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
The war on terror is the framework within which all his security policies
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
Moyers' "Winning the War on Terror"
(http://www.truthout.org/docs_04/printer_040904A.shtml) 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."
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.
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
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
Dave Stratman edits NewDemocracyWorld.org
and is author
We CAN Change The World:
The Real Meaning Of Everyday Life. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.