Vol II no. 6 March 18, 2003  
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Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

      "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities resonate in the present crisis, as we experience the illusion of suspension between two fateful choices. It's an illusion because we're not dangling, we're in motion; in the real world we're always in motion, always making choices, never allowed a breather where we can stand aside, have a smoke, sort it out.

We must sympathize with George W. Bush, always in motion, marshalled by the keepers of his schedule, shunted from phone call to phone call, meeting to meeting, whisked off to the Azores (one of the few corners of "Europe" where protesting demonstrators would not be able to outshout media coverage of the Grand Alliance), chasing down the options proffered by men and women he knows to be wiser and more experienced, whose suggestions are mutually well-reasoned yet completely contradictory. He doesn't have the luxury of reflection, holed up in some undisclosed location, buffered from urgent claims on his attention, enjoyed by some senior members of his administration.

He is being swept away by events -- the expression on his face during his war message Monday night reminded me of a photo I once saw of a cow, standing on a floating barn roof, in a Midwest flood. He is in way over his head, which is cause for sympathy. But he's signaling us to join him in the deep end, which is cause for alarm.

He has issued his ultimatum -- our ultimatum, that is. Our final word on the subject. This isn't any longer about disarmament. Saddam Hussein must go. Or else. Because we say so.

But this was the idea all along, it seems. The mind of George Bush was made up months ago, it is said, and his charm, it is said, is that once his mind is made up, nothing will change it. He is reportedly also completely assured, through the close personal relationship he shares with God, that all the difficult decisions have been guided by divine providence.

We must be sympathetic -- I don't mean this sarcastically -- and we must be mindful of a double lesson: while one man does make a difference, and while the president must at least assent to presidential choices, it is also true that in any decisions of this magnitude, there are a number of principal players whose expertise must be relied upon. Bush of course is personally responsible for the decisions, but in reality he is surrounded by his father's peers, a tight circle who don't admit just anybody to their councils, and he is forced to choose among a reductive range of options. There is no reason, other than a fond belief in the mythology of democratic leadership in crisis, to expect that his genius is guiding the development of those options. Which begs a question.

It is now well-established that plans to unseat Saddam Hussein and install American hegemony over the Mideast have been on paper since the early '90s; that the same principals, whether in government before 1992, in think tanks during the Clinton years, or back in the saddle since then, have been at work on this project with undiminished energy; and that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon provided an opportunity for this group to promote their plans as a response -- however tangential -- to atrocities that rightly mobilized the passions of a nation.

These unelected war planners, now in a position to make decisions for all of us, have achieved an enormous and probably unprecedented influence over the role of the United States in world history. Their agenda is now irrevocably put to action -- the United States will go it alone -- in defiance of public opinion throughout the Western world, in defiance of practically every Muslim on the planet, in defiance of the United Nations, in defiance of the pleas of the Pope and most major protestant denominations, in defiance of economic concerns here and abroad, and in defiance of a moral outcry opposing the injustice of a preemptive military action against the people of a much weaker country.

Collective guilt

The last major preemptive war at a time of tenuous peace was the unprovoked German attack on Poland. Unprovoked, that is, except for the possibility that Poland might preemptively launch an attack on Germany. Early in that war, Lt. Col. Henning von Tresckow, who became a leader of the German opposition to Hitler, spoke of the weight of guilt that would haunt them for a century, "and not just on Hitler alone, but on you and me, your wife and mine, your children and my children, the woman crossing the road now, and the boy playing with a ball over there."

That prophecy of war guilt shared by all Germans was made from within an explicitly anti-democratic system of government. How much more should it concern Americans who share in the decision-making of a democratic government which is launching a preemptive war.

For the time being, most Americans will be spared any immediate personal consequences from the international stance our administration has adopted. Most of us are America-firsters, and have little real interest in visiting foreign lands. We have everything we need right here and, until we need our house painted, can get along just fine in English. Most Americans will experience our increasing international isolation only through the lenses of the America media.

And we shouldn't expect any troubling insights there. While nearly every official in the top tier of our government has flipped the bird to our erstwhile allies -- denigrating the cowardice, or the selfish greed, or the grasping for political gain, which they see as foreigners' motives for resisting the American drang nach osten -- our jingoist media reports each such story as the reaction to rudeness from the other side.

