The Other Superpower

The Other Superpower


As the war began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised a "campaign unlike any other in history." What he did not plan or expect, however, was that the peoples of earth–what some are calling "the other superpower"–would launch an opposing campaign destined to be even less like any other in history. Indeed, Rumsfeld's campaign, a military attack, was in all its essential elements as old as history. The other campaign–the one opposing the war–meanwhile, was authentically novel. In the pages that follow, The Nation gives a snapshot of it in fourteen countries. If news has anything to do with what is new, then this campaign's birth and activity are the real news. What emerges is a portrait of a world in resistance.

Although there is an abyss of difference between the means of the two campaigns, there are also a few notable similarities. Both are creatures of the Information Age, which underlies the so-called "smart" technology on display in the war as well as the Internet, which has become the peace movement's principal organizing tool. Both are global–the United States seeks to demonstrate its self-avowed aim of global military supremacy, and the peace movement is equally determined to reject this. Not only is the whole world watching, as people used to say, the whole world is defending itself. Yet both campaigns are at the same time surprisingly agile, able to change their tactics and timing in response to events. Most interesting, perhaps, both conceive of power at least as much in terms of will as of force.

The first days of the war, for example, produced a surprise when the United States, instead of immediately showering missiles and bombs on Baghdad to produce "shock and awe," as predicted, instead carried out a limited strike aimed at killing Saddam Hussein and perhaps his sons. The goal, in the hideous phrase that now trips off so many tongues, was "decapitation" of the regime. Rumsfeld made clear the larger purpose in his briefing. He entertained the hope that the regime would collapse without a fight. "We continue to feel that there's no need for a broader conflict if the Iraqi leaders act to save themselves and to prevent such further conflict," he said, and proceeded to give these leaders a set of explicit instructions, as if he were already running Iraq: Do not destroy oil wells, do not blow up bridges, etc.

The unexpected twist in strategy generated a spate of admiring commentary. National Public Radio's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Gjelten, marveled that the new Administration policy was heavily "psychological." "The clear hope here was that somehow this regime will just collapse," he commented. "Maybe the war won't even be entirely necessary." And in an article called "A War of Subtle Strategy," the military analyst William Arkin called the new way of proceeding a "thinking man's war." In truth, however, the policy was less novel than the commentators were suggesting. History is filled with episodes of great armies drawing up before the gates of cities and demanding their surrender on pain of annihilation. (In Shakespeare's Henry V, for example, Henry menaces the inhabitants of Harfleur with plunder, rape and massacre if they do not yield up their town, and they do yield.) To have one's way without a fight is indeed the dream of every empire. Such is the strategy, for that matter, every time someone points a gun at someone else and orders "Hands up!" Far from being what Arkin calls a "middle ground–militarily and politically," such a tactic brings to perfection the policy of brute force–of shock and awe. The devastation threatened is so irresistible and crushing that its mere approach is meant to make the enemy surrender out of sheer terror. It aims to crush the will before the body is crushed.

Within a few days, however, the strategy of bloodless terror seemed to be foundering, as Iraqi forces proved willing to fight, and American and British forces were lured into cities where guerrilla operations against them began. A few early (and admittedly inadequate) indications suggest that the suffering people of Iraq, asked to choose between a dictator and a conqueror, wanted neither. In the words of one Iraqi opponent of the Hussein regime to the New York Times in the city of Nasiriya, "No Iraqi will support what the Americans are doing here. If they want to go to Baghdad, that's one thing, but now they have come into our cities, and all Iraqis will fight them."

The global peace movement, too, makes its appeal to the will, but in a diametrically opposite spirit. It encourages people not to give up their beliefs in obedience to the dictates of force but to act on those beliefs in the face of force. The war, we are told, is being fought for freedom. But who, we may ask, are the free ones–those who knuckle under to violence or those who defy it? The new superpower possesses immense power, but it is a different kind of power: not the will of one man wielding the 21,000-pound MOAB but the hearts and wills of the majority of the world's people. Its victories have been triumphs of civil courage, like the vote of the Turkish Parliament to turn down a multibillion-dollar bribe and, in keeping with public opinion, refuse the United States the use of Turkish bases in the war, or like the refusal of the six small, nonpermanent members of the United Nations Security Council to succumb to great-power browbeating and support its resolution for war. The question everywhere was which superpower to obey–the single nation claiming that title, or the will of the people of the earth. Outside the imperial counsels, the people of the earth were prevailing.

Never, in fact, had this will been expressed more clearly than in the moments leading up to the US assault. On the brink of the war no public but the Israeli one supported it under the conditions in which it was being launched–that is, without UN support. Public-opinion polls showed that in most countries opposition to the war was closer to unanimity than to a mere majority. A Gallup poll showed that in "neutral" (and normally pro-American) Switzerland the figure was 90 percent, in Argentina 87 percent, in Nigeria 86 percent, in Bosnia (recently the beneficiary of NATO intervention on its behalf) 91 percent. In all of the countries whose governments supported the war except Israel's, the public opposed it. The "coalition of the willing" was a coalition of governments alone.

A new phenomenon of rolling demonstrations circled the world–not only in the great capitals but also in provincial cities and even small towns. (There was a demonstration in Afghanistan, the last scene of "regime change.") Most newspapers outside the United States opposed the war. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed his chagrin. The Pope said the war "threatens the destiny of humanity." For once, the majority of the world's governments spoke up unequivocally for the majorities of their peoples.

The candles in windows did not stop the cruise missiles. The demonstrators did not block the tanks rolling north to Baghdad. Pope John Paul II did not stop President George W. Bush. Yet against all expectation, a global contest whose consequence far transcends the war in Iraq had arisen. Dr. Robert Muller of Costa Rica, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, caught the mood of the new peace movement when, at age 80, he received an award for his service to the UN. He startled his discouraged audience by saying, "I'm so honored to be here. I'm so honored to be alive at such a miraculous time in history. I'm so moved by what's going on in our world today." For "never before in the history of the world has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war." This was what it looked like, he said, to be "waging peace." It was "a miracle." Shock and awe has found its riposte in courage and wonder.

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