Historical Present

I. THE LOGIC OF MOBILIZATION. "Events in Iraq have now reached the final days of decision," the president said in beginning his Monday night de facto declaration of war. The only decision that mattered, however -- that of going to war -- was being made nowhere near Iraq but right in the White House. That is, of course, the logic of preemptive war.

Except it was strikingly clear from the president's own speech that the war is anything but preemptive. Preemption presupposes an imminent threat, and if Iraq actually posed an imminent threat, our government would not be giving Saddam Hussein & Sons a 48-hour advance notice that we were about to attack them. This is, rather, a preventive war, in which the threat from Iraq is something we must gauge in advance.

And one of the problems with this war is that while the United Nations' monitors have not been granted much access to do their gauging, the United States' decision-makers haven't really been much interested in impartial gauging in any event. The CIA's George Tenet may have said last fall that Iraq did not constitute an offensive threat to the United States, but Tenet is an intelligence pro who lacks the neocon and imperialist zeal to make it into Bush's inner circle.

And the inner circle believes otherwise, though it increasingly asserts its belief free from any obligation to adduce evidence. Indeed, the core argument of George W. Bush's speech was precisely that Iraq did pose a mortal threat to the United States. And this past Sunday on Meet The Press, Vice President Dick Cheney was still asserting that Iraq had been acquiring the materials it needed to build nuclear weapons, though the documents we had released to expose this project have been shown to be forgeries -- a fact that our government now acknowledges, except when the vice president chooses to forget it.

So the time for diplomacy has run out. France's proposal for a 30-day ultimatum, with detailed demands that the Baghdad regime would have to comply with, was a nonstarter at the White House, as was a similar proposal, with a time-frame of roughly two weeks, floated by Canada. Time ran out because the administration evidently feared that the longer the international debate continued, the more that opposition would rise in every nation except, possibly, our own. It ran out because our troops were already deployed -- though it's important to note that key military units have yet to arrive in the staging areas. In short, it ran out because we're losing the international debate so we may as well shift to something we know how to do: win a war.

In a way, the last half-year has been unfolding as a kind of absurd replay of 1914, set in a macabre hall of mirrors where the timetable of one nation determines the question of war and peace. In 1914 the governments of the major European nations plunged the world into bloody chaos because the logic of military mobilization rolled right over the attempts of every government's foreign ministry to stop the war. The actual grounds for a continental war were close to nil, but as tensions rose, both Berlin and Paris grew suddenly fearful that the other could mobilize its army in just 14 days, and that he who hesitated to mobilize his own army would be not just lost but, worse, the loser. The clock started ticking despite the lack of a casus belli between Germany and France, and in 14 days, German troops preemptively crossed their frontiers lest France do the same.

Fast-forward to 2003, where the same rhetoric and urgency, the same catchphrases are, bizarrely, heard again. Time is running out. The time for diplomacy is exhausted. The armed forces are now at full readiness. The troops are already on the march.

This time, however, the ticking clock with which our government is trying to keep pace is entirely its own. Our deployment of forces has effectively become a massive argument for invasion; indeed, it's been Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the neocons' ultimate argument against Secretary of State Colin Powell's counsels of caution. Simply to keep the forces in the Kuwaiti desert, to stand down now -- inasmuch as, the administration has proclaimed its right to wage preemptive war against Iraq -- would be to undercut all the administration has said and done. Thus the logic of unilateral mobilization has forced the United States into the war that its neocon champions have been seeking for more than a decade. In a nation that has proclaimed preemption as its strategic doctrine, to deploy a sizable force is now tantamount to declaring war.

Which is why the United States parted company from those UN Security Council members who voted for Resolution 1441 back in November. For a nation committed to a policy of preempt-and-deploy, weapons inspections were a sideshow, or better, a justification for starting the war as soon as the troops were in place. For the rest of the world -- including the overwhelming majority of citizens of nations whose governments have sided with the United States -- inspections were actually a valid process in and of themselves. (Though, paradoxically, it's unlikely the inspections would yield anything unless backed by military force. Real inspections would require, for instance, UN inspectors being able to call in immediate -- and necessarily, U.S. -- air strikes on any facility to which they were denied entrance, a serious strategy in which the United States had no interest and Europe only slightly more.)

The doctrine of preemption is also the bomb with which the United States has blown to smithereens the Western alliance of the past 60 years. The United Nations was founded in part to diminish the prospects for preemptive war; Article 51 of the UN Charter flatly outlaws such conflicts. NATO was established explicitly as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union; the notion of NATO initiating conflicts was never accepted, nor hardly ever discussed, by its member nations. Had the United States opted to pursue a strategy of rollback rather than containment against the USSR and its satellite states -- of invading Hungary or Czechoslovakia, say, when rebellions in those nations threatened Soviet control -- it would have tested NATO's coherence. But from Harry Truman through George Bush Senior, no American president seriously entertained such a policy.

By the very act of proclaiming preemption as our new national policy, then, Bush is in effect also declaring a preemptive war on the system of international institutions that America built at the end of World War II. That was fine with the neoconservatives, who, with the fall of the Soviet communism, sought a world over which the United States exerted unfettered control. And that was fine with Bush himself, the first genuinely xenophobic president the United States has had since it rose to the status of a world power. (It's clear already that Bush is far more comfortable running a war than he was practicing diplomacy.) But to build the world anew, the hawks needed a new 1914 -- a war to end old alliances, to blow away the United Nations, the European Union and other impediments to American power in much the manner that World War I destroyed the old Romanoff, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires.

