Before you conclude that I myself must be unhinged even to raise such a question, ask yourself this: If a man talks as if he has lost contact with reality, then might he actually have done so? Granted that this possibility deserves evaluation, then consider President George W. Bushs rhetoric in his March 19 speech to diplomats and others at the White House.
The president begins by stating his interpretation of the recent bombings in Madrid, reiterating one of his recurrent themes of the past two and a half years: [T]he civilized world is at war in a new kind of war. The concept of war, of course, ranks high among evocative metaphors. Not by accident have politicians declared wars on poverty, drugs, cancer, illiteracy, and an assortment of other alleged enemies. A society at war, as William James observed in 1906 in his call for the moral equivalent of war, finds a reason for unaccustomed solidarity andheres where the politicians come infor unaccustomed submission to central government authority. James himself, after all, was arguing that the martial type of character can be bred without war. Political leaders are always seeking to establish such character, with themselves in command of the battalions of disciplined subjects. Insofar as the so-called war on terrorism merely represents the latest attempt to bend the war metaphor to an obvious political purpose, we might well dismiss the presidents rhetorical flourish as nothing but the same old same old.
Bush, however, will allow no such dismissal. The war on terror, he insists, is not a figure of speech. Well, I beg your pardon, Mr. President, but that is precisely what it is. How can one go to war against terror, which is a state of mind? Even if the president were to take more care with his language and to speak instead of a war on terrorism, the phrase still could not be anything more than a metaphor, because terrorism is a form of action available to virtually any determined adult anywhere anytime. War on terrorism, too, can be only a figure of speech.
War, if it is anything, is the marshalling of armed forces against somebody, not against a state of mind or a form of action. Wars are fought between groups of persons. We might argue about whether the United States can wage war only against another nation state, as opposed to an indefinitely large number of individuals committed to fanatical Islamism who in various workaday guises are living in scores of different countries. The expression war on certain criminals and conspirators of criminal acts would fit the present case better and would entail far more sensible thinking about the proper way to deal with such persons. The idea of war, obviously, calls to mind too readily the serviceability of the armed forces. Hence the application of such forces to the conquest of Iraq in the name of bringing the terrorists to justice, although that conquest was actually nothing but a hugely destructive, immensely expensive diversion from genuine efforts to allay the threat posed by the Islamist maniacs who compose al Qaeda and similar groups. These killers will be tracked down and found, they will face their day of justice, the president declares, speaking as always as if only a fixed number of such killers exist, rather than a vast reservoir of actual and potential recruits that is only augmented and revitalized by actions such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It would be a boon to humanity if the president could be brought to understand the distinction between waging war and establishing justice.
Whatever our understanding of the presidents war on terror might be, however, he definitely parts company with reality when he states, There is no neutral groundno neutral groundin the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death. Of course, this Manichean pronouncement echoes the administrations previous declaration that everybody on earth is either with us or against usand if they know whats good for them, theyll fall into line with our wishes. Aside from the undeniable fact that some nations simply prefer, as did the Spanish people (as opposed to the Aznar government), to avoid the blowback of U.S. interventions around the world, the presidents insistence on equating U.S. policy with good, freedom, and life and all alternative policies with evil, slavery, and death represents the sort of childish bifurcation one expects to find expressed by a member of a youth gang, not by the leader of the worlds most powerful government. To raise but a single example, though a highly relevant one in this context, can any dispassionate person argue that the U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entirely good, whereas every alternative position is entirely evil?
Observers endowed with humane moral sensibilities recognize that there is plenty of evil to go around in Israel and elsewhere. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. government bears clear responsibility for killing and injuring thousands of noncombatants in the past yearnot to mention the horrendous mortality and suffering it brought about previously by enforcement of the economic sanctions used to cripple that country for more than a decade. Some people maintain that the price was worth paying, that ultimately the good obtained will more than compensate for the harm caused in the process, but even if one accepts that assessment for the sake of argument, it remains true nevertheless that much harm was caused, that the burden of responsibility for evils perpetrated must be borne by the U.S. side as well as by the demonized enemy (Saddam Hussein having been made out after 1990 as another Hitler). International conflicts in the real world do not often divide neatly into nothing-but-good versus nothing-but-evil. For the president of the United States to employ such a juvenile characterization raises the possibility that his mind is so immature that he ought to be removed from office before he propels the world into even worse disasters.
