Twenty years ago this month, the United States invaded Iraq. On the eve of the 2002 congressional vote to authorize that unprovoked and disastrous war—which claimed the lives of at least 275,000 Iraqi civilians and around 7,000 Americans—the editors of The Nation made the case for rejecting that war of choice: “The case against the war is simple, clear and strong.” At the time, few media outlets stood with The Nation to oppose what so many now acknowledge was a foreign policy debacle; in particular, far too many liberals succumbed to either President George W. Bush’s arguments or, more likely, their own delusion that the political problem of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship could be solved through military means. The absence of accountability for a government that lied us into war, and a media that jettisoned skepticism for stenography, continues to endanger our fragile democracy to this day.
The Nation has a long tradition of opposing this country’s imperial misadventures, from the annexation of Hawaii and the conquest of the Philippines to the occupation of Haiti and the war in Vietnam. One of the crucial voices leading The Nation’s opposition to the Iraq War—during the run-up to the invasion and afterward—was the writer Jonathan Schell. Already celebrated for his 1982 book The Fate of the Earth—a foundational text for the nuclear disarmament movement—Schell drafted the open letter to Congress below, which, like all Nation editorials at the time, ran unsigned. We reprint an excerpt of it now as a warning that, sadly, has lost none of its salience.
S oon, you will be asked to vote on a resolution authorizing the United States to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. The nation marches as if in a trance to war. Polls and news stories reveal a divided and uncertain public. Yet debate in your chambers is restricted to peripheral questions, such as the timing of the vote or the resolution’s precise scope. You are a deliberative body, but you do not deliberate. You are representatives, but you do not represent.
The silence of those of you in the Democratic Party is especially troubling. You are the opposition party, but you do not oppose. Raising the subject of the war, your political advisers tell you, will distract from the domestic issues that favor the party’s chances in the forthcoming congressional election. In the face of the administration’s preemptive war, your leaders have resorted to preemptive surrender. For the sake of staying in power, you are told, you must not exercise the power you have in the matter of the war. What, then, is the purpose of your reelection?
On April 4, 1967, as the war in Vietnam was reaching its full fury, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And he said, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
Now the time to speak has come again. We urge you to speak—and, when the time comes, to vote—against the war on Iraq.
The case against the war is simple, clear, and strong. Iraq has no demonstrated ties either to the September 11 attack on the United States or to the Al Qaeda network that launched it. The aim of the war is to deprive President Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, but the extent of his program for building these weapons, if it still exists, is murky. Still less clear is any intention on his part to use such weapons. To do so would be suicide, as he well knows.
Some observers have likened the resolution under discussion to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 authorizing President Johnson to use force in Vietnam. But that was passed only after a report was received of two attacks on US naval forces. (We now know that the first attack was provoked by a prior secret American attack and the second was nonexistent.) The new resolution, which alleges no attack by the nation of Iraq, is a Tonkin Gulf resolution without a Tonkin Gulf incident.
Even if Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction and wishes to use them, a policy of deterrence would appear perfectly adequate to stop him, just as it was adequate a half-century ago to stop a much more fearsome dictator, Joseph Stalin, from carrying out nuclear warfare. It is not true that military force is the only means of preventing the proliferation of these weapons, whether to Iraq or other countries. An alternative path is clearly available. In the short run it passes through the United Nations and its system of inspections. At the very least, this path should be fully explored before military action—the traditional last resort—is even considered. Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for example, almost every country in the world agreed to do without nuclear weapons. The larger issue is whether proliferation—not just to Iraq but to many other countries as well—is best addressed by military or political means.
But the decision to go to war has a significance that goes far beyond the war. The administration’s recently published “National Security Strategy of the United States” sets forth even larger ambitions. It declares a policy of military supremacy over the entire earth—an objective never before attained by any power. Military programs are meanwhile forbidden to other countries, all of whom are to be prevented from “surpassing or equaling” the United States. China is singled out for a warning that by “pursuing advanced military capabilities,” it is following an “outdated path” that “threaten[s] its neighbors.” The new policy reverses a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks. It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to be attacked by them. It trades deterrence for preemption—in plain English, aggression. It accords the United States the right to overthrow any regime—like the one in Iraq—it decides should be overthrown. It declares that the defense of the United States and the world against nuclear proliferation is military force. It is an imperial policy—more ambitious than ancient Rome’s, which, after all, extended only to the Mediterranean and European world. Nelson Mandela recently said of the administration, “[T]hey think they are the only power in the world…. [O]ne country wants to bully the whole world.”
A vote for the war in Iraq is a vote for this policy. The most important of the questions raised by the war, however, is larger still. It is what sort of country the United States wants to be in the 21st century. The genius of the American form of government was the creation of a system of institutions to check and balance government power and so render it accountable to the people. Today that system is threatened by a monster of unbalanced and unaccountable power—a new Leviathan—that is taking shape among us in the executive branch of the government. This Leviathan—concealed in an ever-deepening, self-created secrecy and fed by streams of money from corporations that, as scandal after scandal has shown, have themselves broken free of elementary accountability—menaces civil liberties even as it threatens endless, unprovoked war. As disrespectful of the Constitution as it is of the UN Charter, the administration has turned away from law in all its manifestations and placed its reliance on overwhelming force to achieve its ends.
In pursuit of empire abroad, it endangers the republic at home. The bully of the world threatens to become the bully of Americans, too. Already, the Justice Department claims the right to jail American citizens indefinitely on the sole ground that a bureaucrat in the Pentagon has labeled them something called an “enemy combatant.” Even the domestic electoral system has been compromised by the debacle in Florida. Nor has the shadow cast on democracy by that election yet been lifted. Election reform has not occurred. Modest campaign reform designed to slow the flood of corporate cash into politics, even after passage in Congress, is being eviscerated by conservative attacks. More important, this year’s congressional campaign, by shunning debate on the fundamental issue of war and peace, has signaled to the public that even in the most important matters facing the country neither it nor its representatives decide; only the executive does.
Members of Congress! Be faithful to your oaths of office and to the traditions of your branch of government. Think of the country, not of your reelection. Assert your power. Stand up for the prerogatives of Congress. Defend the Constitution. Reject the arrogance—and the ignorance—of power. Show respect for your constituents—they require your honest judgment, not capitulation to the executive. Say no to empire. Affirm the republic. Preserve the peace. Vote against war in Iraq.