We are fighting for freedom -- including the right to vigorously debate. But the war fever crowd wants us all to march in step.
Truth is not the only early casualty of war. So is rational thought. War breeds hysteria and a rush to conformity. The herd, under attack, instinctively groups together and seeks assurance that everyone is trustworthy and loyal, everyone is primed for defense.
That’s what we’re experiencing in our country in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks — assaults so seemingly out of the blue, dramatically violent and diabolically orchestrated that they shook the nation’s confidence to its core. Within hours after the terror offensive, before the shock had begun to fade, the country’s political leaders and media elite rushed to assure us that the country was united and resolute. This was certainly true when it came to giving aid and comfort to the victims of the attacks. These were days of unprecedented national heroism and generosity. But as the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly clear that when it comes to the more vexing questions of why we were attacked and how we should respond, there is no national consensus yet — nor even a clear consensus within the Bush administration.
The country is undergoing a cram course in geopolitics, comparative religion and military strategy that is long overdue — as well as a deeper soul-searching that is inevitable after this type of trauma. All of this brings with it a certain amount of intellectual and political friction, which is necessary and good for the country. As the better angels of the Bush administration have admonished us, the last thing America should do is let loose the usual round of ineffectual military fireworks — a spasmodic reaction that might temporarily salve the wound to the nation’s pride, but create even deeper troubles for us. What we need more than anything right now is careful deliberation and spirited debate. We need, in short, for our democracy to come fully alive.
Unfortunately, the calls for herd-like conformity are on the rise. In the last week, self-appointed sheep dogs from across the political spectrum have begun yapping at our heels, pushing us to all think alike and move in the same direction. When “Politically Correct” host Bill Maher dared suggest that the American habit of shooting cruise missiles at enemies from safe distances was “cowardly,” he was quickly alerted that he had gone beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse — even though that’s his job. (Remember, his show is called “Politically Incorrect.”) Several local TV stations promptly dropped his show, FedEx and other sponsors cancelled their contracts, and even after Maher issued an apology, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer felt compelled to pile on — despite the fact that his own boss had also snorted at the cruise missile strategy, which, in the president’s words, only menaced camels’ behinds and empty tents. Fleischer used the Maher controversy to issue this creepy Orwellian pronouncement: “Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” (Creepier still, someone in the White House then took scissors to the official transcript of Fleischer’s remarks to make them less chilling.)
Susan Sontag was similarly singled out for censure in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and other thought-police strongholds. Her crime? She ventured to say that the American people are not being served by a political and media caste that seeks only to reassure us, instead of enlightening us: “Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is OK … We have a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall … But everything is not OK … The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
One might not agree with Sontag’s characterization of the terror attack, but it certainly should be allowed for consideration amid all the mandatory media flag-waving. Even those who are bent on a massive military response would do well to know more about our enemy before we attack. One can agree, as I do, with Christopher Hitchens’ definition of our enemy as “Islamic fascists” bent on imposing the same “bleak and sterile theocracy” on our society as they have on theirs — and still call for prudence as we contemplate the enormous challenge of counterattacking a rising ideology, not simply an army. This fanaticism is made even more daunting an enemy by the fact that it has gained a foothold not just in rogue nations, but throughout the Middle East, even in so-called friendly countries, and perhaps most alarmingly in politically unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Certainly there are voices on the left — Noam Chomsky’s among the most prominent — for whom no U.S. military action would ever be justified, even when the nation is directly attacked as it just was. But these reflexively anti-American or doctrinaire pacifist voices are a small minority within the vast population to the left of George W. Bush. And yet to conservatives like David Horowitz and Andrew Sullivan they are representative of a sprawling fifth column of “appeasers.” This broad-brush attack ,of course, serves these conservative pundits’ agenda. They claim they are motivated by a profounder sense of patriotism than their opponents’ when they demand that Bush critics fall in line behind the president. But their true aim is political. They want to use the current crisis to settle old political scores, rally support for our less-than-commanding commander in chief, and stifle legitimate dissent. This is not patriotic, it’s antidemocratic. What’s more, it’s against the national interest.
