Quantcast

Nation Topics - War and Peace | The Nation

Topic Page

Articles

News and Features

Whoever controls Saudi Arabia's oil wields great power over the world economy.

How depressing was the October 13 peace rally in Washington Square? Well, the Bread and Puppet Theater performed--that should give you an idea. "It's the sixties all over again," murmured the portly graybeard standing next to me as the funereal drum thudded and the players, holding their papier mâché body masks, paraded glumly through the crowd of perhaps 500 people--most, by the look of them, veterans of either the peace and justice or sectarian left. Look on the bright side, I thought: At least we don't have to sing "Down by the Riverside," as happened at the peace rally in Union Square on October 7, a few hours after bombs started falling on Afghanistan.

I don't like to criticize the activists who put together what little resistance to the bombing there is. But the 2000s aren't the 1960s, and whatever else Afghanistan is, it isn't Vietnam, any more than international terrorism or Islamic extremism is the new communism. Essential to the movement against the war in Vietnam was the pointlessness of our involvement: What had Ho Chi Minh ever done to us? The Vietcong never blew up American office buildings and murdered 5,000 ordinary American working people. You didn't have to be a pacifist or an opponent of all intervention everywhere to favor getting out of Vietnam--there were dozens of reasons, principled, pragmatic, humanitarian, self-serving, to be against the war. This time, our own country has been attacked, and the enemies are deranged fanatics. No amount of military force short of nuclear weapons would have defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, who really did swim like fish in the sea of the people and had plenty of help from the Soviet Union besides; the Taliban, by contrast, are widely, although not universally, hated in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden's men, known as the Arab-Afghans, are viewed there by many as a hostile foreign presence.

Faced with a popular air war conducted, at least on paper, in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties, the peace movement falls back on boilerplate: All war everywhere is wrong, no matter what evils pertain; any use of force merely perpetuates the "cycle of violence"; the war is "racist," whatever that means; it's a corporate plot. The most rousing and focused speech at Washington Square was physicist Michio Kaku's denunciation of Star Wars--but no one I heard (I missed the noted foreign policy experts Al Sharpton and Patti Smith) grappled with the central question: If not war, what? Realistically, some of the alternatives that have been proposed would also involve military action. Osama bin Laden is not likely to mail himself to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity; the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance by United Nations peacekeepers, followed by free and democratic elections--the course favored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan--is not likely to happen peacefully either.

The attack on the World Trade Center, an unspeakable and unjustifiable crime, created a sense of urgency and feelings of fear and anger that do not easily accord with calls for a deeper understanding of America's role in the Muslim world. It's hard to care that the US government armed and bankrolled the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, or that it supports clerical-fascist Islamic governments like the one in Saudi Arabia, when you're afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail. Say for the sake of argument that the "chickens" of American foreign policy "are coming home to roost": You can see why many would answer, Well, so what? Why not just kill the chickens and be done with it? That may prove much more difficult than today's pro-war pundits acknowledge--what if one only hatches more chickens?--but it's not totally off the wall, like Alice Walker's embarrassing and oft-cited proposal that bin Laden be showered with love and "reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done."

Right now, the argument that the war will have unforeseen and disastrous consequences may sound like handwringing, but it is doubtless true. Given the millions who are starving in Afghanistan, the 37,500 mini-meals that have fallen from the sky are a cruel joke. And even if the Al Qaeda network is destroyed and the Taliban overthrown, the circumstances that created them will remain. This is the case whether one sees the attack on the WTC as inspired by religiously motivated hatred of modernity and Enlightenment values, like Christopher Hitchens, or as a response to particular American policies in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as Noam Chomsky argues. Experts can debate the precise amount of motivation this or that factor contributes to terrorism--but unless the Muslim world is transformed on many levels, it is hard to see how the bombing of Afghanistan will keep Americans safe or prevent new Al Qaedas and Talibans from forming. For that, we would have to be able to look down the road ten years and see a peaceful, well-governed, rebuilt Afghanistan; a Pakistan in which the best chance for a poor boy or girl is public school, not a madrassah for him and nothing for her; a Saudi Arabia with a democratic, secular government; an Egypt without millions living in abject poverty and a hugely frustrated middle class. This is all the more true if militant Islam is relatively independent of concrete grievances like Israel and Iraq.

Unfortunately, anyone who tries to talk about the WTC attack in this way--as Susan Sontag did in her entirely reasonable but now infamous New Yorker piece--is likely to find themselves labeled a traitor, a coward, anti-American or worse. (I found this out myself when I made the mistake of going on the radio with mad Andrew Sullivan, who has said the "decadent left...may well mount a fifth column," and who accused me of objectively supporting the Taliban and likened me to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.) But a war can be "just" in the sense that it is a response to aggression--as Vietnam was not--and also be the wrong way to solve a problem.

