“Liberal democrats are scrambling in the wake of Bush’s victory to recast themselves as a loyal opposition, but this enterprise comes through as desperate, unprincipled, and confused. The Democratic, liberal establishment, of which the Times is one of the chief pillars, may be in the final phase of a political unraveling that began with the Vietnam War four decades ago.”
By Walden Bello*
For some people on the left in the US, the Bush reelection was a speed bump, something that slows you down but doesn’t stop you. Shortly before President George W. Bush’s trip to Santiago, Chile, to attend the APEC Summit, some 20,000 activists gathered outside the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia on Nov. 21, demanding that the institution, now renamed “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” be shut down. 20 people were arrested for civil disobedience while protesters listened to actress Susan Sarandon, actor Martin Sheen, and other speakers denounce the military school for training students to engage in human rights violations.
Well, not a big bounce, but a significant one nevertheless in the context of the liberals’ continuing to unravel in the wake of Bush’s electoral victory. Even as the shocking sight of a US marine shooting a wounded, defenseless Iraqi prisoner flashed on television screens globally, the New York Times ran a front page story on Sunday, November 21, depicting the marines as a band of brothers courageously taking Fallujah block by block from faceless Iraqi insurgents. “In Falluja, Young Marines Saw the Savagery of an Urban War,” by Dexter Filkins, is in the genre of macho war reporting by generations of civilian writers awed by the mystique of the elite of America’s colonial legions. When a marine is hit by fire from fighters defending their city from the invading troops, Filkins recounts, with reverence, how “the marines’ near mystical commandment against leaving a comrade behind seized the group. one after another, the young marines dashed into the minaret, into darkness and into gunfire, and wound their way up the stairs.”
Simply change the place names and the account can easily be that of the “leathernecks” taking pillbox after pillbox from tenacious “Japs” in Guadalcanal in 1943. This genre of journalism is akin to what Edward Said called “orientalist writing.” Places, events, and people may change but the categories or episodes remain eternal: Marines land, marines encounter heavy resistance, marines work their way forward inch by bloody inch, marines sacrifice themselves for their comrades, marines finally overcome, and the band plays Semper Fidelis in honor of the fallen heroes, who are awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Another glorious episode that reminds us that compared to the Army, the marines are no ordinary mortals. As for the enemy, its role is to fight bitterly and savagely in order to bring out the best in the marines.
With literature like this, who needs propaganda?
But Filkins is not alone. Thomas Friedman, the Times’ foreign policy columnist, is also eager to show that he is one of the guys. In fact, so eager that he has replaced his intellectual faculty and moral compass with the gut feel of the “grunts.” In a column titled “Postcards from Iraq,” Friedman writes, “Readers regularly ask me when I will throw the towel on Iraq. I will be guided by the US Army and Marine grunts on the ground. They see Iraq close up. Most of those you talk to are so uncynical–so convinced that we are doing good and doing right, even though they too are unsure it will work. When a majority of those grunts tell us that they are no longer willing to risk their lives to go out and fix the sewers in Sadr City or teach democracy at a local school, then you can stick a fork in this one. But so far, we ain’t there yet. The troops are still pretty positive. So let’s thank God for what’s in our drinking water, hope that maybe some of it washes over Iraq and pay attention to the grunts. They’ll tell us if it’s time to go or stay.”
The Times’ editorial board seems determined to compete with Filkins and Friedman in compromising journalistic integrity. Like defeated presidential candidate John Kerry, the venerable Times does not believe that it was right for the US to invade Iraq. But instead of following this logic to its inescapable conclusion ethically, which would be to call for a withdrawal of US troops, the Times, like Kerry, calls for an increase in troop levels. In an editorial dated November 22, the Times demands that 20,000 to 40,000 more troops be sent to Iraq. This will require “a significant, permanent increase in the regular army,” though not, it assures us, a draft. The Times is unapologetic about the rationale for this recommendation, which is to secure Falluja and drive “the insurgents out of other strongholds.” That the insurgents are on the right side on this one, that they are simply fighting to end an occupation that the Times had earlier condemned as an unjust war waged on false pretexts by the Bush administration never seems to enter the equation. No wonder many voters otherwise disenchanted with the war did not go with Kerry and the Times: Bush came across as morally and politically consistent and clear, while Kerry and the Times projected—and continue to project–moral and political confusion.
In calling for 40,000 more troops, the Times is not only displaying moral inconsistency; it is also being appallingly naive. one is talking about a national liberation movement that, albeit decentralized, has made some 55 cities and communities throughout the country “no go” zones for US troops. At the start of the war, then Army Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki said one would need at least 200,00 troops to invade and pacify Iraq. Today, simply to fight a burgeoning guerrilla movement to a stalemate would probably require at least 500,000 troops. That is simply impossible without a draft.
The Times’ strategy amounts to throwing good money after bad, and if only for pragmatic reasons based on the national interest (which is always a far more powerful incentive than principle to US policymakers), it should be advising Bush to cut his losses and run, like Ronald Reagan did from Lebanon after 241 marines were killed by a suicide bomber in October 1983. The Times may find it hard to muster the courage to justify withdrawal as morally correct, but it can still counsel Bush that retreat in this case makes sense and that it is not dishonorable.
Liberal democrats are scrambling in the wake of Bush’s victory to recast themselves as a loyal opposition, but this enterprise comes through as desperate, unprincipled, and confused. The Democratic, liberal establishment, of which the Times is one of the chief pillars, may be in the final phase of a political unraveling that began with the Vietnam War four decades ago. Liberals have long ceased to provide a viable vision and moral compass for US foreign policy. Progressives must aggressively fill this role, and standing firm on the demand of unconditional withdrawal from Iraq is the place to start.
*Walden Bello is executive director of the Bangkok-based institute Focus on the Global South