Beware the Liberal War on Terror

First published in Axis of Logic and New Democracy

by Dave Stratman

Many people who oppose the war in Iraq are living under a dangerous illusion: that the war is the work of a cabal of fundamentalist Christians and Jewish neo-conservatives who have hijacked the government for their own purposes --  that the war, in other words, represents not the policies of the core American Establishment but the zany doings of some interlopers.

There have been plenty of indications that this view is mere wishful thinking. The war in Iraq had resounding support at its inception from both Democratic and Republican politicians and the media. Only now that the situation in Iraq has dramatically deteriorated have some politicians and editorial writers begun to backpedal. Even so John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has continued to give the war vigorous support, calling for 40,000 more troops.

But the war in Iraq has been so much the focus of the antiwar movement that we are in danger of accepting by default the larger "war on terror" of which the Iraq war is merely one part. While the war on Iraq has held horrors aplenty for the people of that tortured land and for US servicemen and women there, it is the war on terror which holds the greatest long-term threat for Americans and for the people of the Middle East and the world. As far as I am aware, no politician of any note, no mainstream media personality or outlet has called into question the war on terror or challenged the rationale which it provides for a future of permanent war; rather, what criticism has been raised of Bush's war on Iraq often has been on the basis that it has detracted from the war on terror and the search for bin Laden, as Richard Clarke famously charged. In his National Security address of May 27, 2004, Senator Kerry outlined the defense policies he will pursue if he is elected, all of them premised on fighting the war on terror more effectively, so that we can  "honor the legacy of the Greatest Generation and restore respect to the greatest country - the United States of America." The war on terror is the framework within which all his security policies are forged.

A recent and, I think, very disturbing article by commentator Bill Moyers puts the centrality of the war on terror in perspective. Along with John Kerry's speech, Moyers' article suggests that the war on terror is the fundamental strategy on which the US ruling elite has placed its hopes for controlling the American people and the world in the 21st century.

Bill Moyers, former White House press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, is America's most respected journalist. His NOW with Bill Moyers on PBS reaches millions of viewers with in-depth pieces on such issues as income inequality, the environment, women's reproductive health, COINTELPRO, nuclear proliferation, and White House secrecy. Moyers is a strong advocate for racial equality, for civil liberties, for the duty of government to protect the weak from the strong and the average citizen from unrestrained corporate power. He is a model of progressive thinking.

Moyers' "Winning the War on Terror" ( is a lament over President Bush's leadership. Moyers accepts Bush's narrative of the war on terror without question. He doesn't point out that Bush's war on terror has done nothing but multiply terrorists, or that Bush could easily have isolated terrorists after 9/11 by addressing the authentic grievances of Arabs, or that Bush in fact needs terrorists to justify Administration policies. On the contrary, Moyers has no doubts about who the real enemy is: "Islamic fanatics have declared war and seem willing to wage it to the death. If they prevail, our children will grow up in a world where fear governs the imagination and determines the rules of life." Apparently to Moyers' mind we are always at Orange Alert or worse; it's almost as if it is Americans -- rather than, say, Iraqis or Palestinians -- who live under constant threat of being bombed or strafed or tortured or starved; the brutal realities of life for many Muslims are transformed somehow into omnipresent dangers for Americans. And so, writes Moyers, "Like most Americans, I want to do my part in the war." He makes clear that this war is not just another issue du jour. In language evoking the grand old days of World War II, Moyers agrees with Bush that the war on terror "is an inescapable calling of our generation."

The problem, according to Moyers, is that "the president makes it hard for us to do our part. Bush confused us when he switched from chasing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to hunting Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He undermined his own credibility when he justified the invasion of Iraq with so many patent lies." While Moyers is well aware that Bush's justifications for the Iraq war were false, his response is not to call the whole enterprise into question but to chide Bush for weakening popular support for the war on terror with his lying. Bush stands to lose public confidence in Iraq in the same way that Lyndon Johnson lost public support for that great liberal war in Vietnam. (Moyers was Lyndon Johnson's press secretary until 1967 and was tasked with defending the war to reporters and the public.)