Liza Featherstone will be reporting periodically on the antiwar movement for The Nation. This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, sponsored by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.

The war in Afghanistan, coming after the atrocities of September 11, provokes a welter of contradictory emotions. On the one side, a desire for justice and a yearning for security. And on the other side, dread of a war unrestrained by national boundaries, time frame or definable goals.

We believe that America has a right to act in self-defense, including military action, in response to a vicious, deadly attack on US soil by a terrorist network identified with Osama bin Laden. There is a real threat of further attacks, so, as Richard Falk argues on page 11, action designed to hunt down members of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who collaborate with it is appropriate.

But acknowledging a right of response is by no means an endorsement of unlimited force. We must act effectively but within a framework of moral and legal restraint. Our concern is that airstrikes and other military actions may not accomplish the ends we endorse and may exacerbate the situation, kindling unrest in other countries and leading to a wider war. They have already triggered bloody riots in Pakistan and Indonesia and on the West Bank, where the cease-fire is in shreds.

This effort ideally should have been carried out under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council and bin Laden and his associates brought to justice for their crimes by an international court. The United States should still seek a mandate from the Security Council for its military actions. This would give the campaign the international legitimacy it needs to avoid playing into the hands of those charging an American war against Islam, and it would offer some protection against the calamity of a wider and uncontrolled war. It would also help strengthen the UN's policing and peacekeeping capacity.

If limited military action in self-defense against bin Laden and his backers and cohorts is justified, an open-ended "crusade" against pariah nations to stamp out ill-defined evil is not. There are already ominous rumblings in the Pentagon that such interventions are contemplated. The Administration has notified the Security Council that it might pursue terrorists in other nations. This may be more of a threat than a promise, especially as it pertains to the Philippines and Indonesia. But it is no secret that hard-liners hanker to expand the war to include strikes against Iraq, Iran, Syria and other hard cases.

Military actions inside Afghanistan must be circumscribed by limited political objectives and carried out with a minimum of civilian casualties. The report of the killing of four Afghan UN employees (engaged in clearing the deadly harvest of mines sowed by two decades of war in that nation) in the second day's bombing underscores the potential costs when vast firepower is unleashed against a poor nation with comparatively few military targets. As civilian casualties mount and more refugees are driven from their homes, international support for the US effort will dwindle.

The US air war has already magnified humanitarian problems that call for urgent attention. In addition to 7.5 million Afghans facing famine before the war, which has interrupted overland shipments of food, half a million refugees have fled the bombing. American cargo planes dropping 37,000 box lunches cannot mitigate this problem, so US contributions to international agencies giving food and medical aid must be stepped up. With fleeing Afghans massing at border chokepoints, the Pakistani government should be pressured to allow aid to go through. The UN, with US assistance, must expand the number of camps that will take in the uprooted.

Also looming in Afghanistan is the prospect of the Taliban government falling and leaving a power vacuum, into which rush the furies of anarchy and civil war. The UN should immediately convene a coalition of opposition groups (including those representing Afghan women) in an attempt to ease the transition to a new government that is broadly representative of the Afghan people.

Here in America, responsible members of Congress should demand clarification of the Administration's goals in this war and oppose the President's attempts to curtail Congressional oversight of the conflict. In this regard, we hope that the courageous statement of Representative Jim McDermott that the Administration lacked a "fully developed and comprehensive strategic plan" will hearten more of his fellow Democrats to engage in similar scrutiny. And let us also praise Senator Russell Feingold for at least slowing down an antiterrorism package that the Senate leadership was trying to rush through Congress by severe limiting amendments or debate.

As the fog of national security closes in Washington, the press must resume its appropriate watchdog role. Civil liberties groups should stay on high alert, flashing early warnings against unconstitutional laws and violations of civil rights--especially those of innocent aliens apprehended in early antiterrorist sweeps.

As we have said before, military means are only one weapon in the fight against terrorism--and a very limited one. Of greater importance are diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence efforts. Beyond those, instead of more US military attacks we need a multinational coalition dedicated to attacking the conditions breeding terrorism--the endless Israel-Palestine conflict, the corruption of US-supported Arab regimes, the world inequality and poverty spawned by globalization. And on another front, as Jonathan Schell warns on page 7, the question of weapons of mass destruction has acquired a new salience as a result of the recent events. Nuclear disarmament, a test ban and stronger nonproliferation measures are sorely needed. We should not let the military action overshadow these greater challenges.

As Schell writes, "The world is sick. It cannot be cured with America's new war. The ways of peace--adopted not as a distant goal but as a practical necessity in the present--are the only cure."

President Bush has stated that his global campaign against terrorism will be a "new kind of war," in which traditional military approaches will give way to a more innovative mix of tactics. Or, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, "The uniforms of this conflict will be bankers' pinstripes and programmers' grunge just as assuredly as desert camouflage."