Seemingly aware of previous criticism, the president declares that the terrorists are offended not merely by our policiesthey are offended by our existence as free nations. I myself have seen no evidence to confirm such a statement; certainly the president has adduced none. I have seen, however, the translated testimony of one Osama bin Laden, who in a famous October 2001 videotape objects to U.S. support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, and to U.S. economic sanctions and other hostile actions against Iraqthat is, to various U.S. policies. Millions of innocent children are being killed in Iraq and in Palestine and we dont hear a word from the infidels. We dont hear a raised voice, says bin Laden. In my ears, this statement sounds like an objection to U.S. policies. I have seen no evidence that bin Laden or any other known Islamic terrorist takes offence at our very existence, provided that we mind our own business in our own homeland.
In the presidents mind, however, every deviation from adherence to his promulgated national-security policy of U.S. world domination and preventive warfare represents a dangerous form of appeasement: Any sign of weakness or retreat simply validates terrorist violence, and invites more violence for all nations. The only certain way to protect our people is by early, united, and decisive actionthat is, by global military intervention by the United States, with all other nations serving as its lackeys. In the neoconservative vision to which the president has been converted, time stands still: It is always 1938, and if we fail to bring all our military might to bear preventively against the Hitler du jour, we shall certainly be plunged into global catastrophe.
Waxing positive, the president credits recent U.S. and allied military actions with bringing about a free Afghanistan and the long-awaited liberation of the Iraqi people. He maintains that the fall of the Iraqi dictator has removed a source of violence, aggression, and instability in the Middle East. . . . [Y]ears of illicit weapons development by the dictator have come to the end. . . . [T]he Iraqi people are now receiving aid, instead of suffering under the sanctions. . . . [M]en and women across the Middle East, looking to Iraq, are getting a glimpse of what life in a free country can be like. . . . Who would begrudge the Iraqi people their long-awaited liberation?
This effusion evinces a tenuous grip on reality. Nobody begrudges the Iraqi people their freedom, but many of us have serious doubts about just how much freedom those long-suffering people really have. Their country is occupied by a lethal foreign army whose soldiers roam freely, breaking into homes and mosques at will, maintaining checkpoints that often become the venues of unjustified killings, carrying out police activities by employing such means as aerial bombardment and bursts of heavy machine-gun fire. If this unfortunate scene is the glimpse of what life in a free country can be like that others throughout the Middle East are getting, then woe unto anyone who yearns to stimulate those Middle Easterners to seek freedom. With Afghanistan and Iraq showing the way, we are confident that freedom will lift the sights and hopes of millions in the greater Middle East, the president states. If he really harbors such confidence, one can only note how ill-founded it is.
The president seems to have no idea of what a free society consists of. Violent military occupation and the complete absence of the rule of law totally invalidate any claim that either Iraq or Afghanistan is now a free society. At present Iraq is awash with violence perpetrated by resistance fighters and occupation forces and with criminality of all sorts unleashed by the disruptions associated with the war and by the U.S. dissolution of the old police apparatus. We will not fail the Iraqi people, who have placed their trust in us, Bush declares. But they never placed their trust in us in the first place; they simply suffered our invasion and occupation of their country. In any event, we have already gravely disappointed the hopes that many Iraqis held for life after the overthrow of Saddam Husseins regime. The country is rife with resentment and hostility, and the people are eager for U.S. forces to get out. Although the president maintains that [w]eve set out to break the cycle of bitterness and radicalism that has brought stagnation to a vital region, one cannot help concluding from the facts on the ground that the upshot of the U.S. invasion and occupation has been just the opposite, that U.S. actions in Iraq have only poured fuel on the fires of terrorism there as well as in the wider world.
It is disconcerting for me to listen to the presidents speeches. I get the unsettling feeling that the man inhabits another world in which things are the exact opposite of how they seem to me. Of course, I may be the one whose perspective is askew. Unlike Bush, I cannot claim that the Almighty has licensed my position. Yet I fear that time will tell in favor of my view of the mattera view shared, of course, by most people on the planet, indeed, by nearly everybody who has not been bribed, intimidated, or blinded by partisan loyalty to the Bush administration. For now, this difference of views might seem to be nothing more than thatjust one mans opinion jousting with anothersbut reality has a way of passing definite judgment, and I will not be surprised if Bushs pronouncements ultimately come to be seen as having no more substance than a bad dream.
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institutes quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.
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