Decoding the March to War

Why is the United States on the brink of war? The question is especially perplexing since opposition to war extends beyond the usual suspects. Even the mainstream media acknowledge how numerous and broadly based the anti-war movement has become. Among elite ranks, war skeptics include former members of the national security establishment and even General Norman Schwarzkopf. The administration's rationale for war lies in Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its assistance to terrorists. Yet a close reading of even establishment literature casts doubt on this case.

Saddam has likely stashed nuclear and biological weapons somewhere amidst Iraq's immense deserts No sovereign state unilaterally forgoes the only currency that counts in contemporary international politics, the ability to inflict lethal damage. Nonetheless, toxic agents and delivery systems so limited as thus far to have evaded investigators hardly threaten the whole world. Nor could Iraq's inventory possibly approximate the armaments already brandished by Pakistan and North Korea. Another unstable regime, Russia, possesses poorly protected stockpiles that dwarf all other nations'.

Both US and British intelligence experts also continue to downplay or deny connections between Iraq and al Qaeda. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy studies comments:that Secretary Powell "segued disingenuously from the accurate and frightening information about what the al Zarqawi network could actually do with biochemical materials to the not-so-accurate claim about its link with Iraq -- which is tenuous and unproven at best." Powell buttressed his shaky case by citing stories from detainees, whom even the US government acknowledges were beaten.

Al Qaeda has cells in many nations and may have had some contact with Iraqi leaders at some point, but Saddam has long been anathema to Osama. Unlike the Sept. 11 terrorists, Saddam is a survivor rather than a martyr. Even the CIA recognizes that unless he is cornered, he is unlikely to sponsor terrorist actions. In the current climate any terrorist plot will be attributed to him.

If the war on Iraq isn't about weapons or terrorist support, is it about oil and/or distraction from failure to catch Osama? Both of these explanations need qualifications. President Bush would not invade Iraq if milk were its principal export. Oil is the foundation of its potential economic power. Nonetheless, war risks US lives, economic resources, and perhaps the oil fields themselves. Against these risks, a strictly mercantile approach to Iraq would weigh the possibility that a more accommodating policy could increase the world's oil supplies and reduce the power of OPEC.

Oil companies surely do hope to profit if there is an invasion, but this hardly establishes that they are actively pushing war or that their desire to seize wells is the governing motive in US policy. To the victor belong the spoils, but wars are usually driven by more than spoils.

Even if by conventional measures Iraq is no great threat, economic power in the hands of a leader who defies the Administration makes Saddam a grave symbolic risk. Saddam's role as the new Osama does more to explain the rush to war than oil or imminent terrorism. This President not only neatly divides the world into good and evil but also treats evil as flowing from a center, an inexplicable, destructive and powerful source. That Osama's address is currently unknown is surely an embarrassment to this administration, but his status as a stateless renegade renders him an inadequate villain. His demotion to subordinate in the great chain of evil is both politically and philosophically necessary. Evil seems most compelling and comprehensible to Bush when it is both personal and connected to a sovereign state. Such an evil can be viewed as powerful enough to pose a threat yet sufficiently localizable and identifiable that, like a malignant tumor, it can be excised.

The British-based Guardian recently commented: "Why then has the Bush administration consistently tried to make a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda? The answer lies in the administration's quasi-theological conviction that such a connection must exist. Bob Woodward makes this point abundantly clear in his recent book. Directly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Paul Wolfowitz, the chief architect of the administration's get-tough policy on Iraq, told the cabinet: 'There was a 10% to 50% chance Saddam was involved.'"

President Bush appears more driven by an underlying Christian fundamentalism than any previous US president. Fundamentalist eschatology envisages a final struggle between good and evil. Rather than regard the world as a place where protean powers and interests can and must make shifting and temporary alliances, this world is seen as threatened by a singular, personal, purposive evil agent. Only the active and determined leadership of a benevolent leader and nation can save the world from the chaos and destruction this evil is poised to inflict.

If fundamentalism drives this government, it may treat setbacks, including future terrorism, military casualties, and even domestic criticism, as further proof of a metastasizing evil. Thus opposition to war becomes both more difficult and more incumbent on those of us who do not share this worldview.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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