Speaking Truth to Power
by Eric Alterman
The Nation magazine, March 16, 1998
The crisis is over, for now, and we may all breathe a sigh of relief.
If in fact the White House strategy was a bluff, with Russia and France
playing the good cops and America / Britain the bad, then congratulations
to all sides on a job well done. The same can hardly be said, however, for
the Clinton Administration's performance at home. Its efforts to garner
public support for the planned strike at Iraq were embarrassing at best
and contemptible at worst. Its basic problem was not, as insiders claimed,
bad advance work in allowing Spartacist loonies to attend the televised
town meeting February 18 at Ohio State University.
Rather, it was the near-disdain for the concerns of the American people.
Listen to the issues raised by some of the better-behaved participants
in the spirited dialogue that followed the screaming and chanting:
The American Administration has the might and the means to attack the
Iraqi state, but does it have the moral right to attack the Iraqi nation?
(Cheers, applause) This Administration has raised concerns about Iraq's
threats to its neighbors, yet none of these neighbors seem too threatened....
Furthermore, the international community has been opposed to the bombings.
If nobody's asking us for help, how can you justify further U.S. aggression
in the region? (Applause, shouts) If push comes to shove and Saddam will
not back down, will not allow or keep his word, are we ready and willing
to send the troops in? (Cheers, applause) President Carter...was quoted
yesterday as saying that up to 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians could be
killed. Is that something, Secretary Albright (Shouts, applause), that you
think is a realistic possibility? Since we are unsure where Iraq's weapons
are, how can we direct a bombing strike against them? Why bomb Iraq, when
other countries have committed similar violations?. .. For example, Turkey
has bombed Kurdish citizens. Saudi Arabia has tortured political and religious
dissidents. Why does the U.S. apply different standards of justice to these
countries? (Cheers, applause)
Good questions, every one of them. And the audience at Ohio State had
plenty more where those came from. Yet Secretary of State Madeleine Albright,
Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger
acted as if they had never heard them before. Perhaps they hadn't. In the
official meeting rooms and academic conferences, to say nothing of high-minded
forums like Nightline and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, foreign policy is
considered a precinct for professionals only. When "the public"
enters the discussion, it is usually as a problem to be managed' an inconvenience
that must be finessed.
There is a dangerous dichotomy between the foreign policy views of most
Americans and those of the members of the establishment and media who conduct
the foreign policy debate. Two extensive surveys, one by the Pew foundation
and another by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, in Washington,
have recently pointed up areas of major disagreement that most Americans
have with the foreign policy that is conducted in their name. The issue
is not "isolationism" versus "internationalism," as
it is so often stated. Americans are in many ways much more "internationalist"
than their leaders. But they are also less willing to take on the responsibilities
of unilateral military action. Support for the United Nations remains surprisingly
high. And if the rest of the world thinks that bombing Iraq is not the way
to go-as appears to be the case this time-Americans consider that a far
more serious matter than do their leaders.
In a close examination of more than fifty years of survey data, political
scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Y. Shapiro found that "the American
public, as a collective, holds a number of real, stable and sensible opinions
about public policy and that these opinions develop and change in a reasonable
fashion, responding to changing circumstances and to new information."
These values include: commitment to solving problems at home before dedicating
resources to attempting to solve them abroad; a desire to be involved in
military operations only in concert with allies; and unhappiness with the
burden of maintaining an expensive global interventionary capability. These
values are not reflected in U.S. foreign policy because, institutionally
speaking, Americans have no way to make their preferences felt-except in
the most extreme circumstances, as during the Vietnam War.
President Clinton referred to the Ohio State meeting as "a good
old-fashioned American debate," but added, "I believe strongly
that most Americans support our policy. They support our resolve."
He would be wise, however, to curl up with a copy of Lyndon Johnson's recently
published Oval Office tapes. They tell a heartbreaking story of a brilliant
politician who stood poised to achieve more social progress than any other
President in U.S. history, only to be swallowed up by a war he did not want
to fight. Instead of trusting his instincts, Johnson listened to his foreign
policy mandarins, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, and their hubristic
theories about "credibility" and "limited war." When
Albright told ABC news recently that war "is not an issue that is going
to be decided by public opinion polls-this is a national security issue,"
she stood squarely in the Bundy/McNamara tradition. If she had listened
rather than lectured at Ohio State, she would have heard the citizenry speak
with a voice far wiser than her own.