Citizens or Spectators? Democracy Versus Empire on The Eve of “Inevitable War”

by Paul Street

Dissident Voice
February 6, 2003



The White Man’s Burden: “To Shock and Awe”


We are drifting quickly downstream towards a terrible historical waterfall.   In “a matter of weeks, not months,” America is reported likely to unleash world’s history most lethal military machine on Iraq - a poor, battered and effectively disarmed nation that poses minimal danger even to its own neighbors.  Iraqi casualties in the event of this “war” could run well into the hundreds of thousands.  One hesitates to estimate casualties if the killing machine’s masters act on their threat to use nuclear weapons.   


The United States “Defense” Department plans to pulverize Iraq with 800 cruise missiles in the space of two days.  “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad,” boasts a senior Pentagon official.  The Pentagon is hoping for a “Hiroshima effect,” leading Iraq to “quit, not fight.” It is forgotten or (more likely) never learned that Japan sought to surrender prior to the criminal Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, conducted to put the Soviets and other potential challengers in their proper postwar place.


The openly expressed intent of the planned attack is to shatter Iraq “physically, emotionally and psychologically,” consistent with American strategist Harlan Ullman’s racist theory of “Shock and Awe.”  By this theory, the non-Caucasian survivors of attack from the skies called upon them by the Great White Masters of the World will climb out of their rubble to shake their heads in stunned admiration for the God-like capacities of the Great Men chosen to lead them into freedom.  “Thank you,” they will say, “for saving us by destroying our homes and communities, destroying our primary health care system and denying clean water to our children.”


Iraq’s population, it should be recalled, is still reeling from an earlier American-led assault that laced parts of their country with cancer-causing Depleted Uranium and devastated basic civilian infrastructure, including water-treatment and electricity plants.  The Iraqi people have been living and dying for more than a decade under the American-led regime of economic sanctions – an officially unmentionable “weapon of mass destruction” that particularly marks small children for passage to the hereafter.


Such is the White Man’s Burden, shared by George W. Bush and his British “poodle” (a pit-bull to weaker states) Tony Blair.  They have the duty to inflict the necessary Judeo-Christian pain on unfortunate Arabs, tragically born into pre-“modern” lands that contain resources prized by “Western Civilization.”  That “civilization” is led by the only nation to incinerate live human beings (non-Caucasians of course) with atomic ordnance, quite unnecessarily. It is useful, politically, that the burden can be carried with crucial assistance from two African-American White House policymakers – affirmative action beneficiary/opponent Condaleeza Rice and White House “dove” Colin Powell, who recently shocked naïve European leaders by joining the clamor for rapid “war” on Iraq. 


As Assistant Operations Officer of the US Americal Division in 1969, it is worth noting, Powell sought the good graces of the Great White Men by drafting the military’s initial denial of the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which 400 Vietnamese civilians died at the hands of US soldiers. In his over-hyped United Nations speech this morning, Powell tried to further the possibility for the occurrence of new US-imposed atrocities, launched from a safer distance and sparing the executioners from having to see and smell the tragic consequences of their actions.


Demonstration Effect: “To Start the World Over” 


The horrible possibilities for Iraqi civilians are of little concern to the White House. The Bush administration sees the forthcoming attack as essential to the attainment of three key objectives, for which the supposed Iraq threat is a useful pretext.  It seeks, first, to divert the domestic population from its declining socioeconomic situation, worsened by regressive social policies imposed by the same gang running the nation’s foreign policy. The second goal is to deepen US control over Middle Eastern oil resources, the world’s greatest material prize in an age of global petro-capitalism.  This aim burns with special intensity among the petroleum-soaked suits in the White House “oiligarchy.”


The Bush administration’s third aim is more grandiose.  It is to seize on what it perceives as an historic opportunity granted by the collapse of Communism and the jetliner attacks of September 2001.  It is to make it clear to the entire world that there is and can for the foreseeable future be just one powerful state and that those who resist that reality can expect their lives to become Hell. Iraq is “merely a convenient stage,” notes John Pilger, for the demonstration of this lesson.  As Pilger puts it, “the Bush cabal believe they are at a Hiroshima-like juncture in history – that they have at their disposal the means to start the world over in an apocalyptic spasm of swift and terrifying violence. The War Party believes itself to be embarked on an epochal, world-altering mission, and they are determined this moment not be squandered.” Iraqi oil, Pilger notes “is important,” but the “real prize” is “nothing less than world domination: all the riches above and below the earth and seas.” The main intent of the forthcoming war is “to break the will of the species.” 


