One war that Bush has already lost

The campaign against Iraq is dogged by the American establishment's defeat in the Culture Wars at home.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

After the bombings in Bali, President George W Bush declared his determination to fight the war on terror ‘on two fronts’, pursuing both Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorists he blamed for the attacks. But behind Bush’s strong words, and despite the fact that Congress has granted him war powers to deal with Iraq, there are increasing doubts about America’s ability to see this mission through.

Tensions at the heart of the Bush administration, between the ‘doves’ of the State Department and the ‘hawks’ at Defense, are becoming more and more public. And outside Bush’s inner circle, the post-11 September national consensus is beginning to come apart at the seams, as one prominent US commentator notes:

‘Yes, the president had his way, finally, with Congress. But the foreign policy establishment seems distinctly uneasy about war with Iraq. The military establishment is not necessarily any more enthusiastic; Gen Anthony Zinni, President Bush’s own sometime Mideast envoy, has spoken repeatedly against invasion and in favour of containment. The Central Intelligence Agency has let its coolness to the invasion idea become known.’ (1)

The same observer notes the ‘startling rapidity’ with which expressions of anti-war sentiment that would have been condemned as unpatriotic a year ago, have now ‘become profligate’, even in ‘mainstream political quarters’. Meanwhile no less a newspaper than the New York Times has been accused of being ‘left of the Guardian‘ for repeatedly questioning the Bush administration’s war moves (2).

Why are prominent Americans, most of whom are neither pacifists nor anti-interventionist and all of whom hate Saddam, becoming distinctly unenthusiastic about Bush’s war on Iraq? The lack of consensus is a consequence of the most important defeat that the American establishment has ever suffered: its defeat in the ‘Culture Wars’ within the USA.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, even as the USA confirmed its status as the leading power on Earth, a major battle ensued at home over the meaning of America. Traditional notions concerning the innate superiority of the American way of life, and the USA’s sense of its own ‘Manifest Destiny’ on the world stage, were inexorably undermined. Everything about the past was called into question, notably through widespread allegations that America’s history was tainted by racism and colonialism.

These bitterly contested Culture Wars corroded old certainties about truth, justice and the American way. Without a clear consensus around established values at home, it became much harder to underpin America’s adventures abroad. This came to a head around the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s, where dissent became respectable and large sections of the American middle-classes simply refused to fight.

In the years since America was defeated in south-east Asia, there have been attempts to overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and reassert more traditional conservative values, during the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s and again under Bush junior today. Yet the underlying cultural trend has continued to drift in other directions.

Thus President Bush today finds himself under fire for doing things that would once have been considered pretty uncontroversial. Take the recent announcement of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive intervention. To listen to his high-level critics, one might think that no American president had ever proposed an interventionist foreign policy before. In reality, ever since President Monroe announced his Monroe Doctrine of policing US interests in Latin America in December 1823, the White House has repeatedly declared its right and willingness to intervene where it deems necessary. (Even President Jimmy Carter, who has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, announced an interventionist doctrine of his own 22-years ago.)

Or look at the criticism the Bush administration has faced for proposing ‘regime change’ in Iraq. Few of these critics complained when, as recently as 1999, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a war against Serbia (without, note, the agreement of the UN) with the underlying intention to remove the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. Importantly, that war was presented as a defence of the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, using the contemporary language of humanitarian intervention. Since traditional notions of American superiority became publicly indefensible, the new politics of human rights have provided just about the only way for the USA and the West to justify their foreign interventions. Even the conservative Bush felt obliged to stage humanitarian gestures to legitimise his war in Afghanistan last year, dropping food parcels on the locals at the same time as bombs. But the White House has found it far harder to present any plausible humanitarian case for invading Iraq.

The true scale of the setback suffered by the US establishment in the Culture Wars of the late twentieth century is now becoming clear. If ever an event seemed likely to recreate a consensus about what America stands for at home and in the world, it was surely the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In the aftermath of 11 September, America once more seemed united under the Stars-and-Stripes, and the few voices of dissent were choked off as US forces launched their ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. Yet a year later, the Bush administration seems to have lost much of that goodwill.

In fact the cracks in the consensus were there to be seen almost immediately after 11 September. The lack of certainty about America’s role in the world was starkly evident in ambivalent public attitudes towards Islam.

As we noted on spiked at the time, the Bush administration itself betrayed an underlying defensiveness about the war on terror, going out of its way to insist that it was not at war with Islam. So while Tony Blair ostentatiously carried the Koran on his globe-trotting mission, Bush the Christian conservative slipped off his shoes to visit a Mosque. Others went much further. Alongside their American flags, many displayed signs declaring their district a ‘Hate-free zone’. Students and faculty at top universities rushed to protest against an alleged (but largely invisible) wave of American ‘Islamophobia’. Some wore Islamic dress for a day to show sympathy with Muslim students. Many more signed up for courses on Islam and the Middle East.