Our own media have not given much coverage, either, to the shrill new tenor of American foreign policy that causes so much concern in other lands. We know that George Bush is willing to go it alone in Iraq. We have acquiesced in the new official U.S. policy, as published in the document, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. We have declared ourselves henceforth to be the sole world superpower: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

America's go-it-alone foreign policy is further reflected in the statement (from that same document) that the U.S. disdains the International Criminal Court, "whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept," and which we openly intend to circumvent "through such mechanisms as multilateral and bilateral agreements that will protect U.S. nationals" -- you don't extradite me and I won't extradite you. And these are only the latest in a series of actions Bush commenced, early on in his term, to set the unilateralist tone -- to end American participation in the Kyoto Treaty, and in a missile defense treaty with Russia, and the like.

It is a cliche that we have used up all the international goodwill accruing in the wake of 9-11. We have squandered the credits we had piled up since the demise of international communism, during the decade when we established our super powers as a force for peace, justice and what we used call "the American way." The extent to which we suffer the stigma of association with an unlawful, unjust, unwise war will be a rueful measure of the maxim that with rights come responsibilities.

The Best of Times

It is also becoming an ironic commonplace that George Bush, who told us during his election campaign that he was a uniter, not a divider, has been pretty much solely responsible for the debacle at the U.N., the dishevelment of N.A.T.O., and the internal divisions in this country and abroad.

But there is another important sense in which George Bush has been a uniter, and it is for this reason that, in this season of darkness, we can also take heart that it is a season of light.

It was not that long ago that members of Congress were still afraid to oppose a president determined to go to war. "Politics stops at the water's edge," was the rule established in the early days of the National Security State, half a century ago, and only an indelibly-branded "maverick" would dare act otherwise.

That has changed, and a number of Democrat candidates for president are outspokenly antiwar, in the genuinely American tradition. As national politics and international politics increasingly overlap, there is no water's edge anymore. This is a fact that will offer some constraint to Democrat presidents as well as this Republican one.

Another way in which Bush has united us: a global community has begun to find its voice. "Public opinion" is a mere concept until it drives action, and those who think rallies and peace demonstrations don't change anything need only look at the roll call that never took place -- the one at the U.N. Security Council where George Bush was unsuccessful in buying a majority vote. Until the war on Iraq, "globalization" was something driven by CEOs of transnational corporations. That too is changing.

Bush has united many conservatives and liberals in opposition to his "perpetual" war on terrorism, which he says requires watering down the Bill of Rights and shedding a number of other Constitutional liberties.

He has brought together economists from the left and the right, who share a sense of outrage at the mendacities underlying his fiscal and tax policies.

He has pricked another staunch principle of rational conservatism, in his opportunistic attempts to link unrelated policies to the war on terrorism -- to defeat Osama bin Laden we must despoil the Alaskan wilderness. It's an insult to intelligence and common sense -- how dumb does he think we are, they want to know.

We managed to live though the second half of the 20th century confronting a demonized foe, one who had the means to wreak devastation on our country, without shivering in fear. Apart from the occasional classroom exercises in "duck and cover," and a few entrepreneurs who made a modest profit outfitting bomb shelters for a relative handful of anxious suburbanites, we grew up, went to school, fell in love, found jobs, raised families -- and never felt more than the occasional twinge of absurdity about what might have been cause for panic.

But now, to advance their dubious policies, Team Bush is working overtime to create a sense of restrained terror among us. Saddam must be eliminated -- this week! -- to preserve and protect the American way of life.

Americans do not like extremists, of any kind. It is slow work, to move the conscience of a national organism made up of 280 million souls. But it is moving. Team Bush has been playing on our fears, but that will work only so long.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not kidding myself that, in the short term, a majority of Americans polled won't support the president's war on Iraq. I know there are young bloods watching the action from the safe side of their TV screens, cheering the fact that we're suddenly doing something, that the talk is over and the action has begun. But for every triumphalist frisson felt by a frat boy rooting for his team, there are a hundred shudders rustling those more sober, who know that we no longer live in a world safe for empire.

Americans don't want to wake up each morning worrying. A president whose policies depend on keeping us afraid will soon arrive at a point of diminishing returns. As we make the transition from the winter of our despair, to the spring of hope, we must gather our resources to provide alternatives, to script the real agenda for America -- to address our needs at home and to relight the once and future beacon of Liberty for all mankind.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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