Suffocating Consensus

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

Liberals love a good war. There’s nothing like a bombing run or a missile attack to preempt the perennial criticism of liberals as weak on defense and national security. Take Truman and Korea, Kennedy and Cuba, Johnson and Vietnam, or Clinton and Kosovo. Wars demonstrate “spine” and “leadership” and all the qualities that tell the public that the liberal is no longer that spindly, bespectacled fellow on the beach getting sand kicked in his face.

Many Democrats—including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, and Harry Reid—rallied around the flag, the president, and the national surge in testosterone to support the Iraq War. But now, with the U.S. military stuck in Iraq like a knife in a dying man, there is much liberal hand wringing over our involvement: was it a mistake to intervene, will pulling out the knife hasten the country’s death?

Don’t mistake these expressions of mea culpa as a liberal rethink of U.S. militarism. As David Rieff writes in The New York Times, the Democratic frontrunners have all argued for keeping the military option on the table against Iran. Since the Iraq War is not yet a historical matter, such blindness cannot be attributed to sudden amnesia. Liberals must suffer from a more profound neurological disorder.

Conservative second thoughts tend to be similarly superficial, with discontent bubbling up over how the war effort is conducted rather than around the U.S. national security state as such. While some right-leaning pundits like Andrew Sullivan and politicians like Chuck Hagel have the good sense to rule out a military option against Iran, there hasn’t been a strong critique of the military-industrial complex from the Republicans since Ike woke up with strange premonitions on the morning of his departure from the presidency (and since he noted in Cold War fashion the “imperative need” of this complex, his Farewell Address was more a warning than a broadside).

But wait: not all liberals and conservatives join hands in this suffocating consensus about the need to maintain a more prudent version of American empire.

Consider Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat and presidential candidate. His frustration with the liberal-conservative consensus welled up over the vote to cut funds for the Iraq War. He was only one of 14 Democrats to oppose the Iraq supplemental last month. He explained his decision to FPIF interviewer Michael Shank: “If we had told the people in October to ‘vote Democrat and keep the war going to the end of President Bush’s term, vote Democrat we’ll fund the war through 2009, vote Democrat we’ll privatize Iraq’s oil,’ I don’t think people would’ve voted Democrat. They would’ve said, ‘Well, there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans.’ I want there to be a difference.”

On the other side of the spectrum, in Left-Right Alliance Against War?, FPIF contributor and associate publisher of The American Conservative magazine Jon Basil Utley calls on the antiwar Right and Left to work together to fashion a new, non-imperialist U.S. foreign policy.

“To change Washington from its cowboy, shoot-first approach to a more cooperative stance with other nations is not just a matter of defeating George Bush,” Utley argues. “Opposing new wars, whether in Iran or elsewhere, requires cooperation of the Left together with libertarians and constitutional conservatives. There is now a convergence of interests. The Left today is a minority and can’t expect to win power alone. The Republicans, because of the war, are splitting apart. Concern for deficits and constitutional freedoms has driven out libertarians, while immigration issues split business interests from the cultural conservatives.”

Utley believes that the Left and Right can work together by emphasizing the importance of negotiations with other countries, the economic hazards of war, and the inadequacy of U.S. civil defense. To oppose the war in Iraq and join hands to prevent an attack on Iran, the Left and Right have already formed tactical alliances. The question remains, however, whether an anti-imperial coalition can hang together for the more strategic goal of transforming U.S. foreign policy.

Military Addiction

“Hi, I’m the Pentagon, and I’m an addict.”

It’s too bad that institutions can’t enter 12-step programs. As FPIF contributor David Isenberg points out, the Pentagon just can’t say no. It wants all of its Cold War goodies and all of the high-tech gadgetry promised as part of the most recent “military transformation.”

“The first step is to acknowledge we have a problem,” he writes in Budgeting for Empire. “That problem is one of addiction, namely to the use of military force. The old saying, ‘When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,’ applies here. But the U.S. military is not some all-purpose handy gadget. The number of things for which it can usefully be employed is actually quite limited. The military can be ‘transformed’ many times, but fighting a counterinsurgency, for example, will continue to be a dangerous, messy, people-intensive effort.”

The problem involves not just the Pentagon. The State Department has become, particularly in the last six years, an inadvertent enabler. In her piece Unbalanced Security, FPIF contributor Lorelei Kelly tells the story of the Pentagon’s call for help to State. In 2006, she writes, “The Defense Department anted up $200 million for State’s post-conflict reconstruction activities. The State Department didn’t spend the money. Whether it was lack of personnel, interest, or capacity, its inaction has further exacerbated the frustration among the military services, which are then forced to assume ever more national security responsibilities.”

Next consider the disparity between fighting the war and cleaning up the mess. The Pentagon has spent about $2 million per U.S. soldier over the course of the Iraq war. Contrast that with U.S. outlays of about $1,000 per Iraqi civilian over the same period. Or to put the priorities of the U.S. government a different way, writes FPIF contributor Pratap Chatterjee in Fixing Iraq, “Just $3.33 out of every $100 in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent in Iraq has gone to Iraqi civilian reconstruction.” And the money that Washington has spent has largely been frittered away, not so much through corruption, but “ignorance, incompetence, and waste.”

And, as FPIF contributor Chris Toensing writes in Regional Implications of the Iraq War, the mess is not confined within Iraq itself. The much-vaunted plans to spread democracy to the region have been disastrous. “Contrary to the stated aspirations of Washington hawks before the invasion,” Toensing writes, “the Iraq War has dealt a body blow to the many Middle Eastern activists who were working for democracy and peace long before the Bush administration entered office. On these grounds alone, the war has been an unmitigated disaster.”

Mexico and Nairobi

The United States and South Korea have just signed a free trade agreement. Korean farmers are worried that cheap American imports will wipe out small rice farms and livestock operations. They should worry.

As FPIF contributors John Burstein and Manuel Pérez Rocha argue, the free trade agreement between Mexico and the United States has restructured the Mexican market in favor of agribusiness. Small farmers in Mexico, no longer able to make a go of it, are joining the flood of laborers into the United States. “Now, with the price of that food rising, low-income non-agricultural workers are hit the hardest and agribusiness is reaping huge profits,” they write. “The Mexican tortilla crisis makes us wonder how many times we will have to see the same movie about agricultural globalization.”

FPIF will host this month a virtual roundtable on the future of the World Social Forum, which most recently took place in Nairobi in January. In the meantime, please check out this essay by FPIF contributors Diana Duarte and Evelyn Sallah, Another Africa is Possible. They lay out an alternative framework that emphasizes international solidarity, movement democratization, and the arts as a tool for mobilization.

A Must Read and a Didn’t Read Carefully Enough

Don’t miss George Packer’s astonishing piece “Betrayed” in The New Yorker on the Iraqis who helped as translators, secretaries, and other key adjuncts to the U.S. military and occupation authorities. They have been killed by paramilitaries, ignored by U.S. officials, and fired from their jobs for no good reasons. What is all the fuss about the United States pulling out of Iraq and abandoning the country? Wake up, Packer tells us: we have already abandoned the Iraqis.

In the last World Beat, I mistakenly wrote that the disabled veteran in Johnny Got His Gun tapped his finger to get the doctors’ attention. But, as an astute reader pointed out, the vet couldn’t have tapped his finger since he didn’t have any arms. Instead, he banged his head against his bed—a much more apt metaphor.

Finally, check out the new website where you can read Noam Chomsky correcting the record with the Wall Street Journal, Cornell West telling off the New York Daily News, and much, much more.

FPIF, April 5, 2007

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