PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Take Some Of Cheney’s Words Seriously
The window of opportunity is wide open for the American peace movement. Well over half the public now thinks that their government blundered by starting a war. That’s happened twice before: after World War I and the Vietnam war. Both times the peace movement grew like topsy and handed out a simple explanation for war: the limitless greed of corporate capitalism. That’s almost all you’ll hear from peace activists today, too. It’s the party line.
But it never worked very well in the past. After World
War I and
Now there’s a new factor. Most Americans think the
If we want to have any chance of curing the public’s appetite for war, we can’t prescribe just another dose of the same old “corporate greed” story. Not that we should ignore corporate greed. It’s part of the story of every war. But we need to put our message in a broader context that can explain not merely why we go to war, but why we lose.
One place to look for that new context might surprise you: the public words of the shadow behind the throne, Dick Cheney. Out here on the left end of the political dial, Cheney’s words are dismissed as a smokescreen of propaganda, signs of lunacy, or some combination of the two. And much of what he says surely is propaganda and detached from reality.
But there’s this curious thing. Since September 2001,Cheney has been saying that the war on terrorism will be
pretty much like the cold war. Now, trying to justify escalation in Iraq to the
public, he uses the same words that cold war presidents used in secret, to
their closest confidantes, to justify their hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. So if the Veep really
aims to replay the cold war, he might also be using those words in private to direct
Bush’s war in
Of course we’ll never know for sure what Cheney, or any leader, really thinks. But when a pattern of words turns up over and over again, it’s worth paying attention -- especially when it can prove so useful for the cause of peace.
Here’s the basic plot line that links Cheney to Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon:
We are in an ideological war. We face a fanatical enemy driven by a belief system that tells them must destroy our nation. We didn’t do anything to create that fanatical force. So no change in our foreign policies will mollify it. You can’t appease or negotiate with ideological fanatics. All you can do is save yourself from them. And that takes military force.
Fortunately, we do have enough military force. But we need two other things to save ourselves. We need the will to use it, for many decades if necessary. In fact, for all practical purposes we should treat this war as a permanent fact of life -- in Cheney’s words, “the new normalcy.” And we need allies. The neoconservatives have quietly renounced their once-trumpeted unilateralism. Now, Cheney says simply “The United States can't do it all by itself.”
The will and the allies are connected. If the American people don’t show the will to go on fighting, the allies will fear that we’ll abandon them. Our promises to help them by going to war, and staying at war until we win, won’t be credible. So the allies won’t sign up for the fight. They’ll just let the enemy go on creating more chaos.
That’s precisely what the enemy is counting on. Al Qaeda can’t defeat us militarily, so they are trying to break the public’s will to fight. We can win, but only if we continue to show both enemy and allies that we have the “stomach” for war.
Just change “Al Qaeda” to “the communists,” and you
have the story that drove
Most specifically, listen to Cheney’s talk about
Glance at a map and you’ll see another explanation:
The four nations Cheney names surround most of
On a broader level, taking Cheney seriously means
seeing the strongest thread that ties the war on terrorism to the cold
war. Cheney’s story and the “corporate greed” story meet in liberal
internationalism, the ideology that has dominated the foreign policy elite for
six or seven decades. It’s always been a
story about economic imperialism backed by
But that old story sounds increasingly less convincing
today, even to the left side of the elite audience. The world is getting too
complicated. The “natives” are too sophisticated to be pushed around by high-tech
military toys. That’s why there is more and more talk of using “soft power” to
gain the same ends. That talk may begin to influence the thinking of the masses
and thus influence
Just as likely (maybe more so), the right wing of the
elite will strike back with crude appeals to American will and “stomach” demonstrated
via old-fashioned military power. And they may well succeed, as Ronald Reagan
did in the wake of
However things play out, the peace movement cannot
afford to ignore this crucial piece of the picture. It’s too dangerous to
overlook the domestic political power of Cheney’s neo-neocon
rhetoric. It has to be met head-on with a very different story. If we want to
look back to the ‘60s, we can make the civil rights movement, not
On the broadest level, Cheney’s talk of credibility and will is important because it explains not merely why we fight, but why we lose. The Iraqis, like the Vietnamese, know exactly what they want: to rid their nation of military occupiers, so that they run their own country their own way.
We, Cheney says, are fighting mainly to send a symbolic message to the world, and to ourselves. It’s a demonstration war. It’s war as theater. The victory we want to score can happen only inside the minds of the audience. That’s why we can’t ever know for sure when we’ve won. We can’t even say for sure what “victory” might mean. And that means our fighters won’t ever have the same zeal for victory as their opponents.
That should be a fairly simple message to get across to the public. But first we have to take some of Cheney’s words seriously.
[ HOME ] [ COURSES ] [ RESEARCH ] [ CONTACT ME ]
|[ OP-ED COLUMNS / SINCE SEPT. 11 ] [ PUBLIC CITIZEN ]|