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Glenn Greenwald: The Absence of Debate over War
May 24, 2010, 3:15 pm
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Published on Monday, May 24, 2010 by Salon.com

The Absence of Debate over War

by Glenn Greenwald

The Washington Post‘s Fred Hiatt ponders how little attention our various wars received during the primary campaigns that were just held:  “You would hardly know, from following this year’s election campaign or the extensive coverage of last week’s primaries, that America is at war. . . . those wars, and the wisdom of committing to or withdrawing from them, have hardly been mentioned in the hard-fought campaigns of the spring.”  Hiatt is right in that observation, and it’s worth examining the reasons for this.

One significant cause of America’s indifference to the wars we are waging is that those wars have virtually no effect on the overwhelming majority of Americans, while they impose a huge cost on a tiny sliver of the population:  those who fight the wars and their families.  Hiatt acknowledges that fact:  “it’s yet another reminder of American society’s separation from its professional military.”  If anyone would know about that, it’s the endless-war-loving, nowhere-near-a-battlefield Fred Hiatt.

Everyone from the Founders to George Orwell thought (and hoped) that the massive societal costs which war imposes would be a deterrent to their being fought, but most Americans who express their “support” for these wars bear absolutely no cost whatsoever.  Worse, many who cheer for our wars enjoy that most intoxicating and distorting reward:  cost-free benefits, in the form of vicarious feelings of strength, purpose, nobility and the like, all from a safe distance.  It’s very difficult to generate attention for political issues that do not personally and tangibly affect most Americans — that’s why the failing economy receives so much attention and our various wars (and civil liberties erosions) do not.

Then there’s the lack of partisan division over these wars.  During the Bush presidency, war debates raged because those wars — especially the Iraq war — were a GOP liability and a Democratic Party asset.  Anger over the Iraq War drove the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and Obama’s election in 2008 (though it did not drive the end of the war).  But now, America’s wars are no longer Republican wars; they’re Democratic wars as well.  Both parties are thus vested in their defense, which guts any real debate or opposition.  Very few Republicans are going to speak ill of wars which their party started and continued for years, and very few Democrats are going to malign wars which their President is now prosecuting.

Here we find, once again, one of the most consequential aspects of the Obama presidency thus far:  the conversion of numerous Bush/Cheney policies from what they once were (controversial, divisive, right-wing policies) into what they have become (uncontroversial bipartisan consensus).  One sees this dynamic most clearly in the Terrorism/civil-liberties realm, but it is quite glaring in the realm of war as well.  Hiatt describes it this way:

[M]aybe, in a time of toxic partisanship, we should be grateful for this inattention to the wars, taking the absence of debate as a sign of rare bipartisan consensus. Certainly few would miss the vitriol of the Iraq debate of a few years back.

It’s not surprising that Hiatt is grateful for the disappearance of what he calls “the vitriol of the Iraq debate a few years back.”  As one of the media’s leading cheerleaders for the invasion and ongoing occupation, it’s understandable that he wants no longer to be reminded of the enormous amounts of innocent blood which he and his war-cheering comrades have on their permanently drenched hands.  But he is right that to take “the absence of debate” as a “sign of rare bipartisan consensus.”  It’s true that the (dubious) perception that the Iraq War will soon end has probably dampened the urgency of that issue in the eyes of many people, as have the pretty words that Obama utters when he speaks of war, but the real reason the “debates” have disappeared is because it serves neither party to engage them.

Perhaps the most significant factor of all in understanding this lack of debate is the fact that “war” is not some aberrational, temporary state of affairs for the country.  It’s the opposite.  Thanks to Fred Hiatt and his friends, war is basically the permanent American condition:  war is who we are and what we do as a nation.  We’re essentially a war fighting state.  We have been at “war”the entire last decade (as well as largley non-stop for the decades which preceded it), and continue now to be at “war” with no end in sight.  That’s true of our specific wars (in Afghanistan), and the way in which The War, more broadly, has been defined (i.e., against Islamic extremism/those who wish to harm Americans) makes it highly likely that it will never end in our lifetime.  The decree that we are “at war” has been repeated over and over for a full decade, drumbed into our heads from all directions without pause, sanctified as one of those Bipartisan Orthodoxies that nobody can dispute upon pain of having one’s Seriousness credentials immediately and irrevocably revoked.  With war this normalized, is it really surprising that nobody debates it any longer?  It’d be like debating the color of the sky.

That’s why I always find the War Excuse for anything the Government does so baffling and nonsensical.  Any objections one voices to what the Executive Branch does — indefinite detentions, presidential assassinations of citizens, extreme secrecy, etc. — will be met with the justification that such actions are permissible “during war,” as though “war” is some special, temporary, fleeting state of affairs which necessitates vesting powers in the government which would, during “normal” times, be impermissible.  But the contrast between “war and “normal times” is totally illusory.  For the United States, war is normalcy.  The “war” we’re fighting has been defined and designed to be virtually endless.  Political leaders from both parties have been explicit about that.  Here’s how Obama put it last May in his “civil liberties” speech:

Now this generation faces a great test in the specter of terrorism. And unlike the Civil War or World War II, we can’t count on a surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end. Right now, in distant training camps and in crowded cities, there are people plotting to take American lives. That will be the case a year from now, five years from now, and — in all probability — 10 years from now.

All the way back in September, 2001, George Bush said basically the same thing:  “Now, this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. . . . Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”  Thus:  to justify new and unaccountable powers based on the fact that we are “at war” is, in essence, to change the American political system permanently, because the “war,” and the accompanying powers that it justifies, are not going anywhere for many, many years to come.

With both political parties affirming over and over that we are going to be at “war” for years, indeed decades, it’s unsurprising that so few people are interested in debating “war.”  That’s true even for the limited question of Afghanistan, where most Republicans won’t question a war their President began and most Democrats won’t question a war their President has vigorously embraced as his own.  From the perspective of the permanent factions that rule Washington — from Wall Street and AIPAC to the intelligence and military “communities” — that’s the beauty of the two-party system:  as long as both party establishments support a particular policy, any meaningful debate over it comes to a grinding halt.

© 2010 Salon.com

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy.

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