As Bush administration officials keep reminding us, everything is different about this war. It’s clear that our leaders have not yet figured out how to deal with this enormously complex threat. They’re not even certain it is a war. What we need now, more than ever, is the widest and most energetic debate as the country makes sense of what has happened and how to respond. We don’t need blind conformity. We need fearless self-scrutiny. What should the U.S. role be in the Middle East? How should we strike back against our foes without spreading the fires of Islamic fanaticism? Why do the impoverished populations of the region find radical fundamentalism more enthralling than the benefits of Western culture?
But the sheep dogs are quick to snarl that this kind of talk is left-wing equivocation. Bellicosity now rules, from the New Republic, which denounces the “fatalism” of America’s cautious “elites,” to the Weekly Standard, which accuses the New York Times of “moral idiocy” for running occasional pieces critical of Bush in our time of crisis. Some of the loudest saber-rattling has been coming from the National Review, which on this week’s cover roars the full-throated battle cry, “Let’s Roll!” and predictably attacks the “blame America first” fifth columnists in our midst.
As usual, it’s often the armchair generals — like radio brigadier Rush Limbaugh, who managed to avoid military service during the Vietnam war — who cry the loudest for blood. These soft-fleshed but eager warriors were undoubtedly dismayed by this week’s reality check from the Defense Department’s reigning hawk, Paul Wolfowitz: “I think it can’t be stressed enough that everybody who is waiting for military action needs to rethink this thing.”
So far, the Bush administration has displayed admirable patience despite the pressure for immediate vengeance. After his swaggering cowboy talk of “smoking them out” and “hunting them down,” Bush has tempered his language, reportedly on the sage advice of his more experienced father. Under the leadership of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration is now working hard to assemble an international coalition, including key Arab states, to isolate and defeat the terrorist movement. This difficult task is made even tougher because of the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration’s first seven months, a go-it-alone strategy that alienated even our European allies, got the U.S. thrown off the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and put us on the Middle East sidelines as the growing sparks from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lit up the entire region.
Before Sept. 11, Powell himself seemed sidelined, pushed aside by administration hard-liners. Fortunately, in the past two weeks, the White House seems to have recognized that it urgently needs Powell’s experience and diplomatic craft. This global acuity certainly can’t come from the president himself, one of the least traveled and most internationally uninformed chief executives in American history (a man, let us recall, who during last year’s campaign couldn’t name the leader of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf — a figure who now looms large in Bush’s first global crisis).
While Powell is a reassuring force to the international community, he is a primary target of the bellicose American right. While clamoring for the left to keep its silence and rally behind the president, these conservatives have no qualms about hectoring Bush, demanding that he jettison Powell and declare war on virtually the entire Islamic world. In a recent open letter signed by over 40 leading conservatives, including William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Kristol, the group pressures Bush to not stop with bin Laden and his network, but to extend the war into Iraq, as well as Iran and Syria if they don’t withdraw support from the radical Hezbollah group.
It’s not only conservative pundits calling for democracy to be put on hold for the duration. More distressingly, the silence-is-patriotic mentality has also gained momentum in the Democratic Party, the press and even liberal activist circles. On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders suddenly sound accommodating about Bush’s missile defense plan — an astronomically expensive and militarily dubious dream that, in light of what we’ve learned about terrorists’ likely choice of weapons, cries out for more congressional scrutiny than ever. Many Democratic challengers in next year’s elections are also throwing in the towel, declining to run after somehow concluding that democracy is unpatriotic in days like these. And Jimmy Carter, who last summer could find nothing to commend about the Bush administration, now calls upon his fellow citizens to support the president with “complete unity.”
