Vol I no. 5 December 24, 2002  
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A Defining Moment for Liberals

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. Premeditations and Premonitions appears periodically in The Common Good Network.

There is only one topic for liberals right now.

It is not the degradation of our civil liberties under the Great Fear being promoted in Washington;

    ...not the debate on race in politics prompted by the Trent Lott affair;
    ... not the systematic dismantling of environmental protections;
    ... not the crisis of corporate governance on a global scale;
    ... not trickle-down and tax-the-poor economics;
    ... not the scandal of health care and old-age security, in all its manifestations;
    ... not the trivialization and corruption of the mass media, which no longer even pretends to be the nervous system of democracy, an issue that compounds all the others.

There is only one topic for us now and that is Iraq.

You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that what is unfolding is not simply a response to crisis but a long-planned agenda for war. These plans were in formation at least a decade before 9/11. The media's attention span is notoriously short, and geared to the fiscal year, but even so any regular consumer of the establishment press has read authoritative discussions of the machinations behind the scenes.

No liberal will ever be able to plead ignorance of the facts. The information is presented to us day by day -- hour by hour on the Internet -- provided by voices in the U.S. press, the world press, human rights groups, and individuals with informed perspectives.

And we can't ignore the force of our own logic and common sense. We are reminded, in these days, that "public opinion" is a more nuanced concept than "conventional wisdom." A stampede is not a consensus. If we concede helplessness in the face of a determined propaganda agenda, without recourse, then Hitler was right, the people are a sobbing crowd, and democracy is at best a comfortable illusion.

How liberals respond -- in our individual consciences but more importantly in our practical effectiveness at promoting the common good -- will define us no less than we were defined a generation ago by our response to the war in Vietnam. This time, perhaps, a principled resolve might turn the tables. We're offered a second chance to get it right.

The good news is that liberals are not up against the wall. The domestic fight over war on Iraq has galvanized significant numbers of religious, civic and business leaders in opposition -- Republicans as well as Democrats -- plus Hollywood celebrities (don't snicker, in today's media they're important) and once-dormant students. It's also making connections among average Americans who read the polls, witness the growing disaffection with the conservative agenda, and become aware that they are surrounded by many who question the administration's war policy, and who share liberal ideas on a wide range of other issues.


In fact, in the fight over war on Iraq, far-right hardliners may have arrived at their Waterloo. Not to guarantee that they'll share the fate of the Old Guard; but the proponents of regime change in Iraq, who were shouted down during Desert Storm in 1991, and then were on the losing side of the 1992 presidential election, and who were outvoted again in 1996 and 2000, are desperately flinging themselves at their last chance to deploy their realpolitik.

Staged for public consumption, there is a heated righteous anger fueling the administration's determination to depose Saddam Hussein. But in the wings (yet visible to most of the audience) is the colder reality behind much of American foreign policy over the past five decades. We can't be privy to the details of the agenda, but we can be concerned that a plot is afoot, nefarious precisely because it is secret and closed to public debate.

We're not strangers to such strategies. Especially under the real threat of nuclear annihilation, confronting a generally malevolent Soviet leadership, our national security planners learned to become "unsentimental."

In 1948, George Kennan set the tone with one of his planning memos for the State Department (this one concerning American policy in the Philippines) which included this famous paragraph:

    "We [Americans] have 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of the population. This disparity is particularly great between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming.... We should cease to talk about vague, and for the Far East, unreal objectives, such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."

"Kennan's Children" are the frustrated hardliners who have been lying at anchor throughout the '90s, in particular Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol. A "Wolfowitz Memorandum" has not yet surfaced, but we can be sure something like it exists, and that it amounts to a grand plan for remaking the world in the same cynical register that Kennan employed.

Conservative columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, an early supporter of Bush (he would "restore to us our common and unifying national principles," she wrote before the inauguration), and who knows her way around Washington, had become disaffected as far back as last April:

    "Most of the people now influencing Bush strongly on the road to a seemingly perpetual warfare -- men like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, military adviser Richard Perle and Irving and Bill Kristol -- are either combative neoconservatives, fervent Israeli supporters or Christian conservatives. The majority of them, including their most aggressive spokesmen, have never served in the military. Yet they don't hesitate to express their views; indeed, their influence has led the president from fighting the immediate war against palpable anti-American terrorism in Afghanistan and al-Qaida cells, to helping Ariel Sharon dissolve Palestinian institutions and structures so he can keep hold of Palestinian lands, to (in the works -- really!) overthrowing governments from Iraq to Syria to Iran to North Korea. (And I know I've missed a few.)"