Unfortunately, despite this rhetoric about fighting a new kind of conflict, the only thing new about the military budget in the wake of September 11 will be its size. Once emergency funding, previously requested increases and a forthcoming supplemental appropriation are taken into account, military spending for the current fiscal year could hit $375 billion, a $66 billion increase over last year's total. Rarely has so much money been thrown at the Pentagon so quickly, with so little public debate. Most of this new funding will be used to bail out existing weapons programs, not to finance new equipment or tecshniques designed for the fight against terrorism. The Pentagon's latest strategy review, released in early October, makes numerous mentions of "terrorism" and "homeland defense," but it is essentially a status quo document that will not require the cancellation of a single major weapons program.

Given this anything-goes approach, look for Republican Representative Curt Weldon to seize the opportunity to shore up the Boeing V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft built in his district that has been plagued by a series of fatal crashes and falsified test results. Likewise, the Georgia and Texas delegations will use the new, more generous Pentagon funding environment to fend off challenges to the Lockheed Martin F-22, an overweight, outmoded fighter plane that now costs more than $200 million each. And the list will go on, to include costly artillery systems, attack submarines and combat ships, all of which were originally designed for battle with a Soviet military machine that no longer exists, and none of which have any obvious application to the President's current war on terrorism.

Of course, the most expensive item on the Bush Administration's military wish list is its multibillion-dollar missile defense scheme. The low-tech means used for the September 11 attacks underscore the fact that a long-range ballistic missile is the least likely method a hostile power would use to attack the United States. But Congressional Star Wars boosters, like GOP Senator Jon Kyl and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, have rushed to the program's defense nonetheless. Meanwhile, Democratic critics, like Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, are holding their fire for the moment, after agreeing to put aside plans to restrict the Pentagon's $8.3 billion missile defense budget for the current fiscal year in the name of national unity.

In a recent address to the Heritage Foundation, Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim did manage to specify a handful of items that he argued would be useful in tracking down and targeting terrorists, including unmanned surveillance vehicles, like the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, and specialized reconnaissance aircraft like the RC-135 "Rivet Joint." But these systemsare small change compared with the tens of billions the Pentagon will continue to devote to big-ticket, cold war-era white elephants like the F-22.

Lockheed Martin and its industry cohorts will also benefit from the stepped-up US arms sales to the Middle East and South Asia that are being offered as a quid pro quo for joining the US-led antiterror campaign. The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which handles government-to-government arms sales, recently established a "war room," known as the "Enduring Freedom Response Cell," which is intended to put weapons requests from US allies on a "fast track." Uzbekistan has been cited as one country that could benefit from the new, streamlined procedures. Pending sales of F-16 aircraft to Oman and the United Arab Emirates and multiple-launch rocket systems to Egypt are being rushed through in the name of coalition-building.

Even if there were an effective military solution to the scourge of terrorism, the Pentagon would be hard pressed to explain how most of the items included in its current spending spree could be put to use in such a battle. It's time for skeptics on Capitol Hill and in the country at large to speak out loudly and clearly, before our leaders in Washington write out a blank check to the Pentagon that could distort federal budget priorities and the conduct of our foreign policy for years to come.

The bombing part is easy. Not of course on the civilians, the "collateral damage" likely to be killed in unseemly large numbers, as they were during the Gulf War.

"We need to make it very clear," said one veteran activist at a recent meeting of a nascent New York City antiwar coalition, "that we want to punish the criminals." She meant, of course, any living accomplices in the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. That night, activists were unable to come to any kind of agreement on the need to bring the murderers to justice, and their confusion and division mirrored that of antiwar demonstrators around the nation. During the last weekend in September, antiwar protests in the nation's capital underscored the movement's difficulty in articulating a message that might make sense to a broader public. That difficulty was amplified by the happy fact that, as one demonstrator put it, "it's hard to protest a war that's not happening." While things may yet get brutal, George Bush is not presently proposing to take any military action against innocent Afghan civilians, and the Administration is now seriously considering schemes that, when suggested by peace activists a week ago, sounded absurdly whimsical--like "bombing" Afghanistan with food.

Originally, more than 10,000 foot soldiers of the global economic justice movement, from the controversial hooded Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or "Black Bloc") to the AFL-CIO, had planned to show up to protest September 30's IMF/World Bank meeting. That meeting was canceled. Most protest groups canceled their actions too, and not only because there were no meetings to oppose. At a moment of sorrow and panic, demonstrators risked being ignored--or worse, reviled as unpatriotic or insensitive to the memories of the dead. In a statement explaining their withdrawal from the protests, United Students Against Sweatshops declared September in the capital "neither the time nor the place to gather in opposition."