OK, they've got their war. Only time will tell if a 1914 level of wreckage follows in its wake.

II. THE LOGIC OF ANTI-IMPERIALISM. It's been a long time since America had a serious debate about American imperialism -- 105 years, by my count. In the first half of the 20th century (at least, until 1941), we largely denied the existence of such involvements as we had in the world. In the second half of the 20th century, we were engaged, with many allies, against a totalitarian power. In the 1990s, under Bill Clinton, the United States intervened abroad, but chiefly to keep ethnic conflicts from spreading and ethnic cleansing from continuing. The Clinton administration, unlike its successor, genuinely wanted international support for its interventions, and it surely did a better job of cobbling alliances together than Bush's has.

You have to go back all the way to 1898, and the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War, to find a time when the question of an American empire was on the national agenda in such pure and unalloyed fashion. At issue then was what the United States should do with the nations -- Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico -- it had won from the Spanish in the ludicrous little war just concluded. The leading imperialists of the day -- New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, diplomat John Hay, naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan -- favored annexation, de jure or de facto, of those islands, not to mention of the hitherto independent Hawaii; they also favored building a sizable U.S. fleet. Arrayed against them was a broad coalition of Americans appalled at the thought of the United States becoming a colonial power. Among its leading members were a number of former northern Civil War generals, Mark Twain, and the very personifications of American capital and labor: Andrew Carnegie and Samuel Gompers. Indeed, when President McKinley announced that the U.S. would pay Spain $20 million to take over the Philippines, Carnegie offered $20 million of his own to Spain to create an independent nation there. (McKinley told him to butt out.)

For the neoconservatives who are today's neo-imperialists, Iraq is just the first stop on their itinerary for American intervention. Richard Perle, who chairs the administration's Defense Policy Board and serves as a kind of unmediated id of the neoconservative movement, told reporter Robert Dreyfuss in the new issue of The American Prospect that to other regimes in the region, the United States means to "deliver a short, two-word message: You're next." Indeed, it should not be surprising if the neocons come out of the war demanding an expansion of the armed forces because, given the need to billet troops in Iraq for some time to come, more soldiers will have to be available for our next series of wars.

But the rise of a belligerent unilateralism in the nation's capital has also provoked the formation of what I would term the first mainstream anti-imperialist movement the United States has known since 1898. The anti-war resolutions of many leading unions, including the AFL-CIO, and of more than 135 cities across the country almost invariably condemn the wisdom and legitimacy of a unilateral conflict. That is, these resolutions state a clear preference for an international order of laws and standards over the neocons' vision of America as the planet's arbiter and enforcer. And these resolutions -- coming as they do not just from college towns but also from Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and many of America's largest unions -- are really the voice of the Democratic base in American politics.

The formation of a mainstream anti-imperialist movement is something for which the American left -- home to what has been an insular and marginal anti-imperialist movement since the Vietnam War -- is singularly ill-prepared. As anyone who has attended an anti-war demonstration over the past half-year can attest, these rallies often feature a stultifying array of speakers, championing niche left causes of uneven merit, either alienating or boring the bejesus out of demonstrators who came out simply to oppose the looming war. At this point the organizers of these demonstrations need to choose whether these rallies exist to give voice to every fershlugginer tendency on the left or to build a mainstream anti-imperialism. They can't do both.

The movement is about to face an even more immediate challenge: that of its position on the U.S. presence in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is overthrown. To be sure, the administration is divided on this question, too: While the neocons want a permanent presence of U.S. forces to further the permanent revolution they dream of, administration figures more attuned to the limits of U.S. public opinion -- Cheney, Rumsfeld and, I would think, Karl Rove -- favor a quick reduction in forces.

For their part, liberals and leftists haven't much discussed this question either. It will call on them to weigh the relative merits of a post-Vietnam sensibility -- in which the idea of American troops occupying a conquered nation is plainly something to be shunned -- against the imperatives of nation building, the liberal doctrine that arose in the 1990s stating that America should provide the wherewithal for nations it has invaded to rebuild their physical (and build their democratic) infrastructures. What's imperative, it seems to me, is that liberals must separate the question of commitment of financial resources -- which the United States needs to do in massive amounts as soon as Hussein is overthrown -- from that of control. To foster the international legitimacy of the occupation and de-Saddamification of Iraq -- and, no small thing, to avoid further inflaming anti-American sentiment in the region -- the force should be placed under the command not of Gen. Tommy Franks but some UN commissioner, and the troops need to be drawn from a wide array of nations, not primarily from the United States. To be sure, some European nations may be tempted to let America stew in a mess of its own making. But I think that, if nothing else, their commitment to rebuilding an international order will prompt them to help in the rebuilding of Iraq.

Finally, an American anti-imperialist movement not only needs to support the institutions of international law, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. It needs also to encourage the emergence of a distinct democratic alternative to an America that has become a hegemon with a chip on its shoulder. That is, it needs to support the formation of a genuine, unified Europe, assertive and self-confident enough to export its own brand of more social-democratic capitalism across the world. Besides, if we've learned anything from the past half-year, it's that two democratic superpowers would probably be better for the planet than one.

At all events, the battle lines over America's proper role in the world have been drawn. On one side are the neo-imperialists, who have relearned the lesson of 1914 that to deploy -- for the hegemon in a unipolar world -- is to go to war. On the other side are the fledgling neo-anti-imperialists, who should look back to their forebears of 1898 to learn how to assemble a broad movement -- and must do them one better if we are to curtail an administration determined to turn the world into a sullen American imperium.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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