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PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
3, Many Vietnams -- And Iraqs
you listen to Bush and Cheney trying to justify their escalation in Iraq, you could easily think you’re hearing Johnson
or Nixon talking about Vietnam. It’s all about an image of credibility, they
say: making sure our allies believe
us when we say we’ll go to war and fight to win.
The neocon dream of U.S. force unilaterally
ruling the globe has faded in sand and fire.
As Cheney put it: “In Afghanistan,
in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq, the key to victory is for us
to be able to get the locals into the fight. The United States
can't do it all by itself.”
Now that Bush,
Cheney, and Co. have lost control of what’s happening
on the ground in Iraq,
they may well be focused on the war to control images in predominantly Muslim
lands. In those countries, and around
the world, ordinary people have a sharply and increasingly negative view of U.S. policy. But that hardly matters to our own leaders as
long as they can convince presidents, princes, and prime ministers --
especially in Muslim lands -- to be staunch allies in the global war on
terrorism (which is why we don’t hear much about bringing democracy to Muslim
lands any more).
When you fight to
prove your credibility, the actual results of war don’t matter a lot. You are
fighting to create an image. War becomes essentially a long, bloody advertising
campaign. Success is measured, not by what happens on the ground, but by what
happens in the spectators’ minds. Cheney says he fears that leaders in places
like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan
“would say wait a minute, if the United States
isn't willing to complete the task in Iraq that they may have to
reconsider whether or not they're willing to put their lives on the line.”
Yet all that is
only half the battle. Bush and Cheney remember the Vietnam era vividly, and its
lesson: You can’t win the war of images abroad if you lose the war of images
here at home. Faced with growing
opposition to their Iraq
policy, the Bushies have ramped up a new advertising
campaign. They hope to turn the political tide with a flood of soundbite images:
“We’ve got a plan.” “We need a
surge.” “Fight ‘em in Iraq
or fight ‘em in Kansas
image is guts: “The terrorists have bet from the beginning their only
strategy is to be able to break our will. They can't beat us in a stand-up
fight. … They think we don't have the stomach for the fight.” If you turn the
war into a contest of guts, it’s all about images.
Then there is the
most curious soundbite of all: “Defeat is not an
option.” Anyone who looks at the facts
on the ground in Iraq would
more likely say: “Victory for the U.S. is not an
option. Nor is a tie. We’re going to end up losers.
The only question is how long we’ll keep killing and dying until we admit
it.” When Bush repeats over and over
again, “Defeat is not an option,” he’s not talking about the world of empirical
realities. He’s talking about the problem of credibility in the world of
images. That’s why he seems so out of touch with reality. His words are one more sign that the war is
now more about images than facts on the ground.
We should have
seen this coming. Over two years ago, an
anonymous White House aide told a journalist:
“We’re an empire now, and
when we act, we create our own reality.”
At the time, everyone thought he was talking about reshaping facts
around the world to suit the administration's geopolitical goals. Now it seems
more likely that he meant it literally:
We ignore what our eyes and ears tell us is true -- what most people
call reality -- and create an alternative reality in our own minds. We live in what most people call fantasy.
fancy names for people who live in fantasy worlds of their own creation. Most of us use simple words like “crazy.” It’s not surprising that an administration
living in its own reality, fighting wars that are mostly about imagery, would
end up pursuing policies that seem, to most sane observers, quite crazy. Public
opinion polls seem to suggest that average Americans will no longer follow
their leaders blindly into fantasyland.
But take a closer
look at those two-thirds or more who reject Bush’s escalation plan. How much do
they know about the facts in Iraq,
beyond the fleeting images and soundbites they get
from their TV screens? And most have no principled objection to war as an
instrument of national policy. In the spring
of 2003, after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, three-quarters or more
of the U.S.
public approved Bush’s war policy. Even
now, only half the public wants to start withdrawing American troops from Iraq.
Why, then, is
Bush’s approval rating so low? It’s not because he took us into war. It’s
because he failed to give us victory. That doesn’t fit our national self-image.
Most Americans have no problem with an image of their nation going to war. They assume that the cause must be just. But
they also assume that our soldiers will be victorious. “American” and “loser”
just don’t go together in our cultural traditions, nor
in most Americans' minds.
That’s why it’s so
important for so many to believe that Vietnam was an aberration, a
one-time mistake, a well-intentioned war that somehow got out of control. When
the first President Bush pushed Iraqi troops out of Kuwait
and announced that “we’ve put Vietnam
behind us,” his poll numbers went sky high. He revived the image of America as a
Now his son has
in front of us and created a second lost war. Predictably, the public has
turned against him. It’s a lot harder to put two losses behind you. How can you
write off two separate wars as one-time mistakes? If you think the “Vietnam syndrome” kept the public hesitant about
war for a long time, think about the impact of the “Vietnam
plus Iraq syndrome,” once
everyone agrees that we’ve lost in Iraq, too.
Bush and Cheney must
think about that a lot. Their failure may well tie the hands of future
presidents. Who is going to follow the leader into two, three, many Vietnams or Iraqs, if
they all look like losing efforts from the start? Suppose that an American
president threatened to take military action and no one really believed him, or
her? The bubble of credibility would be
burst. The U.S.
could no longer project an image of credibility to its allies. Bush’s successors
could not turn the fond dream of a decades-long GWOT into reality.
That could be the
biggest boost to our chances for world peace in a long, long time.
The old slogan
“two, three, many Vietnams” proclaimed a hope that nations everywhere might be
free to chart their own destiny, even if the process is sometimes bloody,
rather than be controlled by an imperialist power whose hand is always
bloody. That’s what it means to hope for
“two, three, many Iraqs” too. No one wants
to see any nation dissolve into civil war. But once we have stirred up the
lethal stew, we can’t expect to escape the consequences. The least bloody
option is to refrain from intervention in the first place.
“Two, three, many Vietnams -- and Iraqs” means that U.S. leaders
are not likely to learn that lesson even from a second defeat. They will
probably stir up the pot in other countries too. No one can say how many
defeats it will take before American interventionism comes to an end.
But if we take
Cheney’s words seriously we can learn a valuable lesson: Our imperialist
interventions will never end until the American people rise up and say “NO,”
not merely to this war, but to the whole idea that the U.S. can do
anyone any good by invading foreign lands.