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has taken down its “W Watch” department from its Web site, for fear of not seeming sufficiently respectful toward the president. “Now is the time for rallying together as a nation; the public will judge very harshly any groups whom they view as violating this need for unity,” announced the Sierra Club spokesman, sounding as if he had been programmed by Ari Fleischer. Of course, Big Oil’s friends in the Bush administration and GOP felt no similar need to make peace with the Sierra Club during these days of national unity, taking the opportunity to renew their assault on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The major press organizations have also taken pains to seem properly deferential toward the Bush administration. There were no loud cries about press freedom when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that much of the U.S. war on terrorism would be conducted in secret. One military official went even further, blithely informing the Washington Post, “We’re going to lie about things.” While not even the most aggressive reporters would demand classified information that could put soldiers’ lives at risk, the Pentagon clearly wants to go further than that in controlling news about the war. “No more televised Vietnams” remains the Defense Department’s mantra; Bush II wants to keep the news as scripted as it was during Bush I’s Persian Gulf War.
An elite press consortium made up of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN also apparently handed the Bush administration another big favor this week when it indefinitely delayed making public the results of its Florida election recount. The long-awaited analysis of 200,000 disputed ballots from the presidential election was supposed to be published on Monday, but the Times quietly informed its readers in a Sunday essay by political reporter Richard Berke that the “move might have stoked the partisan tensions” and “now seems utterly irrelevant.” A journalist involved in the project later told Inside.com, “There’s a sense that now is not the time to be writing about something that might make it look like someone else should have been elected president.”
The Times’ decision to withhold information that is clearly the public’s right to know is a startling one, and in its desire to avoid reopening potential wounds, more therapeutic than journalistic. In 1971, a much more divisive time in the nation’s history, the Times was motivated more by First Amendment considerations than by appeals to a narrow patriotism when it pressed to publish the Pentagon Papers. In lifting the restraining order that the Nixon administration had brought against the Times, U.S. District Judge Murray Gurfein, a Nixon appointee, agreed that the paramount value for the press — even in a time of heightened national security concerns — must be the public’s right to know. “The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone,” declared Gurfein in his surprisingly passionate decision. “Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” It would be wise of the Times and the rest of the press to keep these words in mind during these fearful times as the government feels emboldened to clamp down on the flow of information.
Some smaller newspapers were much more blatant in their hurry to abandon the First Amendment. Earlier this week, the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., fired a columnist who criticized Bush for “skedaddling” on Sept. 11 and “hiding in a Nebraska hole.” The paper’s editor, Dennis Roler, announced that only “responsible and appropriate” criticism of the president would now be allowed. Perhaps he hasn’t read the Walter Lippman quote emblazoned on the top of his own Web site: “The theory of a free press is that truth will emerge from free discussion, not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account.”
Les Daughtry Jr., publisher of the Texas City Sun, showed an equally uncertain grasp of the principle of free speech when he promptly fired city editor Tom Gutting for writing a similar opinion piece about Bush. Daughtry then felt compelled to engage in a humiliating bout of Maoist-style abnegation, apologizing not only to his readers but to “all our country’s leaders and especially President George W. Bush” for temporarily allowing his city editor to exercise his First Amendment rights. Feeling he had not gone quite far enough in his exaltation of the president, Daughtry penned a second letter to his readers. declaring that Bush has “the full support of virtually every citizen in the United States, except, of course, Tom.”
America suffered grievous, unprovoked injuries on Sept. 11 that no nation should passively endure. A vast majority of the American people ardently supports President Bush’s vow to bring the organizers of this terror “to justice, or justice to them.” But maintaining this consensus as Bush leads the country into battle will not be easy. To do this the administration must convey a clarity of purpose and an honesty which have thus far been in short supply. When White House vizier Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer feed an egregious lie to the public about why the president did not immediately return to the White House on Sept. 11 — insisting that Air Force One and the White House were under threat — and then try to spin their way out of it when the story unravels, that does not inspire confidence. When Colin Powell promises that the administration’s evidence against Osama bin Laden will be shortly revealed to the world and the next day this evidence is suddenly declared classified information, it only adds to the skepticism about the government’s anti-terror operation, even among our allies.
