"What will this nation be in years to come?"

A historian foresees a United States that crushes opposition around the world and tolerates little dissent at home.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 25, 2003 2:17AM (EST)

The president of the United States has just begun a military campaign of questionable legality against a nation that has not attacked us in any direct or obvious manner. A young Illinois congressman introduces a censure measure in the House of Representatives while the war is still in progress, arguing that the president's justification for war is "from beginning to end the sheerest deception." The president, this young congressman argues, would have "gone further with his proof if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him."

Challenging the commander-in-chief directly, the resolution continues: "Let him answer fully, fairly and candidly. Let him answer with facts and not with arguments ... Let him attempt no evasion, no equivocation."

The year, needless to say, is not 2003 and the war in question does not involve Iraq. The resolution was introduced in 1848 to challenge President James K. Polk's handling of the Mexican-American War, and the young Illinois congressman was named Abraham Lincoln. This example was brought to the public's attention recently by Stanley I. Kutler, a professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin, in an angry opinion article published in the Chicago Tribune on March 19 and subsequently disseminated far and wide via the Internet.

In his article, Kutler bemoans the "passivity" and "sense of powerlessness" he sees everywhere in American life. "The freedom and diversity we so cherish for others is strikingly lacking in our public discourse," he argues, challenging his readers not to forget the "traditions of challenge and dissent" represented by Lincoln's scathing wartime denunciation of Polk.

To be sure, there is some genuine dissent to be found in America, even once the bombs started falling. A great deal of it has been in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other major liberal-leaning cities, but some has even surfaced in Washington. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. and former President Jimmy Carter have spoken out openly against President Bush's campaign against Iraq. On Thursday, a group of six dissenting congressional Democrats, including Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, held a press conference to express their opposition to the Iraq war, at least until a representative of the House Democratic leadership reportedly tried to squelch them.

Those who tried and failed to stop the war against Iraq, whether in the streets or in the halls of Congress, may well be feeling dispirited and depressed in the face of the Pentagon's "Shock and Awe" campaign and the propagandistic, wall-to-wall war coverage of the major news networks. But when Salon reached Kutler at his home in Verona, Wis., he argued that the antiwar campaign could be viewed as the beginning of a struggle and not its end. The author of "The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon" (1990) and editor of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes" (1997) points out that the Iraq war is not likely to last long. While many commentators on both the left and right have begun to discuss the future of that troubled nation, post-Saddam, Kutler is more interested in the future of the United States.

In your Chicago Tribune article, you point out that many people have criticized sitting presidents during wartime, from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War and both world wars. Why do we see so little of that in the public discourse today?

Well, in days gone by, meaning the 1960s, we used to say he who controls the mimeograph controls the revolution. Now, the government controls the microphone and the camera.

I was in my car on Thursday, when all this was beginning, listening to Ari Fleischer on the radio. Listen, Josef Goebbels would have been proud of him! He talks about the coalition of the willing, when perhaps a better term would be the coalition of the coerced. He talked about the 45 nations or whatever it is, whose populations include X number of people and who represent Z trillion dollars in gross national product. I mean, what the hell is that about? It's utterly meaningless and irrelevant.

Basically, the media has not served us well in this crisis. It has been very, very passive. Essentially, they were eager to get this supreme television production and now they've got it, they're busy producing it.

So what lies ahead?

This war will be over in days, if not hours. How could anybody have doubted that? Now come the hard questions that we have to grapple with. First, of course is the question of what we do about Iraq. Second, and maybe more important, what are we going to do about us?

Meaning the United States and its international posture?

Yes. I mean, if we're going to go after every country with weapons of mass destruction, does that mean [Defense Policy Board chairman] Richard Perle gets to have his war with the Chinese now? Are we going to get rid of the Russians at long last? What about the French? I tell you what, Tony Blair better not look at us funny, or he's on the list too. I'm serious about this: Is Richard Perle going to run our lives now?

Fleischer had to remind reporters at a White House press conference that Perle doesn't actually work for the government in any official, paid capacity.

I'll bet he said all that with a straight face. Nixon at least did us the favor of perspiring on his upper lip when he lied. Fleischer is a hoot. As for Richard Perle, did you see the story about him today [March 21] in the New York Times? Perle is getting paid $725,000 to advise [the telecommunications firm] Global Crossing, and we're supposed to believe he's not peddling his influence with Donald Rumsfeld. In any other country, that would be a major scandal.

He also reportedly addressed a Goldman Sachs conference about how to make money off the war. The media is beginning to pay attention to him, certainly, in the wake of the Seymour Hersh piece in the New Yorker, which provoked Perle to call Hersh a "terrorist." Why isn't that a bigger story than it is?

The media can only do one story at a time. I don't know why. I mean, they all went to college and took at least four classes at the same time.

Let's get back to what you said was now the central question. Are you saying that what happens in Iraq is less important than what happens here at home?

I'm saying there are two questions: What are we going to do about Iraq? And what are we going to do about ourselves, the United States? Are we really in a new world order, where the United States can look around the world and say, "OK, you be evil, you be gone." Maybe we are, I don't know.

But the central question, I think, is what this nation will be in years to come. Saddam Hussein is a gnat, a pimple on the elephant's ass. He doesn't matter. Ants cannot defeat elephants.

But when things quiet down, after this war is over, you and the other people in the media should draw a road map explaining how we got here -- how we got from Sept. 11, 2001, to a United Nations resolution aimed at disarming Iraq that passed 15-0, to a point where no more than four members of the Security Council were willing to go to war.

I mean, I remember that after Sept. 11, President Bush promised us a "long twilight struggle" against terrorism, a war conducted in the shadows. That's a war, by the way, that the French and Germans have been very busy with. There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, oddly enough, commending them for their work in that area.

You're suggesting that the government is working through propaganda, essentially through lies. And you've already compared Ari Fleischer to Goebbels. What kind of a state is the United States turning into, in your view? What historical parallels suggest themselves?

I'm not going to answer that. I just refuse to do that. You can't study history by analogy. I tell my students you can study law by analogy, but not history.

You mean that every situation is different. OK, then without recourse to analogy. What kind of state is the U.S. becoming?

Well, we have an administration that says this is how we're going to protect the United States: We're going to engage in preemptive war, which is certainly against our tradition. We have unelected leaders like Richard Perle saying that the U.N. is dead and thank God it's dead. If you're not with us, you're against us. We have a Congress debating what it foolishly calls partial-birth abortion and changing the name of French fries to freedom fries. What is that?

We have made it clear we will brook no disagreement or dissension. We are no longer in a world of equals. Might is right and don't tread on me. That's what we're saying.

So you view this U.S. administration as dangerous to the rest of the world?

Well, their ideas are expressing contempt for rest of the world, and they are menacing the rest of the world. That speaks for itself, I think.

So you think the question now for people on the left, people who did not support the war ...

Never mind the left. Why are you asking me about the left?

Our standing in the world, and our behavior in the world to come, is really the question now. The question is what kind of opposition do we have, and what it's opposed to.

The line right now is that you can't criticize the president because we're under attack. I had a reporter from Newsweek call me for a comment about some protesters who vomited on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco. Why would you want to print that? They only wanted to print that in order to mock the protest movement, by paying attention to some asshole who's going to do that. In my day we called that "left infantilism."

What we need now is an opposition not just to this war but to this entire policy, this entire approach to the world. And I think there are people in both parties who are dubious about this whole range of issues. Sen. Chuck Hagel [R-Neb.] actually learned something from Vietnam. Sen. Charles Grassley [R-Iowa], I think, is pretty skeptical about this whole thing.

Hell, you can't rely on the Democratic Party. That's a joke.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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