On the Eve of War?

The troop deployments, the tough talk about President Bush getting impatient (the hardly-hidden assumption being that by virtue of occupying the Oval Office he has the right and perhaps the duty to tell Saddam Hussein or any other titular leader in the world what to do and when and how to do it), the sudden flurry of activity by Arab nations to offer Saddam a soft landing are all evidence on the side of war’s inevitability. But there are countervailing currents in the body politic, not least the relatively large-scale antiwar protests this last weekend and decline in support for a war in public opinion polls.

It might still be possible to avoid this war.

Warhawks have been urging President Bush to get out front more often, more systematically and more coherently to build support for the necessary war to oust Saddam Hussein. The trouble is, from their perspective, is that he has been doing that, and support for a war keeps declining– or at least support for spending more time searching for alternatives to war to war keeps growing, which is similar but not exactly the same thing.


A Newsweek poll released Saturday, for example shows that by a 60-35 margin Americans want the administration to spend more time searching for an alternative to war. To be sure, 81 percent of Americans, in the same poll, say they would back a war if it had the full backing of the UN Security Council and concrete allied support. But without Security Council backing and with no more than one or two real allies, a majority oppose US military action.

In the CNN-Time poll – which showed Bush’s overall approval rating declining to 53 percent from the mid-60s in November – 50 percent say they approve of Bush’s handling of foreign policy while 42 percent disapprove. But last July, before the administration began it’s public campaign about the absolute necessity of regime change or disarmament or almost anything Saddam would hate, some 64 percent approved of his handling of foreign policy.

Can it be that the more President Bush explains why it is necessary to invade Iraq the fewer Americans believe him?


In part this might be because the case for war – as opposed to the case for Saddam Hussein being a nasty dictator without whom the Iraqi people would almost certainly be better off – is so weak.

Yes, Saddam has defied UN resolutions. But few of those resolutions were as airtight and bereft of diplomatic wiggle-room as currently advertised, and Iraq is hardly the first country to thumb its nose at the UN.

The Iraqi regime might well be trying desperately to develop weapons of mass destruction (that term, by the way, is a marvelous example of modern propaganda, a neologism that evokes nukes but includes weapons whose capacity for mass destruction is less than standard military artillery). But while it might pose a potential threat to some of its neighbors, mainly Israel, Iraq poses no likely threat to the United States itself. And while it might pose a potential threat, Iraq has been fairly well-behaved in recent years, however sinister its ultimate intentions might be.

Although they might not know the precise words and concepts with which to express themselves, I think a growing number of Americans are becoming uncomfortable with the kind of war some administration people want to get us into. I’ve written before about the difference between the commonly-used concept of a pre-emptive war as contrasted with a preventive war.

A pre-emptive war is a fairly well-defined concept, and generally viewed as justified if you have fairly solid evidence that an adversary is massing troops on your border, or assembling warplanes to begin a bombing campaign within days or weeks. What American warhawks are trying to pull off with Iraq is a preventive war – one waged because you’re fairly sure a regime or leader will pose a real danger somewhere down the line, even though the danger is not apparent now. An increasing number of Americans are coming to the conclusion that a preventive war is not the American way, and could create more problems than it would solve.


I did several radio shows as a guest in the last week or so, one at Yale obviously run by people of fairly leftist orientation, but the others hosted by conservatives. Ken Hamblin, the black conservative out of Colorado, asked pointed questions and seemed to be coming from a pro-administration place – although he was even-handed and polite enough that I’m not absolutely sure. But he was civil and respectful in discussing the issues of war or peace. He grasped the difference between a preventive and a pre-emptive war right away.

He did point to Iraqi challenges to the US and British-enforced "no-fly" zone in Iraq as potentially aggressive challenges that would require a response, and perhaps even a war. I suggested that over the last decade or so the no-fly situation has actually been fairly stable. The Iraqis do something provocative from time to time and the Americans and British drop some bombs. The status quo prevails. So far there’s no evidence that the Iraqis are actually trying the break the no-fly regime by shooting planes out of the sky – and it seems unlikely that they would succeed in doing significant damage if they did so.

I also talked on Chuck Harder’s program, he of what might be called the patriot Christian right with an edge, with a guest host. We got several calls, all of them against the war, and all of them, unless my ear for rhetoric is completely gone or they were excellent actors, from conservative people. One was a former Navy Seal who has nothing against American military action as a general principle but is deeply opposed to an aggressive war with Iraq. A couple of the callers made my opposition to the war sound measured and moderate.


Which brings us to the antiwar demonstrations this weekend. Most of the media covered them as I had expected, as a curious vestige of the old Sixties Movement updated to the present – like military planners, journalists are hardly immune from the fighting-the-last-war syndrome. But it was also obvious that it wasn’t only aging hippies and crazed students out on the streets.

The demonstrations were larger than expected, and largely because people whose agenda is war rather than the array of leftist causes many of the organizers want to use the war issue to push or elevate, decided to come out despite fear of being associated with a fringe group. As we get closer to the real possibility of actual war, it seems, more Americans who are not ordinarily politically active or aware are beginning to have their doubts about an invasion of Iraq jell in ways that make them want to do something to slow, if not to stop, the steady progress of the war machine.

This is essential, it seems to me, if we are to have a chance of stopping this war before an invasion is ordered. The powers-that-be need to know that it is more than fringe leftists who question this war. It might not stop the war in its tracks, but it could provide a rationale for some doubters inside the administration to have more solid footing when they argue for letting the inspectors have more time or paying more attention to the opinions of putative allies.

Of course, the possibility of broadening the movement presents a potential dilemma for some of the organizers. It is clear from the way the organizing has gone, that many of those in the forefront want a platform for protest over a broad array of issues, from Mumia Abu Jamal to racial profiling to globalization to hostility to oil companies and other large firms, rather than a series of events focused on stopping the war. To many, the war is only one in an array of important issues, and the point of having protests large enough to attract media attention is to get publicity for as many of these issues as possible, hoping a few of them will stick.

This means that if the focus is to be on the single issue of war and peace, the troops might have to take over from the leaders and organizers. Not that you would want an assembly in which all signs for other causes were banned or anything, but it shouldn’t take too much leadership to convince most would-be protesters that whatever the importance of other causes war is the key issue right now. If there’s a chance of getting it stopped, perhaps it would be worth it to keep some of the other causes under the lid, or under radar, at least for a while.

There’s some evidence this might be happening. At the San Francisco rally many of the signs were home-made rather than being the products of late-night radical workshops, and most of those were focused on the war itself rather than on ancillary causes or even the somewhat more incendiary but potentially divisive oil connection contention.

In some ways, this much visible opposition to the projected war in Iraq is quite remarkable. A few months ago, in my more cynical moments, I would have predicted that nothing even resembling a political antiwar movement was likely to develop until we started seeing body bags shipped home – or maybe until a draft that threatened a significant number of college students was reinstated. It’s easy to forget that the Vietnam antiwar movement was not a mass movement until relatively late in the game – and that much of the steam was taken out by the abandonment of the military draft.

But here are Americans aware of dangers even though they might not face them personally and even though we haven’t started to see the tangible results in the form of large numbers of dead servicepeople yet. Perhaps they will yet make an impression on the appalling people who rule us.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).