Franklin Roosevelt proved a master at building support for last century’s epic struggle against fascism. Before Pearl Harbor, he faced strong isolationist and anti-draft sentiment; afterwards, he had to grapple with a press and public prone to marked mood swings, rising and falling with the country’s fortunes on the battlefield, and a home front that was often torn by racial and labor conflicts. Yet he reached out to the Republican Party to build bipartisanship, cultivated the press, and most importantly eloquently conveyed to the American people why we were fighting and the enormous significance of the outcome. He mobilized the country for its historic conflict without resorting to the totalitarian measures of our enemies — with the glaring exception of the internment of Japanese Americans, a tragic misstep that some of our current paranoid fringe are now clamoring to inflict on Arab-Americans. “Though the United States was miserably unprepared for war in the spring of 1940,” observed Doris Kearns Goodwin in “No Ordinary Time,” her study of FDR’s wartime White House, “Roosevelt never doubted that the American people would eventually win the war, that the uncoerced energies of a free people could overcome the most efficient totalitarian regime.”
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, in contrast, utterly failed to build a winning consensus for the Vietnam war. This was partly due to the two presidents’ paranoid and autocratic style. But, more significantly, Johnson and Nixon were in charge of a war that was vastly more difficult to justify than World War II. While a case could certainly be made that defeating a communist takeover of the country was a noble cause, it was much harder to convince Americans that the North Vietnamese were a threat to their way of life. And the U.S. military, despite its strenuous efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, never succeeded in uncoupling the communist dictatorship of Hanoi from the legitimate nationalist aspirations of the country’s majority.
America’s latest war has already opened many of the old Vietnam wounds, with conservative critics charging that the current voices of “appeasement” are the same ones that stabbed the U.S. in the back in Southeast Asia. But this is not the right lesson to take from Vietnam. It was not the antiwar movement that blocked an American victory over Hanoi; the war itself was unwinnable without escalating it to a level that would have risked nuclear war with China and the Soviet Union. It was unwinnable because most Vietnamese, who we were ostensibly fighting for, did not want us to win it. The lesson, then, to be learned from Vietnam as we confront our latest totalitarian foe is that the American soldiers must never again be sent to countries where their mission is impossible and the majority of people regard them as the enemy.
Peter Feaver in the conservative Weekly Standard persuasively argues that the best analogy to “America’s New War,” in CNN’s horrid marketing phrase, is the Cold War. Like the global war against communism, the war against terrorism must be fought on an ideological as well as military level, and much of it will be carried out through diplomacy, espionage and “shadow conflicts.”
Considering that our enemy is a fanatical strain of Islam that has taken deep root in a burgeoning, youthful generation throughout much of the Muslim world, the struggle is also likely to be protracted, lasting much longer than one presidential term. “If fundamentalism seems particularly rife in the Muslim world this is because of the population explosion,” observes religious scholar Karen Armstrong. “To give just one telling example, there were only 9 million Iranians before World War II; today there are 57 million and their average age is 17. Radical Islam, with its extreme and black and white solutions, is a young person’s faith.”
Our “war” on terrorism, then, only fits the definition in a metaphorical sense. It will be vastly harder to conduct such a struggle, because the enemy is a belief system, not a nation state. And our first goal must be to understand why Western culture — with all its consumer toys, action movies and seemingly unlimited freedoms — is not as compelling to these millions of young people as a religious mission whose greatest expression of faith is martyrdom.
In light of the complexity and likely duration of this conflict, it is essential for the Bush administration to build a deeply entrenched public consensus — and this can’t be done by lying, hiding information, short-circuiting civil liberties or any of the other old “national security” techniques of suspending democracy. Consensus, instead, must come over time from thorough and open debates, as Feaver recognizes: “Many of these debates will be specious, but not all will be. Indeed, the Second Cold War may be harder to fight than the last one, leaving ample room for responsible disagreements among reasonable people. We will have to nurture those debates, learn from them, and forge the best possible policy in an extraordinarily difficult political climate.”
In the end, it won’t be military superiority that determines the outcome of this war. As our implacable fundamentalist foes have told the world, this is a war of values. We cannot win by sacrificing ours. If democracy and freedom are to win over the forces of terror and theocracy, they first must flourish at home.
Salon founder David Talbot is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” and most recently, “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love.” More David Talbot.
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