Moyers does not question the goals of the president in this war of aggression, much less raise awkward questions about war crimes and the murder of innocent civilians. It doesn't seem to occur to him to wonder what the president is really up to. Instead the crucial question for Moyers is, "How to assure we win this war?"

His answer: a bipartisan wartime Cabinet. "Why not a wartime cabinet to serve a wartime nation? Al Gore as head of Homeland Security. Gary Hart at Defense. The independent-minded John McCain or Warren Rudman at State. The world would get the point: This time we mean it, all of us - the war on terror no longer a partisan cause." Americans need to show a united front in the face of world criticism.

But, Moyers continues, a wartime Cabinet of national unity is not enough. The president has called on all of us to unite in a common purpose, "But so far sacrifice has been asked only of the men and women in uniform and their families." Ever the compassionate liberal, Moyers writes:

"Even now the privates patrolling the mean streets of Baghdad and the wilds of Afghanistan, their lives and limbs constantly at risk, are making less than $16,000 dollars a year in base pay. Here at home, meanwhile, the rich get their tax cuts - what Vice President Cheney calls 'their due.' Favored corporations get their contracts, subsidies and offshore loopholes. And as the president praises sacrifice he happily passes the huge bills that are piling up on to children not yet born." Never mind that Iraqis and Afghanis have disappeared from this picture, much less that off-stage they are being bombed and slaughtered and tortured. What really upsets Moyers is that there is so much inequality in the war on terror; some corporations are getting rich, while soldiers have to get by on poverty wages. Apparently we should not seek to end the war but to distribute its rewards more equitably. Moyers would like to see "the moral equivalent of the draft" imposed on all of us, so that the sacrifices are truly shared.

Moyers' lament is not that President Bush has led us into a war of aggression based on lies or that he has undermined our Constitutional rights or that he has caused untold suffering and death for a great many innocent people or that he has made America an object of fear and hatred around the world. No, his lament is that Bush is failing "to lead all of us, and not just a partisan few, to answer...the inescapable calling of our generation." Bush has failed to rally all Americans to the glorious cause of the War on Terror.

Bill Moyers, as Andrew O'Hehir put it in Salon, "has arguably become the lone radical on television, openly challenging our national failure to confront fundamental issues of class, money, and power." This is why his fervent call for support for the war on terror comes as such a shock, and it is also why his call is so important to interpreting the significance of the war on terror. We are not here dealing just with one man's views, but with the views of a personage who has spoken for and had the ear of those at the center of power in American society, and who has often been one of their greatest critics.

Are Moyers' views on the war on terror inconsistent with his liberal political ideals? Not really. Liberalism is the dominant philosophy of social control of America's ruling elite. Liberalism does not challenge the structure of power in society or question elite goals. Instead it aims to disguise real power relationships while it mitigates or obscures their effects, with programs ranging from the Great Society agenda of the Johnson years to the affirmative action/gun control/multiculturalism/gay marriage agenda of the past decade. None of these programs poses the least threat to America's financial elite. They are rather weapons of mass distraction. They encourage those without power to see each other as the enemy. They make the people seem to be the problem and the government or corporations the solution.

I don't mean to suggest that Moyers' declared sympathy with the underdog and his campaigning against the excesses of corporate power and big money are in any way insincere. But these sympathies don't in any way challenge the most powerful in our society any more than they truly help those in need. The man whose heart bleeds for underpaid GIs in Iraq while cheering the strategy that put them there is not a threat to any elites.

More to the point, the warm glow of Moyers' folksy and egalitarian patter can be put to use by the monied interests to rally the American people to permanent war against "Islamic fanatics" or, indeed, against any purported enemies government leaders want to name. Anti-warriors should take heed: our enemies are not just some cowboy oilmen or Likudnik neocons, but the Eastern bloc of corporate and financial power which dominates US foreign and domestic policy. Should John Kerry become our next president, expect to see the "war on terror" waged ever more aggressively, but with more sophisticated, pervasive, and liberal PR to rally Americans to the cause.

