Above All, Do No Harm

Above All, Do No Harm

The War in Iraq and Dissent

The ancients, to divine the course of events to come, sacrificed chickens and sheep. Slicing open the creatures’ viscera, seers sought to read the future in entrails still trembling with recent life.With thanks for the germ of this metaphor to Carl Oglesby, writing about the Vietnam War in Containment and Change (Macmillan, 1967).

Twenty-first century America, by contrast, has sought to make its own future to order by tearing open a faraway country and laying bare that hapless land’s innermost workings. But what Americans now see as they stare horrified into the jagged wound is not the trace of future events. Instead, in the flattened cityscapes, the dispossession of civilian populations, the ever-mounting deaths, the steady diet of lies and deceptions from its leaders, the degradation of its public discourse, and the reality of systematic torture as national policy, a sobered America now confronts its own reflection.

The enemy was less than two decades ago America’s ally, built up by Washington mandarins to counter earlier (and quite possibly, future) antagonists. Though badly weakened in the first Gulf War, Iraq had made itself intolerable to the neoconservatives who rose to power in Washington in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The problem wasn’t that Saddam’s regime was morally and politically revolting—those qualities haven’t stopped America from propping up similar regimes all around the world. It was that Iraq stuck its thumb in America’s eye, providing an example for other regimes inclined to resist American hegemony in that region and all over the world.

For anyone cherishing notions of foreign policy based on reasoned public debate on momentous issues, the origins of this war make gooseflesh rise. It was created out of whole cloth by a right-wing clique that would make C. Wright Mills’s power elite look like a New England town meeting. In the anxiety-ridden period following 9/11, word went out from Washington: “We’re going to ‘do’ Iraq.” Public opinion was ordered to fit the needs of the occasion. We now know that the public rationale for this adventure, the infamous weapons of mass destruction, was ultimately designated as casus belli only after the fact. Information casting doubt on that rationale had always been readily available, had anyone in power cared to look. The all-too-loyal opposition in Congress abdicated without a fight. True to instincts that had long been apparent, the Bush administration trashed alliances and nascent patterns of global cooperation and loosed the dogs of war—flourishing martial virtues under its declaration of war on terror to inoculate itself against public criticism.

The worst of all this, for Dissent and its readers, is that this debacle has received support in these pages. We have witnessed a collapse of the very political immune systems that should be basic to the democratic left—in favor of imperial designs ...

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