Politics by Other Means

By Matthew Wolf

With the US and world economies crumbling all around us, many voters have focused on the presidential candidate’s past and proposed economic policies. And while fixing the credit crisis is paramount, I think it is appropriate on the eve of election Tuesday to revisit the severely failed foreign policy of the United States of America in recent times.

Common knowledge has it that McCain’s strong hand is foreign policy and national security. But is this really true? Does the fact that John McCain is a veteran make us any safer?

I would argue, and always have, that the pre-emptive war in Iraq has made us all less safe than we were before it was launched. John McCain was the biggest cheerleader in congress for the invasion of Iraq; indeed, he promoted the entire Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war. Use the military might of the US to progressively dominate the middle east, then move on to the rest of the world and clean it up, control it:

Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’-I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build-why, I’ll be there. – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

This is certainly a noble concept, with its roots in Woodrow Wilson’s concept of American leadership in the world, but with a decidedly more military means of accomplishing high minded objectives. The problems with such a strategy are many.

First and foremost, many within and without the United States are convinced that these lofty goals are a thin veneer that covers the protection and promotion of US corporate interests. And our track record supports this contention. If we cared so much about human rights, why would we back Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, or the Somozas in Nicaragua? Clearly we were not so concerned that cops were beatin’ up guys, that children were starving, and that people were not free to speak. Our past is scattered with many more examples of US support for tyrannical and genocidal governments; and official  justification has never quite satisfied many citizens of the world.

Iraq itself is a good example of how thin this veneer is. At first it was justified as a necessity to stop Saddam Hussein from developing WMD. When no such weapons could be found, the war was justified as a corner stone of the war on terror; we were “drawing the terrorists to the battlefield”. While this may have been true to some limited degree, does anyone seriously believe that terrorists would show up and fight against superior force? This is the antithesis of terrorism. As T.E. Lawrence well knew, and taught the Arabs, the greatest advantage is in stealth and concealment. Terrorists are like cockroaches; they scatter when the lights come on. In truth, the most dangerous never come out in the light.

Could it be that our second Iraq War is really just a small twist on the Carter Doctrine? Just before Jimmy Carter told Americans that the answer to our energy crisis (we had burned through most of our domestic supply of oil by the 1970s) was to tighten our belts, turn down the thermostat, and develop alternative fuels, he put the world on notice that any threat to American sources of imported oil – at the time highly concentrated in the Middle East – would be considered a threat to our national security and responded to with force if deemed necessary by us. This has always been understood as a warning to third party states, but Bush simply interpreted it as a warning also to the suppliers of our oil, such as Iraq, Iran, and others in the immediate area. Saddam was a threat to our oil supply from this region and had been warned by Jimmy Carter, so we took him out. This would have been a simple and honest policy statement in support of the pursuant war. Of course it would have fueled arguments against killing for resources, which was apparently grounds for applying the thin veneer in the first place.

Some Americans really believe that we are there to promote freedom and democracy. I know some people who want very badly to believe their sons, daughters, and friends fought and died for a noble cause.  A small number of our soldiers have given up on finding merit in this war and are beginning to speak out:

The second big problem with this war is that it is based on false – some say dumb, others stupid – assumptions about our military capabilities that were brought on by the display of precision bombing executed in the first Iraq War. Sure we were able to destroy most strategic targets with minimal civilian casualties, but occupation, as we have now discovered, is still bloody, gruesome, and unpredictable.

The statesman who yields to war fever is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. – Winston Churchill

Carl von Clausewitz’s words from nearly two centuries ago still apply: “War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it more scope, no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder.” Yet Bush, Cheney, and others thought they would make history with this war; change the way wars were fought, free the world, secure oil, whatever… Chris Rock is right on with his estimation of the war:

When they wanted to start this war I firmly believed that it would be another Vietnam. I ate my words the day Bush pronounced “mission accomplished”. Yet every day since, it has looked more like Vietnam. It is now the second longest war the US has ever fought, after Vietnam. The enemy has no jungle to hide in, but remains very difficult to identify. Many who fought in Vietnam believe that it was literally a race war. There are many accounts of firing on South Vietnamese allies by mistake, often passed off as “well they’re only gooks”. Most veterans of the Iraq War call all the people towel heads and worse. It is not difficult to believe that there has been much indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. The most racist attitude being that of US Congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, who thinks we may need to initiate a nuclear strike against Iran, a country whose population is strongly pro-American, but languishes under the thumb of a brutal Islamic Theocracy. Sure, just kill them all.


