Ira Chernus  


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 Vietnam, the groundswells for peace turned out to be short bursts followed by a long appetite for war.

Now there’s a new factor. Most Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake because we are losing it. That’s two losses in less than four decades -- a new and shocking situation that public opinion has not yet even begun to digest. It won’t be easy for them. And the remedies the Bush administration is serving up seem indigestible. We have a precious chance to provide a better medicine.

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 Iraq -- and soon, very possibly, in Iran. 

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 U.S. war policy from Truman to Nixon. How can it serve the cause of peace to take this story seriously?  In at least three ways:

Most specifically, listen to Cheney’s talk about allies:  “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.”  Why name those four countries? We are already fighting in two. Is Cheney predicting we’ll soon be fighting in the other two? Are Iraq and Afghanistan just the first rounds in a potentially endless series of war. That’s what Cheney’s talk of cold war and “new normalcy” suggests. It should scare hell out of war-shy Americans, if we can persuade them to take it seriously.

Glance at a map and you’ll see another explanation: The four nations Cheney names surround most of Iran. Is Cheney saying we’ll need allies for a coming war with Iran?  That scenario, because it’s more likely and possibly nuclear, should scare even more hell out of war-shy Americans.  They are sick of war in Iraq. They certainly don’t want another war with Iran.

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 U.S. muscle. Cheney’s version only gives a neo-neocon twist to that familiar plot line.  

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 U.S. politics too. And the peace movement can help make it so -- if we directly confront the issues Cheney is raising.

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 Vietnam.

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 Vietnam, our model for courage, will, and power. 

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.