Radio Commentary -- Notes From Across the Atlantic
I’m just wrapping up 10-city speaking tour in the United Kingdom, part of “Remember Fallujah” month, a campaign by Voices in the Wilderness UK and other British groups.
It speaks well of the movement there that they had a “Remember Fallujah” month. We in the United States, with far more complicity in the destruction of Fallujah, did not.
The British media have given extensive coverage to the illegitimate use of white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon by American forces in the November assault on Fallujah. There has been almost none in the U.S. press. Indeed, a LEXIS-NEXIS search of major newspapers turns up scores of hits for papers in the UK, including lengthy and serious condemnations, but only 10 in the United States, including several short squibs, one mention of how little coverage white phosphorus has gotten, and a couple of stories simply about initial U.S. denials.
The even worse use of experimental thermobaric weapons in Fallujah, which are necessarily indiscriminate in their effect and a clear violation of the laws of war when used in a residential area like a city, has gotten no coverage in the United States at all.
BBC Newsnight did a major segment on white phosphorus. NewsNight Scotland did at least two on the use of British airports for CIA “extraordinary rendition” flights, another story that is being widely covered over here.
It certainly is true that there is more media openness in Britain. I wouldn’t exaggerate it; a couple years back, Blair’s administration brought the BBC to heel and it has been much tamer since; I’m told that last year, during the assault on Fallujah, coverage here was minimal, just as coverage was in the US.
It’s also true that the antiwar movement in Britain had more mobilizational potential than we did. In the big demonstrations before the war started, London had a variously estimated 1.5 to 2 million people; Glasgow had 100,000, when the population of Scotland is only 5.1 million. In the US, we had 500,000 in New York and, at a stretch, a similar number elsewhere – and our population is far larger.
Another advantage they have is much wider access to Iraqis. There are far more who live here and far more of them are politically active. At a recent teach-in in London put on by Iraq Occupation Focus, the main plenaries had one Italian speaker, one half-French half-Lebanese, six Iraqis, and me. The speakers included Ismail Dawood, who documents human rights abuses in Iraq, and Hassan Juma’a of the General Union of Oil Employees. I couldn’t imagine a slate like that in the United States (it’s not terribly common even here). The movement here certainly has a greater fund of expert knowledge of Iraq to draw on.
In addition, according to some polls, over half the British public favors immediate withdrawal, a position still limited to maybe 20 to 25% in the US.
Still, all is not rosy. Although there is much dissent in the Labor Party and many are fed up with Blair, he is not, as we sometimes like to think in the US, in imminent danger of falling. In fact, as Mike Marqusee of Iraq Occupation Focus told me, party discipline in Britain is so strong that there has actually been more meaningful debate about Iraq in the U.S. Congress than in Parliament.
Also, though both movements saw a dramatic decline in numbers and activity after the war started, things have started to grow again in the US, spurred on by the now over 2100 U.S. soldiers’ deaths. In Britain, there is no resurgence as yet – numbers are even further down than they were last year.
The movement is still struggling with the same complex questions the movement in the US has – the nature of the Iraqi insurgency, the prospects of civil war (whether or not occupying forces leave), and, most of all, the seeming inability to affect politics even when you have significant public support. They are disempowered in another way, by the knowledge that Britain is not the primary player and cannot end the occupation by itself.
All too often, it seems, while we are looking to antiwar movements across the oceans, they are simultaneously looking to us.
This is truly appalling. A suicide bomber blew up his car outside a hospital in Mahmudiya (part of the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad), killing 30. It was targeted because a U.S. civil affairs team was there (supposedly assessing ways to upgrade the hospital) and because U.S. troops were there handing out toys and candy to children.
It goes without saying that this was a depraved act by the suicide bomber. The first time something like this happened, I linked to a U.S. soldier's blog in which he said (on a different occasion), "I'm going to probably buy alot of candy when I goto the PX in the camp. That way, I can hand it out to the kids. They'll be more likely to help us avoid things we wouldn't otherwise be able to avoid if not for them."
These candy episodes are, at the least, unbelievably irresponsible and show a depraved indifference to the possibility of children's being killed. Beyond that, however, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some U.S. soldiers are very explicitly seeing and using children on these sorts of operations as human shields. Even if that was a successful strartegy, it would be absolutely execrable; how much worse when the use of children as human shields doesn't even deter suicide bomb attacks.
I'm currently in the middle of a 12-day, 10-city speaking tour in England, Scotland, and Wales. My general impression here is that the antiwar movement, which collapsed like that in the United States, has not had the resurgence it's had in the U.S. On the other hand, British public opinion is far more in line with the antiwar movement's position than is American.
There’s something happening here. What it is – well, it’s not exactly clear.
On Friday, the House erupted in pandemonium when Republican Representative Jean Schmidt suggested that Democratic Rep. John Murtha, a former Marine who had proposed a resolution regarding withdrawal, was a coward who wanted to “cut and run.” Democratic legislators, imagining they were MPs in the British House of Commons or in the Indian Lok Sabha or someplace where politicians take politics personally, nearly came to blows with Republicans.
