The feeble response of the Democratic majority in Congress to the war—meekly submitting to the threat of Republican filibusters, signing all the checks for fear of being anti-troops, etc.—made me wonder if maybe the Cheney crime syndicate had warned leading Democrats that their loved ones could meet with “accidents” if things went too far. (It’s a measure of how low we’ve sunk in the last seven years that I no longer dismiss such ideas as implausible.) A more likely scenario, perhaps, would be that some government official or other has whispered secret spook knowledge into Democratic ears—something so downright scary that the poor dears are willing to line up and salute whenever required. The public space, our space, has been stripped of all meaning and value, and “true” knowledge relegated to the realm of “intelligence”—that dark place that inspires fear and obedience in the hearts of sheep-like politicians. We citizens are outsiders now. We don’t know why, or how, or even what things are really happening in the stinking corridors of power.
In the larger scheme of things, however, the continuation of a war hated by a majority of Americans indicates a deeper struggle than our conspiracy theories can account for. Rational heads have been offering solid ways to pull out of Iraq for the last four years. The best that the war party has offered in response is that Iraq will descend into chaos if we leave—as if it hadn’t already been brutalized and demolished into chaos long ago. We’re asked to believe that something would happen in Iraq that would actually be worse than what’s already happened. The truth is that the pro-war forces couldn’t care less about the chaos and destruction, now or in the future. If they did, they wouldn’t have conducted their occupation in so brutal and uncaring a fashion. The administration wouldn’t be renewing the contract of Blackwater, for instance—a mercenary outfit that is hated and condemned by the very government that we’re supposedly supporting in Iraq.
There seems to be very few lawmakers in Washington who are willing, even at this late stage, to take a stand against the war. The dominant narrative has to do with failure and incompetence—the war has been poorly waged; it has not succeeded in its mission; it’s draining our resources. The most daring statement the average Democrat is willing to make is that the war was a mistake. At the same time, of course, they must assure us of their unflagging respect and support for our brave men and women, who have done a magnificent job, etc.
Why the hell are we still in Iraq? Because we are, and therefore we can’t leave. As absurd as it sounds, this is the actual reason.
The Cheney gang represents such a hard lurch to the right that we now tend to note the differences between the two political parties more than the similarities. We’ve heard the anti-Nader folks sputter with indignation at the statement that there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. Well, of course there is a difference. The trouble is, there’s not enough of a difference to really solve our problems. The members of the political establishment in this country are united, for the most part, in one thing: a faith in American empire.
There have been imperial tendencies throughout our history, of course. The U.S. waged war on Mexico and the Philippines, to name only two examples. But it was the end of World War II, with Europe in shambles and America in possession of the bomb, that gave a big boost to our imperial pathology. Now it was our duty to police the world and fend off the Soviet threat, and to that end the elites established a permanently expanding military budget. Sure, Russia and China were dangerous, but it just so happened that you could make huge amounts of money keeping the world safe, and power eventually became a self-perpetuating rationale.
Between 1946 and the present, it has become virtually impossible to question the propriety of American empire in public and be viable among the political elites in Washington. Militarism has been so thoroughly equated with patriotism that there is no mainstream voice challenging its validity.
There is probably a sizable percentage of the American public—whether it’s a majority or not I don’t know—that doesn’t care about being a superpower, but just wants to make a decent living, have decent education for their kids, and live a safe, prosperous life. Many of us probably aren’t fully aware that we’re being duped, that empire isn’t really benefiting us in the long run. In any case, that point of view has been marginalized.
The mind-set runs so deep that it is practically unconscious. More than once I have heard local news anchors refer to our soldiers in Iraq as “defending freedom.” It’s not so much a statement about the justice of this particular war as it is an assumption that the military is automatically defending “freedom,” no matter what it does. This is one way it works on the ground. In the bigger picture, it means that “America” cannot possibly be wrong—and in this formulation “America” is a military empire.
Garry Wills remarked years ago that the famous Stephen Decatur quote, “My country, right or wrong,” is truly patriotic in that it recognizes the possibility that my country could be wrong. The imperial version of patriotism, on the other hand, does not allow for such distinctions, or for any exercise of individual conscience against the assumed purity of “America.” This is all in keeping with a militarist mind-set. In the military, you obey orders. You don’t question. It’s a top-down hierarchy, a dictatorship. You’ll notice the frequency of the term “commander in chief” these days when referring to the President. This is not an accident. Constitutionally, the President is not the commander in chief of the citizenry, only the armed forces. But now we’re all being conscripted, whether we like it or not.
What we’re seeing, then, in our present Middle East debacle, is a desperate struggle to maintain the delusion of empire. A rational person might think that it would be a simple matter to admit failure and make the best of a lousy situation. But it’s impossible for an imperialist to ever admit failure. That’s equated with “losing” a war, which contradicts the image of the triumphant and benevolent superpower. To the imperialist, pulling out of Iraq would mean that we may no longer be able to enforce our special imperial privileges. Other groups or countries will be encouraged to challenge American hegemony. The imperial project is like a house of cards, or a string of carefully stacked dominoes. The old “domino theory” from the Cold War was really an expression of a mental insecurity. To manage the entire world, to steer everything in the direction of American interests, to hold a thousand competing forces in the grip of American military and economic power, is a never-ending task. The alternative is to be only a republic, a nation among nations, which is just what the founders intended, but they were apparently not ambitious enough for the modern brave-new-world crowd.
Whatever happens in Iraq, however long it takes for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from that country, and I do hope it will be soon—the overriding issue facing the country is whether we want to continue the game of world empire, or purge ourselves of this madness. The longer we continue, the more degraded our political and economic process, and our domestic life, will become. The military will become more and more dominant in our lives until we eventually succumb to some sort of martial law. At some level, although not completely a conscious one, the public has become fed up with the whole enterprise, but the people who own the country are still completely into the game, and won’t give it up without a struggle. The question becomes how spectacular the failure will have to be for the edifice to really start crumbling.