Irrelevant Complications: The Anglo-Saxons’ “War Train Is Leaving the Station” 


Recent reports suggest that “the Bush cabal” has already decided to seize the great historical moment. According to last Sunday’s New York Times, discussion “in the corridors of the United Nations” has dropped the apparently obsolete question of whether or not Bush and Blair actually have a “war”- worthy case – fortunately, if true, for Powell, whose speech today made no such case. “The talk” now is only “about when the war [is] likely to start, and with whom [on board]. United Nations officials,” the Times reported, “[are] already looking past a war, expecting a major role in helping refugees and rebuilding Iraq.”  The title of the article in which this observation appears is “ALL ABOARD: America’s War Train is Leaving the Station.”


The fatalistic sentiment expressed in that title is validated by the comments of a senior French official who recently met with American officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.  “We got the impression,” the French official told Newsweek (February 3, 2003), “that everything was already decided.” In the minds of les anglo-saxons, as the French call the British and Americans, the “war” is “inevitable.”


Today, in a column citing elite US scholarship that devastates the White House’s strategic war argument, Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf concludes that “the war, it appears, is going to happen.”  He doubts that the “war” should be fought, but his only concern now is that Bush “be as committed to winning the peace as waging the war.”


For the Bush gang, believing they are chosen by God and/or History to remake the world in the skies over Iraq, it is irrelevant, apparently, that:


* No compelling evidence (despite Powell’s unimpressive efforts today) supports their argument that Saddam poses a serious threat to the US of even the Middle East.


* Iraq is unlikely to use or handoff to terrorists (again, Powell aside) any of the WMD it may have except as a desperate last response to US attack.


* Containment has “worked” (from an amoral geopolitical perspective) regarding Iraq and Saddam can be deterred. Saddam, as Wolf notes, is “brutal and rash” but “not mad. On the contrary, he is a calculator.” 


* Attacking Iraq will significantly increase the likelihood of new and terrible terror attacks and will spawn a new generation of Arab terrorists panting and planning for spectacular revenge.


* Attacking Iraq may well destabilize the domestic and regional politics of the Middle East in ways that bode darkly for the effort to restrain terrorism.   


* North Korea presents a much greater imminent threat to world peace than Iraq. So does nuclear-armed Pakistan, which could fall into extremist hands if the US attacks Iraq.


* Attacking Iraq in the name of the doctrine of pre-emptive war will likely speed the global proliferation of WMD as the world’s many potential US target states realize that possession of such weapons is the only effective deterrent to devastating US assault. This is a key lesson of the Bush administration’s divergent responses to Iraqi and North Korea.


* Attacking and then (as Bush intends) occupying Iraq (for as long as ten years) will cost US taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars they can ill afford as the Bush gang and its domestic allies deepen the skyrocketing federal deficit with plutocratic tax cuts falsely sold as “economic stimulus.”  


* The preponderant majority of Europeans are strongly opposed to Bush’s plans.  According to American-based Time Magazine, 4 out of 5 Europeans now see the US as “the greatest threat to world peace,” consistent with the British daily Mirror’s proclamation last summer that “The USA Is Now The World’s Leading Rogue State.”


* Most Americans disapprove of going to war alongside just one or two major allies and without UN approval.  Two-thirds of Americans wish to “take more time” (Newsweek, February 3, 2003) – remarkable when we consider that, as Noam Chomsky notes, “the US is the only country outside Iraq where Saddam Hussein is not only reviled but also feared.” Even the openly imperialist Arab-bating New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who supports the planned attack, had to acknowledge today that “the base of [popular American] support for what he call’s Bush’s “audacious project” is “incredibly narrow.”   


* Not surprisingly, a significant large-scale peace movement (opposing Bush’s plans on moral as well as practical grounds) has already arisen in the West, including the US. 


* Bush’s war plans are opposed by many “elite” officials, intellectuals and planers in the US as well as Europe and around the world, making it easy for left critics to find “respectable” arguments against the “inevitable” assault. Bush’s “war” plans and the doctrines guiding them came in for harsh criticism from various global elites gathered last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  State Department Director of Policy Planning Richard Haas left Davos acknowledging that America “has yet to persuade the international community” that “war” is “necessary.” 


All of this appears to be irrelevant to the Bush gang, except perhaps in speeding the drive to “war.”  In the view of American planners, it seems, these irritating little complications – including the opposition of most of the world’s people, even in the imperial state – combine with seasonal weather patterns to put a premium on Rapid Deployment.  As skepticism spreads, the political window on the Bush gang’s perceived historic opportunity is seen by them as closing along with the meteorological one.   


Cowboy Chutzpah: “Success Begets Success”


We should not, however, underestimate the White House’s determination to move forward in the face of opposition at home and abroad.  Beneath a populist veneer crafted by Republican political strategists, Bush and his “posse” (as he likes to call his White House team) are sneering elitists who see themselves as born to rule.  They imagine themselves beyond democratic constraint, like Wild West cowboys outside the reach of the law.


