A year after 9/11, the United States is still not facing up to the hardest questions that that disaster posed. Nobody has yet explained how the government might hope to take effective precautions against, for example, the arrival of nuclear or biochemical devices in shipboard freight containers. One suspects that the officials of our government are well aware that no precautions are likely to eliminate, or even substantially lessen, the chances of further terrorist attacks. But these officials are not about to tell the public that their government can think of little more to do than to tighten security at airports.
Still, governments must pretend to their citizens that they are doing something to provide the protection that the taxpayers think their taxes should buy. The use of military force in Afghanistan gratified the public’s need to have the government take action in response to 9/11, but it was not enough, nor was setting up a new bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security. So for the past eleven months we have had a steady series of cryptic utterances from President Bush and his Cabinet officers, and of calculated leaks to the press, suggesting that an invasion of Iraq is in the works. Yet the Bush Administration has never even tried to argue that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will do much to lessen the probability of terrorist strikes.
On some days Washington tells us that we need to go after Iraq for reasons that were present before 9/11, and are quite independent of that event. On others we are told that the plan to depose Saddam Hussein is part of “the war on terrorism” that began on 9/11. This rapid alternation produces a blur. That blur helps conceal the fact that neither of the two arguments for attacking Iraq has been laid out in terms that would justify the sort of resolution (the equivalent of a War Powers Act with no clear temporal or geographical restrictions) that a spineless Congress was, as of this writing, about to pass.
Even if 9/11 had not happened, it might still be the case that the danger of letting Iraq continue to build weapons is greater than the danger of the chaos throughout the Middle East that will be produced by an all-out attempt to bring about regime change. But the Bush Administration is not interested in making this case. The last thing it wants is genuine public debate about what needs to be done. For such debate would endanger the conviction that it wishes to encourage–that we are already at war, and that the President must therefore be entrusted with the same sort of powers, and the same freedom from accountability, that Roosevelt was given in World War II. In particular, the President must have the right to keep anything he wishes secret–even his reasons for choosing one time or place for making war rather than another.
It is in the interest of the Republican Party both to have a blanket war-powers resolution passed, and to make sure that the country thinks of itself as “at war” for as long as possible. Those who control that party–an amazingly greedy and cynical oligarchy, with no interest whatever in either the rights of the citizen or the welfare of the poor–would like nothing better than to re-create, and continue indefinitely, the state of mind that led to Roosevelt’s re-election to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944. That election was swayed by the slogan “Never Change Horses in Midstream.” It is in their interest to bring about the permanent militarization of the state described in Orwell’s 1984, and suggested by the title of Gore Vidal’s latest book: Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.