Defining Our Assertive Ambivalence

by Jim Rovira – (c)2003 Jim Rovira

The age of political naivete in America is over. The American public’s infancy in world affairs is as outmoded as a pacifier in a ten year old’s mouth. We can no longer say we didn’t know or don’t now any better. Our ignorance, once reflective of a wide-eyed faith in democracy and perhaps even government is now without excuse. It is time we faced the world, and our government, as it is and not in the light of even our most cherished dreams for this nation and its future. It is time we faced the facts, especially now that we’re soon to be facing the aftermath of one of the most controversial US foreign policy decisions in several decades. I believe this needs to happen as badly for those who supported the war as it does for those who opposed it. But I believe this infancy is manifest in only two groups: those who unconditionally supported the war and those who were unconditionally against it. I believe the vast majority of Americans fell somewhere in between these two positions, perhaps supporting the war once it started but wishing it hadn’t; or willing to support the war, but only with U.N. support; or wanting to see Hussein ousted but angry at the Bush Administration’s lack of diplomacy and subsequent failure to convince at least the majority of our important allies that regime change needed to happen right now. Ambivalence, in this case, doesn’t mean being wishy washy. It means wanting a good many specific things and not getting most of them. Since these positions are too complex to be accurately represented in most polls, I want to represent them here. I think I can because I’m ambivalent too, but I’m assertive about it.

James Rovira

Jim Rovira is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Drew University in Madison, NJ. He would like to encourage you to visit The Artisanitorium, an online journals of arts and ideas:

Even before the war started my feelings toward the prospect of war with the Iraqi government were ambivalent at best. There was no question in my mind that Hussein was a butcher. Neither was there any question in my mind that he was committed to developing weapons of mass destruction. Hussein thought he could invade Iran and win. Even after an almost decade long war with Iran had depleted his resources, he thought he could invade Kuwait successfully and maintain his occupation of that country. There’s no reason to believe Hussein wouldn’t think he could get away with the development and deployment of dangerous, destructive weapons to pursue his ambitions for the region, since he was restrained neither by logistical impracticalities from attacking Iran nor by international opposition from attacking Kuwait. The idea of Hussein collaborating with Middle Eastern terrorists to deploy weapons of mass destruction against the US wasn’t implausible to me either. Hatred is a great unifying force, and Middle Eastern solidarity against any outsider, especially the United States, is far stronger than any resentments and infighting within the region itself. No one in the Middle East likes Hussein, but Middle Eastern reaction to this war bears this out. Even formerly bitter enemies provided weaponry and moral support for Hussein against the US invasion of Iraq. It is not implausible to me that an Al Qaeda that hates Hussein could still work with him to carry out further terrorist attacks against the US. Reports from expatriate Iraqis are even more disturbing. One informal account I read described the rebellion of 14 major Iraqi cities against Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War, a rebellion carried out in hopes the US had crippled Hussein’s military enough for a rebellion to survive and in hopes the US would rush in to support a rebellion once it began to form. Needless to say, these hopes were crushed, and Hussein’s retaliation against the rebellions exceeded even his past reputation for brutality. One informal account estimated 200,000 to 300,000 deaths during the 1990s; a parallel account in Time Magazine estimated 35,000 (read the last paragraph of the essay). The exact number of Hussein’s victims, even excluding those who suffered and died in unnecessary wars, will probably never be known. The strong resistance during the recent conflict in cities that had previously rebelled is a sign that Hussein learned his lesson, deploying his Republican Guard to force soldiers to fight who would otherwise surrender or turn against their government. And here is where I level my first complaint against ignorance, against the ignorance of those who protested the war in support of a “peace” hat never existed in Iraq:

  • If you protest the war because you care about the Iraqi people, where were

you when these people were being butchered?

  • Why weren’t you protesting in the streets and petitioning the U.N. then?
  • Did you really want Hussein to remain in power? If so, why were you supporting the regime of a mass murderer?
  • Did you really think he’d leave power in any way other than external

