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.

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