 It is a sentiment born out by the personally inept and broadly unpopular Bush’s remarkable rise to power, consistently enabled by family riches, family name and the special intervention of powerful allies in private (e.g. Enron) and public (e.g., the Governors’ Office of Florida and the US Supreme Court) domains.  And it doesn’t help that Bush thinks of himself as the world’s most powerful spokesperson for “Jesus Christ, the savior,” who he cited as “the political philosopher or thinker” he most identified with during Republican presidential debates in late 1999. 


Whatever its members’ feelings about God and Jesus, the Bush cabal has an abiding faith in the convenient capacity of saber-rattling and foreign-policy crises, real or manufactured, to restart lagging approval numbers. It also believes in the providential power of such crises to divert the domestic population from nagging little problems like the disappearance of jobs, pensions, savings, and budget surplus.  Such are the lessons of 9-11, which rehabilitated (or perhaps habilitated) a mediocre and illegitimate Presidency, and the November 2002 mid-term elections, when Bush’s handlers kept media and electorate properly focused on Evil Others overseas.   


Moreover, the Bush “posse” expects the “war” to be a quick and stunning victory that will erase significant opposition through sheer effectiveness. The predominantly Caucasian populace of the richest nations are included among the audience targeted by the White House for “Shock and Awe.”   Thus, Powell recently “stunned his fellow foreign ministers” at the UN “by comparing imminent war in Iraq to the US invasion of Panama in 1989.”  Powell, Newsweek reports, “dismissed French and German criticisms by saying that everyone complained, too, when Washington removed Noriega.  But the outcome went well, as the country was returned, democratized, to its people.”  “Success begets success,” Powell told the flabbergasted ministers, who should ask their aides to dig up some richer background material on the White House’s “dove.” 


Powell’s Panama analogy is flawed in numerous ways, but it usefully reflects the dangerous, over-the-top arrogance of an administration that thinks its capacity for violence places it beyond meaningful popular and global restraint. Also likely entering the administration’s calculations are its expectation that the official US “opposition” party (the Democrats) and America’s “mainstream” corporate-state media (including one full-time “news” network [Fox] that openly pants for “war”) will continue to enable the Bush war party.  The “liberal” US media and Democrats do this by passing on the bizarre notion that Iraq somehow poses a serious and non-deterrable threat to the American people, significantly linked to 9-11’s likely perpetrators and other non-state terror networks.


Not in Democracy’s Name: Citizens or Spectators?


The corporate-state media’s anti-democratic role in the imperial “homeland” is multifaceted. It includes both the classic Orwellian task of misinformation and filtering and the more (Aldous) Huxley-esque role of diverting “the masses” through mind-numbing pseudo-entertainment and titillation. Especially noticeable in recent corporate-state coverage and commentary is the related tone of citizen irrelevance. Observing the “mainstream” media in America, it becomes increasingly difficult not to cringe at the extent to which great events are presented in a way that places history beyond the agency and input of the citizenry. Wars, tax cuts, welfare reductions, prison increases  - as framed by dominant state-capitalist media, these and other developments are meant to be passively experienced by the populace, not to elicit citizen participation. There is suspense, perhaps, about certain outcomes, particularly those for which it is deemed necessary to rally mass consent (especially war).  Still, the people in the audience (the citizenry) are not expected or supposed to significantly influence policy. The latter is left to the Great White Men, who rule the world, with occasional help from “experts” of color (e.g. Rice and Powell), in accordance with mystical mandates of God and History.  


The democratic tradition, in whose name America’s policymakers speak, recoils in horror at this dark framing. History, this tradition teaches, is not ordained in advance and from above.  Nothing in the realm of human affairs and public policy, it reminds us, is “inevitable.”  There is but one past but the present and the future are indeterminate, with real life outcomes contingent upon numerous “factors,” including the intelligence, consciousness, instincts, capacity and will – the agency – of “we the people.” 


The point of democracy is not to plant citizens in front of an-elite programmed crystal ball, giving them instruction across the vast electronic coliseum on what is planned for their future so that they can properly and safely adjust. The point, rather, is for them to be actively engaged, fully informed and strongly empowered in shaping the future in accordance with their collective needs, aspirations and capabilities.   


We are not merely spectators, the democratic tradition beseeches us, to the great events of our time.  We are citizens, richly engaged, deeply implicated and fundamentally accountable for the actions of our elected officials and other public servants. We are present at and involved in our own making and in the making of world we share with others. 


If ever there has ever been a time to revisit these democratic teachings, it is now, as the Bush cabal prepares to write its authoritarian notion of The Way Life Should Be into history, with horrible and unimaginable consequences for future generations.


Paul Street is a political essayist and social policy critic in Chicago, Illinois. Email: His publications include “More Than Entertainment – A Critical Review of Neil Gabler’s, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,” Monthly Review (February 2000): 58-62.







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