Murtha, who voted for the Iraq war and is a close friend of the Pentagon and fan of ever higher military spending, had decided that the cost of the Iraq war to Americans is enough and proposed a resolution with three clauses:
Termination of the current deployment and withdrawal of forces at the “earliest practicable date.”
Deployment of a new quick-reaction U.S. force to the region, presumably much smaller and not based in Iraq, along with a continuing regional presence of Marines.
Attempts at diplomacy, although with whom he does not say.
This is not quite immediate withdrawal and indeed holds out the possibility of continuing U.S. airstrikes and lightning raids to back up political demands it may make at the negotiating table.
But it goes far beyond previous resolutions, and represents what the mainstream would consider a serious proposal. Apparently, too serious – the House Republicans “rewrote” Murtha’s resolution by eliminating it and replacing it with an abrupt call that “the deployment of United States forces be terminated immediately.”
This was an attempt to head off a serious debate and also a trap to get Democrats to vote yes and then be Swift-boated during the upcoming election. As a result, 403 voted against immediate withdrawal, with only three voting for and six voting “present.”
A little earlier, the Senate had approved, 79-19, an amendment to the military spending bill called the “United States Policy on Iraq Act,” that requires the administration to provide regular reports to Congress on progress in the war. As the New York Times said, this is a vote of no confidence in the administration. The Democratic version, which failed, had called for a tentative timetable for phased withdrawal.
These events show simultaneously the strength and weakness of opposition to the war. The fact that withdrawal is finally being debated in Congress is an important sign, as is the fear of the Republicans to debate a supposedly “politically serious” withdrawal resolution. At the same time, the rewriting of Murtha’s resolution could only be seen as a trap because immediate withdrawal is seen almost universally, even by many progressive Democrats, as politically nonserious.
Only four incumbents in the entire House lost re-election in 2002 and five in 2004 -- there are far more than three progressive Democrats with safe seats, who could have placed their heads in the jaws of this trap if they thought it made sense.
Some of them probably refused out of anger at the stupid Republican maneuver. But for most, there were two other reasons. First, they have come under very little pressure from activists and constituents. That really matters. Remember August 2002, when Bush was clearly going to war on Iraq, but prominent Democrats were entirely silent. Starting in mid-September, we drowned Democratic politicians in a flurry of phone calls, letters, and emails. Instead of the 25 or 30 no votes one might have predicted, 60% of House Democrats and almost half of Senate Democrats voted against the war. It was our pressure that did it.
Second, and even more important, is the fact that many of them don’t believe in immediate withdrawal. To make the case, one must go beyond a Murtha-like desire to wash our hands of Iraq and an obsession with the mounting American body count and recognize that the key is an understanding that -- and I state this very strongly -- the United States has proved itself incapable of playing even a marginally positive role in anything to do with Iraq. No rosy scenario for Iraq’s future is necessary or believable; what is needed is an understanding that, even if it wanted to, the United States could not salvage anything or improve any prospects by its efforts.
The antiwar movement has yet to promulgate this understanding. Finally, now, the political situation is ripe for an intervention. This is the time to go beyond the call for immediate withdrawal and make the case.
Radio Commentary -- Europe and the United States
As someone born and bred in the United States, I generally prefer to concentrate my moral and analytical fire on U.S. society and policies – as, I think, do most of us on the left. Still, it seems to me that this focus often helps to aid and abet an almost superstitious reverence for Western Europe among some.
In some ways, Western Europe is unequivocally more civilized than the United States. Just like us, they benefit from a highly inequitable world system that maintains itself by constant exploitation and extra-economic coercion, but they share neither the our penchant for direct imperial ventures nor our touching faith that bombing other countries is always good for them. They have more economic equality and a vastly superior safety net. Some of them seem to believe in international law, which, flawed as it is, is an improvement over the law of the jungle that we always insist on. Also, they are far less likely to take seriously ancient superstitions involving father figures in the sky.
Yet, stunning as it may seem, there are ways in which we are better off. Although most of us seem to respect civil liberties only as long as they’re not used, think about England for a second. Their crackdown after the London bombings far exceeds ours after 9/11. Fortunately, Tony Blair was defeated when he tried to gain authorization to detain suspects three months without charging them, but the length of detainment was increased to 28 days – the Patriot Act, by contrast, allows for 7, although the executive branch does ignore that when it wants. They also have a measure outlawing what they call the “glorification” of terrorism, something nobody here seriously considered.
While we have made little effort to come to terms with our history of past atrocities, we are still far and away better than, say, Belgium. When Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, which talks about Belgium’s shocking inhumanity and brutality in the Congo, where an estimated 10 million people were killed, was published there in 1999, that was the first time most Belgians had even heard of the issue and they reacted with disbelief. This state of affairs approximates that of the United States before serious opposition to the Vietnam War emerged.