Only a Democrat with liberal credentials can lead the American people in sustained military conflict. This is true for two reasons. Only the Democratic Party has deep and extensive ties with labor unions and with black, white, and Hispanic workers -- in other words, with the people who will do the fighting; without effective working class support, no military effort can long be sustained. In addition, of the ruling parties, only the Democrats have a seemingly generous and uplifting ideology capable of summoning a majority of Americans to a cause demanding blood and sacrifice. Republicans can call frequent Orange Alerts and remind SUV drivers of the need for Arab oil ("How did our oil get under their sand?") as motivating factors, but these can't inspire most people for long, and calls for "democracy in the Middle East" don't ring true coming from Republican moneybags like George Bush or Dick Cheney. However dishonest or manipulative they may be, Democrat leaders waging the war on terror can at least attempt to dress that war in their party's long-abandoned first principles and paint the war as progressive. Making a convincing case for permanent war on Islam will require huge efforts of propaganda and deceit, but this is clearly the strategy on which the ruling class is embarked, and it is not clear what other options they have. Given the strategy, US success in the war depends on liberal leadership.

Aristotle some 2400 years ago said that the tyrant declares war "to deny his subjects leisure and to impose on them the constant need for a leader." The war on terror is meant to serve the purpose for which wars have been waged by rulers from time immemorial. It is not mainly about oil or about projecting American power into the Middle East and Central Asia or supporting Israel, however important these goals may be to the elite. It's key purpose is more central.

The war on terror is the new strategy for elite domination of US society. It is their desperately-needed successor to the Cold War, which for fifty years legitimized government power and Pentagon budgets and held people in thrall to Mutually Assured Destruction. The war on terror is intended to strike fear in the hearts of Americans, so that they sacrifice liberty for security and mobilize behind their leaders to smite the foe wherever and whomever he may be. It is meant to justify the far-flung bases of Empire and to make Americans eager to sacrifice their sons and daughters and treasure in the noble cause. It is meant to turn an alienated and ever more unequal and undemocratic society towards unthinking, patriotic zeal. Most of all, it is meant to focus on carefully-selected foreign enemies the anger and revolutionary solidarity which should be focused on the enemies of democracy and peace here at home.

If it is the case that the war in Iraq is only one element in a broader elite strategy, the antiwar movement must have much more ambitious goals than just military disengagement from Iraq. It must challenge the rationale and motive force behind the Iraq war: the war on terror. Our goals must be to shut down the war on terror with mass popular action, dismantle the worldwide phalanx of US military bases, and bring about a day of reckoning for the war criminals responsible for these policies.

Dave Stratman edits and is author of We CAN Change The World: The Real Meaning Of Everyday Life. You can reach him at

Discussion List Issues: Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (1) Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (2) The Present Crisis of US Imperialism Is Marxism Still Relevant? (1) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (2) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (3) To join our discussion list, go here Join Our Info. List:
Search Site
Our Links


Monthly Review

Z Net

Marxism List

Stan Goff's Blog

International Socialist Review

Brings the Troops Home Now

Critical Montage Blog

Dissident Voice

Seven Oaks

Against the Grain

Global Resistance Network

Electronic Intifada

Electronic Iraq

Press Action

Left Turn

Green Left Weekly


Traveling Soldier

Radical Activist Network

League of Independent Voters

Labor Net

Labor Notes


New Left Review


Illegal Voices

Clamor Magazine

Jews Against the Occupation

Democracy Now

Committee for Social Justice in Columbia

Venezuela Analysis

Act Against War

New Spark Productions

Socialism & Democracy

Environmentalists Against War

Earth First

Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and Environment

Rainforest Action Network

Food First

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Free Higher Education