No News i s Bad News

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Nearly three weeks have passed since Sept. 11, and the United States has yet to launch a military offensive in the new unlimited global war on terrorism that President Bush declared on Sept. 20.

Combined with news reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell is battling within the administration for a more diplomatic approach, this period of “calm” has many — including some in the antiwar movement — talking as if a full-scale war has been averted. No news of war, they say, is good news.

Several considerations suggest the opposite: no news is most likely bad news.

The first, and most obvious, point is that military operations on the scale that the Bush administration has discussed cannot be implemented overnight. Troops and materiel take time to move into place, especially when delicate negotiations are needed to establish bases in countries where such a move can have domestic political costs. Few countries are eager to become part of the American military machine; on Sunday, a Saudi Arabian official said no attacks on Afghanistan would be launched from his nation, an indication of the political touchiness of this endeavor.

Remember that the buildup to the Gulf War lasted five months. No matter how tough the talk in the first weeks after the terror attacks, Pentagon planners and their civilian chiefs do not make large-scale plans for military operations based on rhetoric. Words of war are spoken for public relations, not planning purposes.

In short: The antiwar movement should not get taken in by a diplomatic and media shell-game.

Again, the Gulf War is the perfect example. From the August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait up until days before the U.S. began bombing Baghdad, officials from the first Bush administration talked about their commitment to exploring a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. At the time, it was clear they weren’t serious, since they said publicly many times that there would be no negotiations; Iraq had to either accept U.S. conditions or face an attack (that’s what passes for diplomacy in the United States). This was widely acknowledged; early on, for example, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that the “diplomatic track” should be avoided because it might “defuse the crisis.”

In his book Shadow, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported that the Bush administration was afraid Saddam Hussein might pull his forces out of Kuwait before the U.S. could strike. If that happened, it would be hard to justify keeping U.S. military forces in the region, leading then-President Bush to tell his national security team, “We have to have a war,” according to the book.

In an interview for a PBS Frontline documentary on the Gulf War (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/gulf/), then-Secretary of State James Baker conceded that his January 9, 1991, meeting with Iraq’s foreign minister was mostly for appearances, to help to secure the congressional vote for war three days later.

In fact, the whole saga, while billed as a question of whether Saddam Hussein would come to his senses and negotiate, was anything but real diplomacy. The numerous plans presented to give him a face-saving formula, to retreat with the most minor of gains, were serially shot down by an administration bent on war.

As we hear talk about the United States engaging in diplomacy, we must remember this: the U.S. conception of diplomacy does not mean seeking to avoid war, as the U.N. charter requires. It means coupling a “principled” refusal to negotiate with threats and verbal provocations designed to stiffen the spine of an enemy, so that situations cannot be resolved peacefully. It means lining up allies — sometimes by naked coercion, sometimes by bribes of debt-restructuring or trade favors — so that military actions can begin.

We see the same thing in the current situation — no negotiations with the Taliban, no attempt to offer evidence linking bin Laden to the crime against humanity of Sept. 11, but many peremptory demands, not just to turn over bin Laden but to effectively cede sovereignty to the United States by opening up training camps and other sensitive areas to American scrutiny. The more things change …

Recent history offers another reason to expect that plans for war have not been shelved: An empire’s need to maintain “credibility.”

Credibility in this sense means the notion that anyone who challenges U.S. domination will pay the price. The destruction of one country keeps others from rising up. All empires must maintain this credibility, or they cease to be empires.

The major conflict of the American empire in the post-World War II era — the wars against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — was motivated by a central U.S. doctrine: Any attempt at independent development in the Third World had to be destroyed. But by 1967, at the absolute latest, it was clear to everyone — including U.S. planners — that a military victory was out of reach. From that point on, the war was continued in large part to further destroy Indochina, so that the United States was not seen as withdrawing in defeat. The million tons of bombs dropped in that final segment of the war were dropped to maintain credibility.

The war planners are going about the business of planning war. Still, the fact that one of the Gulf War planners, Colin Powell, now sits as secretary of state and is arguing for what seems to be a less aggressive posture has led many to be hopeful that a split in the administration could derail war. While we can only speculate on discussions going on inside the White House, again history and common sense can guide us.

First, the stories in the mainstream media about the rift between Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the doves and the hawks, may or may not have any connection to what is really happening. Internal policy disputes do break out in any administration. But just as often officials manipulate the press to float trial balloons and distract the public (even conservative columnist George Will has suggested news of this disagreement might just be “disinformation to confound our enemies”). Even if such a rift exists, it appears that the question within the administration isn’t whether or not to go to war, but merely when, where and with what force.

Before we put our hopes in Powell-the-peacemaker, let us recall that he is the man who put forth the Powell Doctrine, which he summarized in the Frontline documentary as: “If this is important enough to go to war for, we’re going to do it in a way that there’s no question what the outcome will be and we’re going to do it by putting the force necessary to take the initiative away from your enemy and impose your will upon him.” Again, remember that marshaling the forces to “impose your will” upon an enemy is not an easy process.

At this point we have little choice but to base our antiwar work on informed speculation; it would be foolish to think the administration is going to tell us forthrightly what it has in store for the world. A reasonable assumption at this point is that whatever instinct there might have been for an immediate demonstration bombing to signal the world that the United States has a “spine of steel” has been reined in, and that a more careful planning process is underway. While this process continues, a severe human toll is already being exacted.

The administration’s bellicose posture has sparked such fear in Afghanistan that the flight of refugees has begun, with the accompanying likelihood of mass starvation. The United States is pressing to ensure that any food distribution plan is carried out ”in a manner that does not allow this food to fall into the hands of the Taliban,” according to Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state. Since the Taliban itself, like most ruling elites, remains well-fed, this is plainly doublespeak for a plan to selectively starve the roughly 90 percent of the country controlled by the Taliban.

Translated: The war on the civilian population of Afghanistan using fear, flight and food is underway.

Beyond these basic observations, there is little we can know about what is in the minds of people gathered in the White House, the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.

But we can and must use the time they have given us to step up our organizing and education efforts, not slow them down.

The polls, like the minds of most Americans, are full of contradiction. Although more than 90 percent supposedly favor going to war, 63 percent think strikes on Afghanistan make future terrorist attacks more, not less, likely. Simultaneously, the natural sympathies of Americans have been touched, resulting in spontaneous concern for the already starved, bombed, and brutalized Afghan people — a concern that has already forced a change in rhetoric from the halls of power. Perhaps most important, people who are normally apolitical are paying attention to this issue.

Put together, it represents a mix with heady possibilities. The chance to build a genuine antiwar movement is greater than it has been in a very long time — as long as, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, we do not tire and we do not falter.

Mahajan is a doctoral candidate in physics and Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Both are members of the coordinating committee of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq.

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