Beirut in March, Iraq
recognized Kuwait's border and promised to discuss the issue of Kuwaiti
POWs. "We have instructed our media to avoid any references which may
annoy the State of Kuwait," said Sabri after the summit. Since then he
has sought the assistance of his Qatari and Omani counterparts to
improve Baghdad's relations with Kuwait.
The strategy seems to be paying off. Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, the
Kuwaiti defense minister, said in late July that his country would
approve a US attack on Iraq only if it is done under the auspices of the
United Nations. "Kuwait does not support threats to strike or launch an
attack against Iraq." Baghdad's relations with Saudi Arabia have
improved, too. Riyadh has reopened its border with Iraq at Arar, and
Saudi companies are doing business in Iraq within the framework of the
UN oil-for-food scheme. The desert kingdom has refused to allow the
Pentagon use of the Prince Sultan air base at Al Kharj in case of war
Hence the US pressure on Jordan to allow its air bases to be used
instead--a prospect that sent a tearful King Abdullah rushing to a
European leader to complain about the US plan to attack Iraq from his
kingdom at a time when Arab frustration with the stalemate on the
Israeli-Palestinian front is rising by the day. (That was before
Israel's widely condemned dropping of a one-ton bomb in Gaza, killing
fifteen and injuring 160.)
King Abdullah's European interlocutor was certainly sympathetic to the
monarch's plight. All the European countries except Britain are urging
Washington to construct a coalition for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking,
not for warmaking in Iraq. In this effort they have the backing of
Turkey, a neighbor of Iraq and a NATO member that allows the use of its
Incirlik air base by US and British warplanes monitoring the northern
Iraqi no-fly zone.
In his July 21 interview on state television, Turkish Prime Minister
Bulent Ecevit said the United States should consider alternatives to
military action against Baghdad. "There are other measures to deter the
Iraqi regime from being a threat to the region," he said. "Iraq is...so
developed technologically and economically despite the embargo that it
cannot be compared to Afghanistan or Vietnam." What is more, Ecevit
warned that it would not be possible for America to "get out easily"
from Iraq. Such a prospect was outlined by Sir Peter de la Billiere, who
commanded the British troops in the 1991 Gulf War. Discussing the
prospect of US, British and French troops capturing Baghdad, he wrote in
his Storm Command: A Personal Account of the Gulf War, "Saddam
Hussein...would have slipped away into the desert and organized a
guerrilla movement.... We would then have found ourselves with the task
of trying to run a country shattered by war, which at the best of times
is deeply split into factions.... Either we would have to set up a
puppet government or withdraw ignominiously without a proper regime in
Little wonder that among the questions European and Turkish leaders are
asking the Bush Administration now is: Is America willing to stay in
Iraq for ten years to safeguard the post-Saddam regime from
subversion--and possibly an attack--by an alliance of Iran and Syria,
which have been strategic allies since 1980?
On July 23 Iran's President, Muhammad Khatami, declared that Washington
did not have the right to choose the leadership for the Iraqi people.
Noting that war against Iraq was being promoted in Washington on an
unprecedented scale, he warned that military action against Iraq by the
Pentagon could seriously threaten regional stability. Iranian leaders
reckon that once the Bush Administration has overthrown Saddam, it will
target Iran for regime change--fears fueled by its late-July
announcement that it is officially ending its policy of "playing
factions" in Iran in favor of direct appeals to the Iranian people.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress called for a
resolution in favor of regime change in Iran. Mainstream Iranian
politicians would rather forge an alliance with Baghdad now than wait
for the ax to fall on them in the post-Saddam period.
US war plans clearly pose numerous dangers to the region. But whether
that will deter the hawks in Washington from pressing home their
strategy of ousting Saddam by force remains to be seen.