Consent of the Governed

Liberals are compassionate; conservatives are competent. Stereotypes, yes, but influential ones. Especially in a time of fear, most people will choose competence over compassion, a useful fact for conservatives. It's not a matter of surveying all the alternatives that liberals can conjure, but of boiling down the choice to the mutually exclusive absolutes favored by conservatives. Their persuasive techniques take advantage of the Illusion of the Other Guy.

The Illusion of the Other Guy is as universal as deja vu. You feel it whenever you witness a propaganda campaign, see right through the misdirection and mendacity, and then wonder who it's fooling. What could they be trying to accomplish with their obvious rhetorical loop-the-loops, so dependent upon buzz words, emotional triggers, stereotypes, fearsome language, and pure bluster?

In fact, as you chuckle at the pathetically obvious efforts to persuade some Other Guy, you may even find yourself critiquing the work by Goethe's criteria: What are they trying to do? Are they doing it well? Is it worth the doing? Much of the "political discourse" on TV and in bars and barbershops is really a version of thumbs-up, thumbs-down, entertainment chatter (usually skimping on Goethe's third principle). And though most people, like you and I, are watching events unfold with a critical eye, and do not believe everything they're told, they are granting consent passively, by judging appreciatively how well the program seems to be working on all the Other Guys.

It's passive, but it's consent. And we agree, do we not, that our government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Hence, a mandate for Perle, Wolfowitz & Co.

There is a human bias in favor of bold action. The fight or flight reflex is easily manipulated, and even those who see the unwisdom of a confrontation will be forced to choose instantly in the face of imminent harm.

The planners know that the preference for competence over compassion depends on fear. But if the fears flowing from 9/11 have begun to lose their edge, they're confident that there will be fears enough once the bombs start dropping and the entire Islamic world predictably boils in rage. Those who would manipulate public opinion in favor of war have learned how to attenuate the "sudden" triggering confrontation, spreading it across weeks instead of seconds; to redefine "imminent" to mean "eventual" or even "potential"; to lay down layers of psychological preparation and justification; to diffuse responsibility among specialized actors; to remove flight as an option through mechanisms of social solidarity; and to reduce the object of their war to a caricature of evil.

The Liberal Advantage

Liberals are always at a momentary disadvantage in the face of absolutist decisiveness. Too often we're like the serious debater confronting the demagogue, trying to share our appreciation of complexity with an audience instinctively tilted toward the black-and-white premises of our opponents, who thus define the terms of discussion. Imagine Noam Chomsky on Rush Limbaugh.

But those liberal sensibilities supply us with keys otherwise unavailable. We aren't hung up on ambiguities for the fun of it, but because we know the world is made of ambiguities. We believe that reality consists not of answers but of choices. Our orientation gives us advantages in solving the real problems of the world, untying knots instead of slicing through them, making things better, not worse.

We know that there are no monoliths. Especially at the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the government agencies -- they're all densely twined nests of competition and collusion. We have friends there, and there are others who are not our friends, but who are concerned that the rest of the conservative agenda could go up in smoke. There are still others (particularly, we are told, in the Pentagon) who adamantly oppose the Perle-Wolfowitz agenda for practical or logistical reasons. And then there are conservatives who simply believe war is not heroic, but wrong except in defense, and who do not feel that the hawks writing memos for the Oval Office have a mandate for their war.

A glimpse of these coils of intrigue: the White House was formerly reputed to be so leak-tight and disciplined in its communications that a speechwriter lost his job when it got out that he had authored the term "Axis of Evil." Yet in August, Richard Perle was publicly warning the president, through the headlines, that he had gone too far to turn back. After Brent Scowcroft, former President George Bush's National Security Advisor, expressed reservations about war on Iraq, the New York Times quoted Perle as saying, "I think Brent just got it wrong, the failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism."

For all the posturing, war-seeking conservatives are dependent upon an ad hoc coalition with fault lines running in all directions. A war on Iraq would "clarify" things to their short-term advantage. They believe a "successful" war (whatever that might mean) would consolidate their primacy for a generation. We can take no comfort in the idea that a war is more likely to disgrace them, and all Americans, causing untold harm worldwide, and creating a legacy none of us will outlive.

For our part, this is an historic opportunity for liberals to assert and defend their core values, and to rally the natural constituency that abounds in America. As a practical matter, our target is public opinion. The Capitol Hill leadership and the staff at the White House watch the polls. Once it is clear that they are being led to their political demise, their propagandists will find a way to spin prudence, patience, even forbearance as the best way to fight terrorism.

How to target public opinion -- material for the next column.

© 2002 Alton Miller
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