More of the Same: Bush, Kerry and the War on Terror

In their vain efforts to prove themselves the most able war president, both candidates effectively circumvent the real issues raised by the war in Iraq. On several fundamental levels, the two candidates tacitly agree, presenting voters with a narrow ideological distinction upon which to base their decision. The justification of pre-emptive war, the U.S. policy of military-industrial intervention, and the distinctions between stopping terrorist organizations and disarming “rogue” nations are glossed over in favor of ever-shifting rhetorical positions which seem to follow the polls in a vertiginous ballet of double-speak.

On October 9, 2002 Senator John Kerry stood on the Senate floor and argued in favor of giving President Bush the authority to use military force to depose Saddam Hussein. His argument was detailed, emphasizing the need for weapons inspections, multilateralism, the protection of the Iraqi people, and safety of American soldiers and citizens. But in the end Kerry gave the President the authority thereby relinquishing his own power as a member of Congress.

As the war has progressed and more intelligence has surfaced, Kerry has come out against the President and his failure to follow the suggestions he outlined on the Senate floor, telling the American people that this was the wrong war at the wrong time. Bush, ever desirous to stay the course and avoid admitting miscalculations, refuses to acknowledge Kerry’s complaints, instead focusing on a relatively unsubstantial accusation of Kerry’s “flip-flopping”.

While they volley these accusations back and forth, essential questions remain unanswered. Even with multilateral support, good intelligence, and an exit strategy is the United States entitled to pre-emptive invasions in the name of counter-terrorism? And if the U.S. has this right, what are the responsibilities that come with such a right? These questions beg for a clear, hard examination of U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and the nature of terrorism, an examination both candidates seem to be unable or unwilling to provide.

For Bush, this discussion presents a massive problem. From the unilateral bravado and litany of half-baked rationales for war to Abu Ghraib and the current insurgency, Iraq has been a series of miscalculations and intelligence failures. Our military efforts have destabilized the region: tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead and hundreds of thousands more are imprisoned, homeless, wounded, or without basic necessities; making it the perfect breeding ground for an anti-American insurgency and terrorism. As a result the U.S. faces the incredible challenges of restoring order, earning the trust and confidence of the Iraqis, helping set up a democratic government, and getting out of the country. If he veers slightly from the “hard work” of “staying the course”, Bush is forced to acknowledge the quagmire of his failures and the irresponsibility of this war.

Bush’s quandary gave Kerry a rhetorical advantage in the recent presidential debates. Because the Bush administration made so many errors in Iraq, Kerry focused on these errors and avoided many of the deeper issues this war has raised. Despite his more recent criticisms, he, too, thought that an invasion might be necessary in order to disarm Saddam Hussein, and as a result he has to recognize the tragedies inherent in such a decision. As a Vietnam veteran, Kerry must be keenly aware of the repercussions of a military invasion: the death, the human rights abuses, and the demoralization of the people. Kerry speaks vaguely of a smarter war on terror, but he still believes that military intervention is a part of that equation. In this respect Bush and Kerry share a perspective about terrorism and the role of the U.S. in world affairs. They both see military intervention as a right and responsibility that the U.S. holds. They may disagree on the nuances, but the general assumption is shared.

The repercussions of this stance are far reaching. Countries around the world use the actions of the U.S. as a guidepost to their own actions. The war in Iraq has legitimized pre-emptive strike as a means of fighting terrorism. In response to the Boslan hostage massacre, the Russian government is considering worldwide preemptive measures. The newfound legitimacy of preemptive actions also raises the stakes in ongoing conflict scenarios around the world — – India-Pakistan, North and South Korea, Israel-Palestine — – places where current tensions can easily turn into large-scale hostilities. Because Iraq is a nation and not a “terrorist organization” the definition of the war on terror has been rendered even more ambiguous than when Bush declared it three years ago.

Bush inadvertently highlighted this ambiguity during his first debate with Kerry. When asked about priorities in the war on terror and the issue of going after Saddam Hussein versus going after bin Laden, Bush avoided the question entirely and instead loosely defined terrorists as “a group of folks who have such hatred in their hearts, they’ll strike anywhere.” By grouping terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and oppressive dictators like Saddam Hussein under the same, vague rubric, Bush muddies the discourse on terrorism and justifies the broader range of military intervention that would be necessary to win this “war” and defeat an “enemy” that could show up anywhere. With Al Qaeda operatives active in 60 nations worldwide and with countries like India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (known to possess WMDs), Bush’s interventionist solution to the war on terror suggests an enormous cost of human life and military resources, a cost he trivializes with the broad, sweeping language of good versus evil.

Although he fights very hard to emphasize the difference between Saddam and Bin Laden, Kerry joins Bush in this semantic game, frequently using an “us versus them” paradigm to describe his plans to win the global war on terror and referring to “the terrorists” as if there is a single, organized body devoted, as President Bush believes, to the “ideology of hatred”. Instead of appropriating a new terminology to discuss the complexities of combating terrorism, Kerry adopts the Bush administration’s language, and by default, much of the ideology fueling this language.

