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Ahoy all in cyberspace,
I've been talking with Van Gosse about "talking points" and such. So I enclose as attachment a letter I sent to The New York Review of Books re: Michael Walzer's call for complexity in opposing the Bush drive to war, and a draft statement on today's events. My local high school principal has agreed to let us do two in-school assemblies, April 8 and 10, preceded by an evening session March 24 for students and interested adults. JL

Here's the statement:

George W. Bush has chosen to wage war on Iraq rather than pursue a diplomatic solution through the UN. We think this choice is a tragic mistake because it puts the U.S. on the Roman road to entropic empire. We will accordingly oppose what follows from it, including the shift of federal resources from social to military purposes. We will of course support our fellow citizens who are stationed in the theater of war. And we will continue to insist that our country's best traditions and hopes reside in a multilateral world that does not equate legitimate power with military might. Meanwhile, we will organize forums and teach-ins everywhere we can, so that at the end of this unnecessary and unjust war, we--all Americans--know what our real choices are.

March 3, 2003

To the editor:

Michael Walzer’s call for complexity and nuance in framing opposition to George Bush’s impending crusade is salutary, but ultimately unsatisfying. I was at the anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C. last October and in New York last month. Everyone I encountered there, and everyone I know, is against a war on Iraq as Bush has justified it. No one I have encountered at a demonstration, and no one I know, has defended Saddam Hussein. The issue before us is not whether this brute is the legitimate leader of Iraq. The issue is how to stop the Bush administration’s drive to repudiate the principles of 20th-century U.S. foreign policy by reshaping the contours of Middle Eastern politics.

The stated purposes of this impending war are (1) disarming Iraq (or at least destroying its weapons of mass destruction) and (2) overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The first accords with UN resolutions, the second does not, even if the Security Council does vote to use force as a last resort, that is, as the only available means of disarming Iraq. The administration repeatedly cites 1441 as the source of its moral authority in addressing and exhorting the UN; but it also repeatedly claims that it does not need this authority to conduct war against Iraq. As stated, the rationale for invasion and occupation is, then, incoherent, quite apart from the lack of evidence on Iraqui links to terrorists or the shifting grounds for war on which Bush keeps betting his country’s credibility.

The unstated purposes of this war are much more disturbing because they are so coherent. By “unstated,” I don’t mean that Bush’s advisors--particularly Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz--have a hidden agenda. They have been open and forthright about their goals since 1992, when, as Pentagon staffers, they drafted the “Defense Policy Guidance,” an incendiary document that was later appropriated by the Project for a New American Century in its September 2000 manifesto, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” (the key figures in this grandiose Project, which was founded in 1997, are Wolfowitz, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, and Robert Kagan, who evidently wrote Of Power and Paradise while beating a drum in the woods, surrounded by similarly testy males). I mean instead that Bush’s day-to-day rhetoric reflects neither the long-term vision of the administration as it was laid out in the semi-public space of its “National Security Strategy of the United States,” a document delivered to Congress in September 2002, nor the intellectual antecedents of this vision in the DPG of 1992 and in PNAC’s manifesto of 2000.

Bush’s case for war sounds inconsistent or empty because he can’t or won’t make the case in the terms to be derived from these sources. He can’t or won’t because he knows that most Americans--and for that matter, almost everybody else--would find these terms unacceptable. Let is see why that is so, and then ask whether our real problem in mounting opposition to this war is mustering or acknowledging complexity.

The “National Security Strategy of the United States” follows the examples of the DPG and “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” by proposing two novel principles or policies as guides to the nation’s foreign policy. First is the doctrine of preemption: “The U.S. has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security.” This is of course true, but the precedents in question would seem to indicate that Bush and his advisors take pride in what most of their fellow citizens find embarrassing or even depressing. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, tried to corroborate the administration’s claim in The New York Times (10/4/02) by citing three major examples of American preemptive action: the Mexican War of 1846-48, the Spanish-American War of 1898-1902, and the Vietnam War of 1955-75.

We Americans do not and probably cannot agree that the Vietnam War was an imperialist war of conquest which failed. We do, however, generally agree that Richard Rorty is right to declare that it was “an atrocity of which America must always be ashamed.” But perhaps another unstated purpose of Bush’s war in Iraq is to “get over the Vietnam syndrome,” as the saying goes in the Kagan crowd, so that American interests, whatever they may be, can be defended by force of arms wherever and whenever necessary.

We Americans do now generally agree that the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War were imperialist wars of conquest. But we don’t have to take our contemporary misgivings for granted. In his speech of January 12, 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln called President Polk’s rationale for war against Mexico the “sheerest deception,” and suggested that the president was so “deeply conscious of being in the wrong” that he had become incoherent. In his many speeches and letters written for the New England Anti-Imperialist League, William James called the Spanish-American War, in which 400,000 Filipinos perished, a “damning indictment” of modern civilization as such.

If these are the precedents Bush cites when he orders troops into Iraq, he will validate the claims of those who have long believed that the U.S. is an avowedly imperialist power bent on world domination, and he will repudiate the “open door” principles and multilateral world system forged under American auspices in the 20th century. But there is no other plausible precedent for “preemption” in our history—unless of course he is willing to cite the genocidal Indian Wars of the 19th century.

The second novel principle or policy enunciated in the National Security Strategy document is preventing the emergence of a nation or system that would equal or surpass the power of the U.S. This quaintly “old Europe,” almost Metternichian notion is here expressed in more muted language than in “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” where “precluding the rise of a great power rival” is a major premise and purpose. Even so, it sounds bizarre because a balance of power has never been the goal of American foreign policy. Instead, the architects of that policy in the early 20th century assumed that the seat of empire was slowly shifting from the Thames to the Potomac, and would continue to shift, slowly, in the late 20th century and after as the peoples of the Pacific modernized their societies with the assistance of surplus capital from Western nations.

Thus the anti-colonial design of an American empire presupposed, indeed encouraged, the emergence of other powers, and allowed for the gradual passage of the seat of empire from West to East. In short, it allowed for the emergence of a multilateral, post-imperialist world order. Any attempt to maintain American hegemony in military terms was folly from this standpoint—it would only put the U.S. in the untenable position Great Britain found itself in the early 20th century, when it tried to prevent the emergence of other “great powers” or systems and to reconstitute Pax Brittanica by engaging in wars with these new rivals.

But unless it wants to rummage in ancient history, when empires and warriors ruled the earth with easy violence, this unseemly imperial precedent is the administration’s only intellectual refuge. The simple truth is that Joseph Schumpeter is finally right about imperialism—it has become atavism. We can oppose it now in good faith because, as Bush’s advisors have promoted it since 1992, it represents a return to the “great power” politics that gave us two world wars and a half-dozen holocausts.

James Livingston
Professor of History, Rutgers University
Local Coordinator, Historians Against the War