A year later, the way that cultural tensions shape attitudes to the war on terror has become more obvious. One current controversy involves the official Poet Laureate of New Jersey, Imamu Amiri Baraka, whose poem ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ argues that the US intelligence agencies knew in advance about the attacks on New York and Washington. It ends by asking ‘Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the twin towers/To stay at home that day/Why did Sharon stay away’ (3). The interesting thing is that he wrote this nonsense in October 2001 – months before New Jersey officials appointed him their Poet Laureate. At a recent literary ceremony, Baraka not only refused calls to resign, but was cheered loudly for attacking the Bush administration as white supremacists and the world’s most dangerous terrorists.

But the fall-out from the Culture Wars is not only felt on campuses and in high cultural circles. The calling into question of America’s traditional values has had a corrosive effect on every institution, even including the US military. For some years there has been a shortage of recruits willing to fight for their country. Although 11 September prompted over-aged veterans to try to re-join the armed services, there was no wave of young men queuing to enlist as there had been after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘Military officials and others who track recruitment trends’, noted one August 2002 report, ‘say the number of candidates seeking to join the four military branches appears largely unaffected by the terrorist attacks’ (4). Or as an even more recent headline has it, ‘No tidal wave of recruits to fight Saddam’ (5).

Even more significantly, however, the Culture Wars and the Vietnam experience have undermined the effectiveness of those who do join the US armed forces. Traditional military values now vie with therapeutic notions and political correctness in the training of recruits. Back in 1999 during the Kosovo war, one report noted concerns ‘that the [US] army sometimes seems determined to turn itself into one big, happy diverse family’. It reported how a female Lieutenant-General had lectured battled-hardened sergeants-major on ‘the army’s new politeness policy, dubbed “COO”‘ (Consideration of Others), and warned them that ‘insensitive’ soldiers ‘would not be tolerated’ (6).

In recent years, the battle plans of the US military have been shaped by what one defence expert describes as a ‘post-heroic strategy’, where the overriding priority appears to be to avoid American casualties, as symbolised by the motto ‘leave no man behind’. The result has been the kind of long-distance wars fought in Kosovo and Afghanistan, with the US air force blasting everything in sight from a great height while commanders refuse to send ground forces in to engage the enemy. The results of this reluctance to fight can be seen in the debacle of the Afghan campaign (7).

No doubt there are many within the Bush camp who hope to use the campaign against Saddam’s Iraq to reverse conservatism’s cultural losses. As liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has it, for the ‘Bush hawks’ this ‘is the latest chapter in the culture wars, the conservative dream of restoring America’s sense of Manifest Destiny…. Extirpating Saddam is about proving how tough we are to a world that thinks we got soft when that last helicopter left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon [Vietnam] in 1975′ (8).

Yet however grand their militaristic ambitions might be, all the evidence of the real world today suggests that the Bush hawks will be unable to mobilise the American elite to fight that kind of all-out war against Iraq. Against the background of the Culture Wars rout, they seem so incapable of projecting a convincing case for war that even many of their natural allies appear unwilling to sign up.

There is no strong or coherent anti-war movement either. Most of Bush’s prominent critics are no more anti-war or anti-intervention than he is. The other side of the Culture War divide is characterised by cynicism, indifference, defeatism and, frankly, the moral cowardice of those who agree with Bush’s ridiculous suggestion that Saddam is another Hitler, yet balk at the consequences of dealing with him. One Washington Post pundit memorably describes the Democrat doubters as split between those ‘worried about the unintended consequences of action’ and those worried ‘about the unintended consequences of both action and inaction’ (9). Principles are thin on the ground among opponents of war who appear even more motivated by fear than does the administration.

The logical consequence of the crisis of authority in Washington is that the 200,000-strong invasion of Iraq that has been talked about will not happen. Bush will not be able to summon the will to carry off any such grandiose scheme of conquest.

But the path of war is not logical. It is impossible to predict how events might take on a dynamic of their own in such a highly charged atmosphere. No doubt there are endless combinations of bombing campaigns and military incursions on the Pentagon’s drawing board.

One thing we can be more certain about, however, is that whichever option they pursue against Iraq, the ultimate result will be to diminish rather than enhance America’s global influence, and intensify strife within the USA itself. However the war against Iraq ends, the Culture War will continue to cast its shadow over America in the twenty-first century.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Goodbye to the Vietnam Syndrome, New York Times, 15 September 2002

(2) A war of words, Guardian, 9 September 2002

(3) N.J. Poet Laureate Defends His 9/11 Work, Washington Post, 3 October 2002

(4) Military finding it hard to recruit, Seattle Times, 16 August 2002

(5) No tidal wave of recruits to fight Saddam, Daily News

(6) ‘US memories of Vietnam chip away at morale’, The Times (London), 2 April 2002

(7) See Military imprecision, by Brendan O’Neill; The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O’Neill; Why the marines messed up, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) ‘Culture War with B-2’s’ New York Times, 22 September 2002

(9) EJ Dionne, quoted in ‘Bush’s case for war on Iraq’, the editor, Guardian, 12 October 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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