In all fairness to Kerry, he seems interested in finding Osama Bin Laden, securing nuclear materials, and halting the proliferation of WMDs, realistic goals which might drastically reduce the potential for major terrorist violence. But by using the language of the Bush Adminstration, a language of fear and blanket hostility, he succumbs to the same saber-rattling that has jeopardized the U.S.’s status as effective and trustworthy peacekeepers. People all over the world have organized and decided for a variety of different reasons to use violent, unconventional tactics against a variety of different targets, the U.S. being one of them. Neither candidate offers a rational explanation to this phenomenon, and both have frequently relied on emotional dualities — – freedom versus hatred, us versus them, and Democratic versus un-Democratic — – that belie the complexities of the contemporary world.

Providing a legitimate explanation for terrorism would force these two politicians to be honest about U.S. foreign policy for the past 60 years; a policy riddled with interventions, wars, coups d’etat, and the use and distribution of weapons of mass destruction. Focusing on Iraq, we can see the complex workings of U.S. foreign relations. During the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein because, at that point in time, Iran presented a greater threat to Mid-East stability. In the course of this war the U.S. supplied Hussein with the agents necessary to build biological weapons. The U.S. and other Western nations also provided Iraq with nuclear and chemical weapons technology. Fifteen years later the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and depose this same leader because it believed he possessed biological and chemical weapons.

The fact that U.S. leaders make no effort to acknowledge our role in arming Saddam Hussein with WMDs and in effect, accept no responsibility for the perceived threat he posed underlines the challenge of staying on the “good” side of the war on terror. If Bush or Kerry pointed out the U.S.’s culpability, the whole moral argument would be rendered obsolete and it would force these candidates to probe deeper, explaining to the American people the complex history of power struggles which have helped pave the way for the current rash of terrorist activity.

In addition to revealing the subtle complexities and intense ideological challenges of fighting a war on terror, the Iraq war also illustrates the economic gambit inherent in most of our military actions. We didn’t invade Iraq simply for oil contracts, but to deny the role economics plays in our wars would be turning a blind eye to the reality of our foreign policy: that the defense of our lives includes the defense of our way of life, a way of life dominated by a dependency on foreign oil.

Many Americans have accepted the notion that the U.S. fights wars only when it has to defend the freedom of people at home or abroad. For the most part, the U.S. military fights when and where it is in the best interests of the U.S. economy. The freedom of the people is often a second-tier priority, and even a cursory examination of foreign policy reveals a startling contradiction between belief and action. The Cold War years provide countless examples of this interventionist policy. In Latin America and in Southeast Asia the U.S. fought on the side of pro-capitalist dictators or anti-communist insurgents with the hopes of keeping countries like Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua open to U.S. corporate interests, in complete disregard to whatever violence and human rights abuses these dictators and insurgents used to remain in power. And today, in Iraq, we have found a pro-American ally in Dr. Allawi, who already has a questionable human rights reputation as he executes prisoners without the due process of a fair trial.

Striving to keep the world economy running in U.S. interests, U.S. foreign policy has often backed oppressive regimes instead of toppling them in the name of freedom. And it is out of these countries that many of the modern terrorist movements have emerged. Saudi Arabia offers an example of this pattern. Despite a history of social oppression and human rights abuses, Saudi Arabia has maintained mutually beneficial relationships with U.S. petroleum corporations for decades. Saudi Arabia owns a third of the world’s oil, and when the U.S. established relations with the Saudis in 1945 the U.S. offered security in exchange for this oil, an agreement which has been kept to this day. Meanwhile most of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian. The Saudi Arabian government has done little to quell terrorist rhetoric or action within its borders, and there is evidence that Saudi Arabians have provided funding to Hamas and the Taliban.

Our politicians avidly avoid these complex realities because they dispel the myth of a purely moral war against terror, a myth that many Americans have swallowed whole. Put simply, the 9-11 terrorist attacks were “wrong”, but that fact alone does not make the war in Iraq or our continued support for Saudi Arabia “right”.

The shocking horror of September 11th demanded an immediate explanation and the Bush administration offered an emotional, patriotic rationale which has legitimized preemptive war and categorized dissent and peace-making as un-American. John Kerry has adopted much of this rationale over the course of his campaign, asserting in plain language his belief that the U.S. President has the right to use preemptive military action to protect the American people against terrorism, but offering no explanation how exercising that right could actually establish peace in hostile countries like Iraq, Iran, or North Korea. Failing to adequately explain the 9-11 terrorist attacks and refusing to address the complexities of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, these candidates rush us headlong into what is essentially a world war. And while they assure us that this war can be won with minimum sacrifice and loss of life, the death and chaos in Iraq begs to differ.