'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

War and Liberalism 

For a man often described by liberals as a dry drunk, a man born on third base, an insensitive lout, President Bush is actually pretty smart. After 9/11, he realized that he could manipulate the crackpot realism of American liberals to concentrate more and more power within himself.

Nothing has distracted him from doing so to greater and greater effect. Bad poll numbers, adverse election results, public scorn . . Bush knows that none of these things alter the fundamental reality of American politics. Liberals value the symbolic over the substantive, indeed, they fear substantive political dialogue of of any kind. Hence, Bush has acted with the confidence that liberals will choose meaningless gestures to avoid challenging him, no matter how unpopular he becomes.

Last week, House Democrats, more specifically, the liberals in the Out of Iraq caucus, had one last chance to prove Bush wrong by denying him the funds he needs to perpetuate the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. They could have also exposed his intention of attacking Iran. Of course, in the end, they did neither. While retaining the privilege of voting against the bill themselves, they urged others to provide the necessary votes for passage.

Ever fearful of the unknown, of the prospect that the populace would seize control of issues related to war and peace from more hawkish elites, even the liberals of the Out of Iraq caucus did what was required to get the bill passed. Votes of specific House members against the bill were cosmetic, not just because some of them, like Woolsey, Watson, Lee and Waters, actively urged others to vote for it, but also because members were probably released to vote against the bill once Pelosi had the 218 votes needed for approval. Amazingly, representative Barbara Lee actually had a town hall meeting against the Iraq war in Oakland the day after she lobbied other members to vote to continue to fund it!

For those of us resistant to the temptations of self-delusion, the outcome was predictable, but still shocking, shocking because people otherwise known for their relative political integrity immolated themselves. Such an immolation was predestined by the conduct of most liberals since 9/11, and the record is consistent. Any attempt to mobilize the general public against war, against violent assaults upon the peoples and cultures of other countries, against the erosion of our civil liberties must, at all costs, be suppressed.

Given the choice between energizing a populist movement for the fulfillment of domestic needs instead of using 9/11 for colonial intervention, liberals, at best, selected the course of ineffectual, theatrical opposition. Even the catastrophe of Katrina did not cause them to question their core belief that populism presents a grave social threat to the preservation of the American system, so much so that the international state violence of the neoconservatives is begrudgingly accepted. If one accepts the controversial premise that military neoliberalism is now the only plausible means of enforcing a US inspired global economic system that prioritizes the privileges of finance capital above all human concerns, they may well be correct.

Along these lines, a brief consideration of the career of Joseph Lieberman is instructive. He entered politics as an opponent of the Vietnam War, but, by 1988, he successfully ran to the right of liberal Republican Lowell Weicker to win a seat in the Senate. Weicker personified two evils: he was too dovish on foreign policy, and his style, if allowed to go national, implicitly threatened elites by appealing to people across party lines.

Ned Lamont presented a similar threat last year, and prominent Democratic Senators like Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer answered Lieberman's fire alarm for assistance. Lieberman is frequently reviled for being a turncoat, a hypocrite, but he is, in fact, a visionary, he anticipated the current political landscape of the country, and, indeed, the world, before the Cold War ended and has played an essential role in shaping it. Unlike other liberals, who feign opposition to neoconservative policy, while facilitating the funding of it, Lieberman expresses his support for it unabashedly.

MoveON.org has been one of my personal obssessions, but it is important to understand its centrality in preventing the emergence of an empowered antiwar movement. It has done so by calculated appeals to liberal pragmatism in relation to the electoral process. Sensing opportunity, MoveON.org organized against the invasion of Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003 on the slender pretext that it hadn't been authorized by the UN, as if to suggest that the colonial enterprise would have otherwise been acceptable. It participated in protest marches as part of a broader strategy to exploit antiwar sentiment to expand membership, while simultaneously limiting criticism of the impending conflict to the methodology of approval instead of the more compelling immorality of it.

The Iraqis? They were rarely, if ever, mentioned. Focusing upon the lack of UN authorization enabled grassroots liberals to subsequently support the occupation as questions related to the launching of the war were now considered irrelevant. It was a crude, but necessary finesse. Post-invasion, the Iraqis remained invisible, as the new mantra was Support the Troops.

Iraqis had died, and continued to die, in large numbers, with those still living lacking food, shelter, electricity and an uncontaminated water supply, but the new emphasis was about the extent to which the occupying force lacked sufficient body armour. Visitors to the MoveON.org website in 2004 and 2005 were subjected to a politically expedient fetishization of the military that, after repeated encounters, induced nausea. Removing the troops and liberating the Iraqis from the predations of the occupation was apparently not congruent with the objective of electing more Democrats.

Support the Troops is therefore one of the most insidiously effective advertising slogans in recent memory. It satisfied the legitimate motivation of people to empathize with the plight of soldiers in Iraq, while, paradoxically, enabling Democratic politicians, including liberals, to perpetuate the occupation. Or, to be more precise, people experienced the emotional release of remorse, while ensuring that there was no change in policy. Meanwhile, plans for the privatization of the Iraqi economy, and transnational control over the Iraqi oil supply, elicited little comment, except among global justice advocates. Support the Troops additionally served the essential purpose of concealing bipartisan support for the planned neoliberal transformation of Iraqi society.

The consequences of this success are dire. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have fled the country and the US military is being destroyed by politicians who refuse to extract it before the command and control structure is shattered. It is a defeat so calamitous, so impossible to acknowledge, that the only solution is to expand the war to Iran and beyond. A more violent confrontation is required to conceal the stain of failure, even if the outcome is likely to be the end of US hegemony. Was it ever possible to peaceably scale back the American Empire? We will never know, but we do know that American liberals are among those responsible for excluding the possibility.

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