If you listen to Bush and Cheney trying to justify their escalation in Iraq, you could easily think you’re hearing Johnson or Nixon talking about Vietnam. It’s all about an image of credibility, they say: making sure our allies believe us when we say we’ll go to war and fight to win.
The neocon dream of U.S. force unilaterally ruling the globe has faded in sand and fire. As Cheney put it: “In Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq, the key to victory is for us to be able to get the locals into the fight. The United States can't do it all by itself.”
Now that Bush, Cheney, and Co. have lost control of what’s happening on the ground in Iraq, they may well be focused on the war to control images in predominantly Muslim lands. In those countries, and around the world, ordinary people have a sharply and increasingly negative view of U.S. policy. But that hardly matters to our own leaders as long as they can convince presidents, princes, and prime ministers -- especially in Muslim lands -- to be staunch allies in the global war on terrorism (which is why we don’t hear much about bringing democracy to Muslim lands any more).
When you fight to prove your credibility, the actual results of war don’t matter a lot. You are fighting to create an image. War becomes essentially a long, bloody advertising campaign. Success is measured, not by what happens on the ground, but by what happens in the spectators’ minds. Cheney says he fears that leaders in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan “would say wait a minute, if the United States isn't willing to complete the task in Iraq that they may have to reconsider whether or not they're willing to put their lives on the line.”
Yet all that is only half the battle. Bush and Cheney remember the Vietnam era vividly, and its lesson: You can’t win the war of images abroad if you lose the war of images here at home. Faced with growing opposition to their Iraq policy, the Bushies have ramped up a new advertising campaign. They hope to turn the political tide with a flood of soundbite images: “We’ve got a plan.” “We need a surge.” “Fight ‘em in Iraq or fight ‘em in Kansas City.”
Cheney’s favorite image is guts: “The terrorists have bet from the beginning their only strategy is to be able to break our will. They can't beat us in a stand-up fight. … They think we don't have the stomach for the fight.” If you turn the war into a contest of guts, it’s all about images.
Then there is the most curious soundbite of all: “Defeat is not an option.” Anyone who looks at the facts on the ground in Iraq would more likely say: “Victory for the U.S. is not an option. Nor is a tie. We’re going to end up losers. The only question is how long we’ll keep killing and dying until we admit it.” When Bush repeats over and over again, “Defeat is not an option,” he’s not talking about the world of empirical realities. He’s talking about the problem of credibility in the world of images. That’s why he seems so out of touch with reality. His words are one more sign that the war is now more about images than facts on the ground.
We should have seen this coming. Over two years ago, an anonymous White House aide told a journalist: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” At the time, everyone thought he was talking about reshaping facts around the world to suit the administration's geopolitical goals. Now it seems more likely that he meant it literally: We ignore what our eyes and ears tell us is true -- what most people call reality -- and create an alternative reality in our own minds. We live in what most people call fantasy.
Psychiatrists have fancy names for people who live in fantasy worlds of their own creation. Most of us use simple words like “crazy.” It’s not surprising that an administration living in its own reality, fighting wars that are mostly about imagery, would end up pursuing policies that seem, to most sane observers, quite crazy. Public opinion polls seem to suggest that average Americans will no longer follow their leaders blindly into fantasyland.
But take a closer look at those two-thirds or more who reject Bush’s escalation plan. How much do they know about the facts in Iraq, beyond the fleeting images and soundbites they get from their TV screens? And most have no principled objection to war as an instrument of national policy. In the spring of 2003, after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, three-quarters or more of the U.S. public approved Bush’s war policy. Even now, only half the public wants to start withdrawing American troops from Iraq.
Why, then, is Bush’s approval rating so low? It’s not because he took us into war. It’s because he failed to give us victory. That doesn’t fit our national self-image. Most Americans have no problem with an image of their nation going to war. They assume that the cause must be just. But they also assume that our soldiers will be victorious. “American” and “loser” just don’t go together in our cultural traditions, nor in most Americans' minds.
That’s why it’s so important for so many to believe that Vietnam was an aberration, a one-time mistake, a well-intentioned war that somehow got out of control. When the first President Bush pushed Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and announced that “we’ve put Vietnam behind us,” his poll numbers went sky high. He revived the image of America as a winner.
Now his son has put Vietnam in front of us and created a second lost war. Predictably, the public has turned against him. It’s a lot harder to put two losses behind you. How can you write off two separate wars as one-time mistakes? If you think the “Vietnam syndrome” kept the public hesitant about war for a long time, think about the impact of the “Vietnam plus Iraq syndrome,” once everyone agrees that we’ve lost in Iraq, too.
Bush and Cheney must think about that a lot. Their failure may well tie the hands of future presidents. Who is going to follow the leader into two, three, many Vietnams or Iraqs, if they all look like losing efforts from the start? Suppose that an American president threatened to take military action and no one really believed him, or her? The bubble of credibility would be burst. The U.S. could no longer project an image of credibility to its allies. Bush’s successors could not turn the fond dream of a decades-long GWOT into reality.
That could be the biggest boost to our chances for world peace in a long, long time.
The old slogan “two, three, many Vietnams” proclaimed a hope that nations everywhere might be free to chart their own destiny, even if the process is sometimes bloody, rather than be controlled by an imperialist power whose hand is always bloody. That’s what it means to hope for “two, three, many Iraqs” too. No one wants to see any nation dissolve into civil war. But once we have stirred up the lethal stew, we can’t expect to escape the consequences. The least bloody option is to refrain from intervention in the first place.
“Two, three, many Vietnams -- and Iraqs” means that U.S. leaders are not likely to learn that lesson even from a second defeat. They will probably stir up the pot in other countries too. No one can say how many defeats it will take before American interventionism comes to an end.
But if we take Cheney’s words seriously we can learn a valuable lesson: Our imperialist interventions will never end until the American people rise up and say “NO,” not merely to this war, but to the whole idea that the U.S. can do anyone any good by invading foreign lands.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. firstname.lastname@example.org