But undoubtedly the most striking example is France. 18 days of rioting by Arab and African youths, set off when two children who were hiding from the police got electrocuted, which have involved the torchings of many thousands of cars and the arrest of close to 3000 people, are finally winding down. They’ve been suppressed under emergency laws first passed during France’s colonial war in Algeria, a cruel irony not lost even on the New York Times.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised that he would “cleanse” the ghettos of such “scum” – except that, in French, the words he used were even more inflammatory than “cleanse” and “scum.” A poll by Le Figaro showed that 56% of the French approved of his racist handling of the affair. Over here, right-wing media hosts use such terms all the time, but it’s hard to imagine a politician doing it.
The riots are primarily reactions to the overwhelming racism of French society and the concomitant lack of opportunity for people of color there. One recent study actually showed that similar job applicants were 50 times less likely to be called for an interview if they had a clearly North African or Muslim name. A few years back, the French Advisory Committee on Human Rights released a report saying that 70% of the French admit to having racist sentiments – again, far more than would here.
Although religion is at best a minor factor in the riots, it is true that last year’s headscarf ban exacerbated the problem. Although cloaked in the trappings of egalitarian secularism, it was in fact an open expression of cultural contempt for nonwhites and an assertion of the supposedly superior civilization of white France.
Youths in France today are reacting against the prejudice and inequality hidden under that egalitarian assimilationism – Sarkozy was recently made to retreat from young people shouting “Liberte, egalite, fraternite – but not in council estates” (meaning public housing projects). Just as Americans should be worrying primarily about eradicating the heart of darkness in ourselves, it seems the proper object of “la mission civilisatrice” is the French themselves.
Recent polls show Bush in a hole deeper than any recent president except Nixon during Watergate and Jimmy Carter after mentioning energy conservation. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll has 60% disapproving of his performance in office, 60% saying the war in Iraq was "not worth fighting," and 55% that the public was intentionally misled into the war.
What's notable is not simply the numbers but the trend. For example, the percentage that view Bush as honest and trustworthy, 40%, is down 13 points in the past 18 months.
What's going on here? In a country where, according to a CBS News poll in early October, 33% of people still believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks, the explanation is not as simple as saying people are starting to pay attention to the facts.
Indeed, until very recently, Bush's poll numbers have been almost immune to new developments. From Summer 2003, this administration has been hit with everything but the kitchen sink. It requires a serious effort not to know that the administration lied us into a war, prosecuted that war with flagrant stupidity and incompetence and is now losing it, paid no attention to pre-9/11 warnings of terrorist attacks in the United States, and much more.
And yet, none of it seemed to matter. Even given Kerry's political ineptitude and steadfast refusal to provide an alternative on Iraq, Bush's victory in the elections was inexplicable. Even afterward, no matter how low Bush slid, he could always count on a solid 45% or so approval.
Some suggest that the Libby indictment is the reason for the recent slide in the polls. It certainly hasn't helped, but the case is too arcane to have made much difference yet, especially given that the undecideds are so clueless they couldn't tell we were misled about Iraq WMD.
No, the slide really starts with Hurricane Katrina. One might conclude that Americans are responding to the administration's incompetence and callousness, to the exposure of the country's continuing racial heart of darkness.
Unfortunately, that explanation is not really tenable either. Polls show a strong racial divide even in the basics of how Katrina was perceived, media coverage of Katrina has faded to almost nothing, and Bush's real slide began somewhat later.
The key to understanding all this is Trent Lott. You recall that in early December 2002 he said things might have been much better in this country if Strom Thurmond the segregationist had won his presidential campaign in 1948. Lott was subjected to a firestorm of abuse. Early on, however, almost all of it came from liberals and numerous Republicans rallied around Lott. For the first week or so, Lott was making apologies but seemed fully ready to fight to retain his seat as Senate Majority Leader. Then, on December 16, he went on Black Entertainment Television and said he supported affirmative action.
After that, conservatives opened fire on Lott with both barrels. Within four days, he had stepped down.
Until the Katrina disaster, Bush had retained a firm hold on the conservative base, by the simple expedient of never changing his mind, never admitting that anything was wrong, and "staying the course." Katrina hit so hard, for a short time, at least, that the Bush administration blinked and betrayed one of its cardinal principles. They announced a massive non-military-related government spending program, which would drive the budget deficit up and even worse, to conservatives, largely for the benefit of poor black people.
Conservatives felt betrayed by this abandonment and then by the Miers nomination and started to desert the president. That's why his honesty numbers have gone down – not because more people have started to read facts about Iraq WMD but because those good old conservatives who trusted his handshake and his firm promise to cut down big government no longer do.
The import of this, unfortunately, is that in order to survive and keep his popularity at barely acceptable levels, Bush will have to play more and more to his conservative base, as he has with the appointment of Alito. Paradoxically, his recent loss of support will likely make it harder for anyone other than the right wing to pressure him politically. Without a rebellion against business as usual, things may just get worse before they get better.