Not everyone felt that way. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence decided to hold an antiwar demonstration Saturday morning, using, according to David Graeber of New York City's Direct Action Network, who works closely with the ACC, "less controversial tactics. None of these," he laughed, pointing to a brick in the middle of the sidewalk. The Black Bloc anarchists, known for illegal actions, refrained from any destruction of property, and the weekend ended with only eleven arrests. The ACC march drew about 1,000 (organizers claimed 2,000-3,000). Some--being anarchists--rejected any action that the state might take, even against terrorism, and rejected any international tribunal as a tool of the state.

The second, and best-publicized, march was organized by an antiwar front group assembled by the International Action Center (IAC), in turn a front for (if you're still following) the Workers World Party, which is justly reviled for supporting Slobodan Milosevic, among other gruesome dictators. Still, a few thousand people, from high school students to graying peaceniks, eventually joined by the ACC, showed up. IAC organizers subjected these demonstrators to three hours of speeches, none of which mentioned bringing the killers to justice, before the all-too-brief march from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol began. Bland sloganeering and predictable references to eclectic causes (Free Mumia!) had the effect of reducing the peril of World War III to the trivial status of another pet left crusade. There was no doubt about the sincerity of the demonstrators, who carried signs like Another Alaskan for Peace, but the IAC's involvement gave the event--which drew maybe 7,000 at its peak, though organizers claimed 20,000--the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.

The third march, held on Sunday and organized by the Washington Peace Center and other groups, was smaller than the IAC event but achieved an appropriately serious tone. Some of Saturday's demonstrators (from the well-behaved Black Bloc to the Bread and Puppet Theater) turned up, along with many locals--a crowd of some 3,000. Speakers, many of them clergy, quoted venerable sources: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Signs often bore scriptural messages, and one playfully queried George Bush, WWJD? Speakers read letters from family members of September 11 victims who did not want war in the name of their loved ones. Others stressed the need for reflection and the challenges of turning our grief into a cry for global peace. The event also suggested some practical alternatives to war, emphasizing justice and law over military force. Alan Mattlage, an organizer of the Washington Peace Center event and a member of the Maryland Green Party, echoed many of his fellow protesters in saying that the World Trade Center attacks should be treated not "as an act of war but as a criminal matter. [Those accused] should be tried before an international tribunal."

All three antiwar marches attracted activists who had planned to protest the IMF. Students showed up in large numbers (a nationwide network of more than 150 student antiwar groups, some calling themselves Students for a Peaceful Justice, has been holding campus vigils, protests and teach-ins). Labor organizations, by contrast, from the AFL-CIO to Jobs with Justice, were conspicuously absent. That makes some sense, given that many of their constituents may support military responses to the September 11 attacks. One of countless reasons to hope for peace is that a prolonged war--and antiwar activism--could test the warm solidarity developed in recent years between labor and other progressives, especially students. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see how quickly the global economic justice movement has embraced peace and security issues--and that peace organizations seem ready to tackle the economic roots of violence and to connect US militarism to global economic inequality.

Activists were united on a few points: There will be no peace without economic justice, and US civilians will not be safe until our government stops waging--and funding--war on other innocents. Some offered hope that our nation's suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world's pain. At an interfaith service on peace and justice at St. Aloysius Church Saturday night, Njoki Njoroge Njehu of the 50 Years Is Enough Network advised Americans to "hold that vulnerability, to understand how people around the world live with US violence. And let us finally understand the obscenity of the phrase 'collateral damage.' Will it ever have the same casual reference again?"

Blogs

The new war is only a few weeks old, but prominent cheerleaders are already expressing sober second thoughts.

September 23, 2014

Media fearmongering, political grandstanding and everything else you need to launch a new military mission. 

September 22, 2014

Obama has succumbed to the “War Party” on both sides of the aisle, and should revert back to his “don’t do stupid stuff” policy.

September 22, 2014

More than two-dozen groups are calling on lawmakers to address serious gaps and inconsistencies in the president’s strategy.

September 16, 2014

US military officials outlined several scenarios ground troops could end up fighting in Iraq and said Obama hasn’t closed the door.

September 16, 2014

What’s the adequate US response to the growing threat from ISIS and Islamic extremism?

September 15, 2014

Appearing on Democracy Now! Monday morning, Lee Fang discussed "Who's Paying the Pro-War Pundits?"—his latest for The Nation.

September 15, 2014

Though it scarcely makes headlines, the Central African Republic’s vicious civil war has created a sickening humanitarian crisis.

September 11, 2014

The Obama administration’s legal justification for expanding military action in Iraq and Syria is hypocritical and based on tenuous logic.

September 11, 2014

Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and vote on Obama’s plan to expand the US role in Iraq and Syria.

September 10, 2014