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
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. 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
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 September 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. Plus ca 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 to withdraw in
defeat. The million tons of bombs dropped since that time were done to
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 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 for 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 deputy secretary
of state Richard Armitage. Since the Taliban itself, like most ruling
elites, remains well-fed, this is plainly doublespeak for a plan to
selectively starve the roughly 90% of the country controlled by them.
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
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 over 90% supposedly favor going to war, 63% think that strikes on
Afghanistan make future terrorist attacks more, not less, likely.
Simultaneously, the natural sympathies of Americans have been touched,
resulting in a spontaneous upwelling of 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 take a leaf from George W. Bush, we do not tire and we
do not falter.
Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action. Robert Jensen
is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. Both are members
of the Nowar Collective (www.nowarcollective.com). They can be reached at