Urban warfare tactics have improved somewhat, and we are gradually having some success through diplomatic efforts on the ground in various villages, where leaders who are tired of the bloodshed are identifying insurgents and locating their weapons caches for US soldiers. The surge has had some success, but all told the Iraq War has been an economic, strategic, and foreign policy disaster for the US. What Andrew Bacevich calls (in The Limits of Power) “the lowly IED” has proven more formidable in Iraq than high-tech US weaponry and well trained troops.

To summarize, our motives are at least dubious and our capabilities are not up to the task of conquering and occupying nations the size of Iraq. The Bush Doctrine is based on unrealistic assumptions about US military and administrative capabilities and Cheney’s hair-brained one percent test of a potential foe’s probability of becoming a danger to US interests. McCain swallowed this idiocy whole and helped get us into Iraq. He wants to talk about the minor success of “the surge” all day long to gloss over how stupid this war is and how misguided are the people who got us into it. Barack Obama argued from the start against this war.

The real question now facing voters is: Should our nation initiate pre-emptive war against states that might one day attack us?

The foreign policy of the United States of America has been ruled by the military industrial complex since before Eisenhower warned of it. Let’s hope Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress can make some real changes to our foreign policy, like getting the military-industrial interests out of the process. I feel ill every time I hear someone confide that this war is creating jobs and helping our economy; I’d rather die of hunger. What a shame it will be if the world’s hope for democracy and human rights were to go down as an obese, paranoid bully, reviled by all those we could have helped instead of bombed.  In case you are worried that I am suggesting we redistribute wealth, yes, they are our neighbors, and we should help them.  The path to democracy is through economic development not war.  And democracies don’t fight each other.

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3 Comments

Filed under Iraq and Foreign Policy

3 responses to “Politics by Other Means

  1. Stephen Noriega

    I could not agree more, and not as eloquently as you put it. Another factor I feel went into the invasion had to do with commodity exchange. Saddam Hussein was preparing to transact the sales of his oil in Euros instead of dollars (http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Iraq/Iraq_dollar_vs_euro.html). I’m sure you can explain better than me as to how this would inspire a country to invade a country.

  2. Tony Robinson

    Matt: Thoughtful, detailed and filled with analysis that people from all perspectives on this war should consider. Stephen is absolutely right about how Hussein was moving the oil trade towards a Euro based exchange, not a dollar based exchange. In the years before the invasion, Hussein had also signed oil trade deals with Russia, China and France–of course that played a role in our decision to invade this last great bastion of easy oil reserves that American policy makers of the neocon version couldn’t imagine giving over to competing nations.

    The evidence is overwhelming that the invasion was based on geopolitical calculations of controlling these massive oil resources (rather than giving them over to Russia and China) and profit motivations of getting private oil companies back into the drivers seat of middle eastern oil markets (they have been for the most part banished since the days of oil nationalization extending from the 1970s oil embargo to the 1979 fall of the shah). Ever since private oil companies have pushed to topple the nationalist oil regimes and let the private markets back in, and with Bush they got their way. In Iraq, they now have “production sharing agreements” that are essentially leases on national oil resources, giving the fields over to BP, Conoco, Shell, etc. Whose locked out? France, Russia, China. Where are those countries now turning? Iran. Hmmmm… wonder what might be coming next. Well, with a new president, we’ll see if the logic of the U.S. military-industrial oil complex changes.

    I was also saddened by your reminder of how the Vietnam race-war complex seems to be creepign into our national soul again. Yes, Vietnam became party about a race war on brown skinned people in a foreign land–my father fought there, and he tells the most brutal stories of common atrocities there, and for years while growing up I heard of his disdain for the Vietnamese people. I imagine similar events might be going on in Iraq. I know that we have allowed ourselves to torture and imprison thousands of these people without hardly batting an eye. When you begin to accept the deaths of thousands and thousands of people who look different and talk differently than you, including accepting the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their children (which the U.S. was deeply involved in through the pre-war embargo and targeted bombing of Iraqi infrastructure including water treatment plants, and which much of the world rose up against, due to its devastating effect on Iraqi civilians), you are flirting with some pretty dark forces in your national soul. How can it be avoided?

  3. Shawn_Scanlon

    Thanks Matthew.

    I honestly try my hardest to ignore this issue, because it consistently breaks my heart every time I try to analyze it. But it’s too damn important to let go of.

    You’re spot on, and you provide rational-legal criticism besides the obvious moral implications of such policies. I hope that we might someday have a foreign policy that worships at the altar of peace, holding war as a last resort rather than a diplomatic tool.

    When you have only a hammer in your hand though, I guess every problem looks like a nail.

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