compulsion? The true ignorance of the peace protesters isn’t demonstrated by their opposition and protests before the war began, however. It is fully demonstrated by their continuing demand for the withdrawal of US troops even after the war has ended. The futility and stupidity of this gesture amazes me. Iraq is without a central government, without police, and without administration of their infrastructure. Even with a marginal order imposed by US troops, Baghdad shops were looted and there was violence in the streets. If the war was wrong to begin with, pulling out before the country is stabilized would be far worse. The demand for the reinstallation of a butcher makes me think, however, that continuing war protests aren’t honestly motivated by a desire for peace or concern for the best interests of the Iraqi people. They mirror a power struggle carried out on an international level between European powers and the United States, the only real guiding principle behind the war protests being opposition to the spread of US power. This is an opposition maintained, in this case, even at the expense of the Iraqi people. I’m not saying the war is being fought by the US and British to benefit the Iraqi people either, but let’s not kid ourselves. No one cares about them or ever has. Neither side has any moral ground to stand on in relationship to the Iraqi people. The best that can be hoped for is that this war, this gamble, will at least pay off for them. It remains to be seen. But given all this, I was still opposed to unilateral military action by the US against Iraq before thewar started. I couldn’t bring myself to want this war, even though justifications for it seemed to pile up like a fetid mound of corpses. It should be apparent, of course, that I was never bothered by the prospect of military action against Iraq’s government to remove Hussein from power. I was simply bothered by the prospect of unilateral US military action, military action with lukewarm support at best and staunch opposition at worst from long term US allies. I didn’t take to the streets with signs, fill out petitions, or block traffic. I chose to exercise my freedom of expression by sending letters to my representatives in Congress and to the White House. “Not now, not yet, not without international support” was what I asked of them. Of course I didn’t expect it to be heard, any more than the street protesters were heard. In the process of protesting or defending the war, commentators and pundits across the world have suggested a number of possibilities for the “real reason” for the US war with Iraq, ranging from the acquisition of oil to the expansion and consolidation of US empire. The first is just plain silly because it’s cheaper to buy the oil than take it by force. The second is more plausible, but seems to have been an afterthought of war planning rather than its initial goal. Let me suggest an alternative, one that arises from a radical new approach. Rather than reading between the lines, rather than probing deeply into hidden motives, I’m going to skim right off the top. I’m going to make the never considered assumption that President Bush actually means what he says. Please bear with me; I can hear the choruses now pointing the finger of naivete back at me. Humor me, if for no other reason than the sheer novelty of the possibility. Near the end of an October 2002 speech delivered at the Cincinnati Museum Center, President Bush said, “. . .through its inaction, the United States would resign itself to a future of fear. That is not the America I know. That is not the America I serve. We refuse to live in fear.” I believe the recent Iraqi war, the war in Afghanistan, and measures that significantly curb many individual rights to privacy and due process are motivated by a single emotion: fear. We are a nation afraid. And here is where I want to criticize pro-war ignorance. We cannot alleviate our fears with guns, missiles, or war. No matter how hard, how far, or how effectively we fight, we will always be vulnerable to the possibility of another September 11th. We cannot buy security with civil rights, nor can we purchase safety with a powerful military. This thought is foreign to those of us who, like me, grew up during the cold war, whose security was based upon the threat of force. However much I feared the Soviet Union, I never thought the Soviets were suicidal. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, as fearsome as the phrase itself sounds, worked. We wouldn’t attack because they could kill us in retaliation. They wouldn’t attack because we could kill them in retaliation. Sufficient force during the Cold War assured security. And ultimately, no one really wanted to kill anyone. Animus towards the Soviet Union in the US fell as quickly as communism, and to a child growing up today fear of the Russians is more a curiosity that pops up from time to time in old movies than a lived social reality. But what force is sufficient to stop a martyr? What threat can you make against someone already committed to his own death? In a world with no guarantees, we need to learn which bets to hedge. We need to remember who we are and why this country is worth defending. We believe in human dignity, in representative government, and in basic human rights. We believe in governing by consensus. And since we believe in these powerful ideals, ideals that drove the founding of our democracy and that make us proud to call ourselves Americans today, we should strive to live out our ideals on the world stage and in federal legislation. If we believe in representative government, we should not and cannot engage in future wars without international consent and support. We cannot afford it militarily, we cannot afford it politically, and we cannot afford it economically. But even more than that, this type of behavior contradicts our most deeply held beliefs. We can’t honestly say we believe in government by consensus then act unilaterally on the world stage. I’m not arguing for an international government that takes precedence over the sovereignty of independent nation states. I am arguing for international cooperation. What happens in the Middle East, of all places, affects the best interests of every nation in the world. What gives us the right to act aggressively in that region out of exclusive concern for our own best interests? If we believe in human dignity and in self-evident human rights, we should be very disturbed by Americans who even hint at the use of torture to gain information from even our worst foes. Willingness to allow the US government to torture suspected terrorists for information has been expressed through several US media lately. If we believe everyone is entitled to legal representation, that no one should be held without charge, and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, we should believe that is the case with those who are not US citizens as much as it is the case with those who are. From this standpoint, I also believe we’re in a better position to understand international opposition to the US war against Hussein. The world is afraid too. They are afraid of us. We’re the only superpower in the world, we have a strong military and dangerous weapons, and we’ve proven twice now in two years that we’re not afraid to use them. We don’t understand international reaction because we haven’t confronted our own fear. I don’t want to diminish the element of self interest in international opposition to the war in Iraq, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of ignoring other important motives too. Fear of US power is also a motive driving opposition to current US foreign policy. Given that, trying to secure our safety through military and economic world dominance is an enterprise bound not only to fail, but to backfire. I’ve identified the problem, now can I identify a solution? There is only one cure for fear. It is not comfort, for we can never be comforted enough. It is not security, because we can never be secure enough. Demanding comfort and security when afraid are the demands of children; accepting comfort and security as a cure for our fear infantilizes us and grotesquely elevates our government to the status of parents that act on our behalf without our knowledge or consent. And that, I’m afraid, is a totalitarianism, even if the dictators are elected. The only cure for fear is courage. We need to remember who we are and what we stand for. We need to act consistently in support of those ideals, even if some claim this will put us at greater danger sometimes. If we hedge our bets on principle, however, we may find we enjoy the security of committed allies and international relationships built more on trust and less on power politics. I’m not naive either, and of course don’t believe the whole world will stand behind us. But, certainly, more of it will. We acted on principle during the 1991 Gulf War and had wide international support. While we can never be perfectly secure, at least by following this course we will know we won’t have to act, or stand, virtually alone in the future. Most importantly, we will have learned that the most vital facts about our actions isn’t how they force others to respond to us, but what they say about ourselves as a nation, about who we want to be, and about who we are making ourselves out to be. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003
James Rovira