This week marks the fifth anniversary of Congress's vote to authorize the Bush Administration to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. The Nation opposed the war authorization. In "An Open Letter to Congress," which we published on the magazine's cover on the eve of the vote, we argued that it would have "a significance that goes far beyond the war." Our opposition has been fully, tragically confirmed by the human and political disasters of these last few years.
As we mark this anniversary, it is time to consider the longterm damage the grievously misconceived "war on terrorism" has inflicted on our security and relationship with the world. Eventually US troops will leave Iraq because the brutal facts on the ground will compel it. But even as we struggle for an exit strategy, our political system continues to evade the challenge of finding an exit from the "war on terror." At a time when we need a coherent alternative to the Bush doctrine and an alternative vision of what this country's role in the world should be, we see both parties calling for intensifying the "war on terror" --even for increasing the size of the military, and for expanding its ability to go places and do things. But who is asking the fundamental question: Won't a war without end do more to weaken our security and democracy than seriously address the threats and challenges ahead?
Witness the collateral damage to our democracy. This Administration has used the "war" as justification for almost anything--unlawful spying on Americans, illegal detention policies, hyper-secrecy, equating dissent with disloyalty and condoning torture.
The Administration has also justified the expansion of America's military capacity--over 700 bases in more than 60 countries, annual military budgets nearing 700 billion dollars--as necessary to counter the threat of Islamic extremism. What too few politicians are willing to say is that combating terrorism--a brutal, horrifying tactic--is not a "war" and that military action is the wrong weapon. Illegality and immorality aside, it simply doesn't succeed. Yes, terrorism does pose a threat to national and international security that can never be eliminated. But there are far more effective (and ethical) ways to advance US security than a forward-based and military-heavy strategy of intrusion into the Islamic world. Indeed, the failed Iraq war demonstrated anew the limits of military power.
Fighting terror requires genuine cooperation with other nations in policing and lawful and targeted intelligence work; smart diplomacy; withdrawal of support for oppressive regimes that generate hatred of the US; and real pressure to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and justice and a secure state for the Palestinians.
It is also worth remembering as we mark this anniversary that military invasion and occupation, and crusades masquerading as foreign policy, divert precious resources from real security. Five years ago, the doubts and warnings about military action in Iraq were brushed aside (including those clearly and consistently expressed by the Nation). Now that reality has confirmed the argument, isn't it time to act on the knowledge?
Alongside the get-out-of-Iraq debate, the political system needs a parallel debate that lays out how we will exit this "long war" -- which is a formula for unlimited militarization and recurring military conflicts. (As an industrial project for the arms industry, it could be even more open-ended than the Cold War.) We need a debate that confronts the danger of inflating a very real, but limited threat of terrorism into an open-ended global war, to be fought simultaneously on countless obscure battle fronts, large and small, visible and secret.
Major political leaders in both parties continue to buy into a view of US global supremacy--the "indispensable nation" scenario. They were silent when the Pentagon opened a new "Africa Command" to hunt down Islamists on that continent. Nor they did object when CIA gunships bombed villages earlier this year in Somalia. When Bush announced intentions to increase Army troop strength by 90,000, many Democrats boasted it was their idea first.
To what end? These new troops won't be available for Iraq. Are they for the next war or occupation? The delusion of military power is deeply rooted.
We would do better--both in addressing the danger of a wider sectarian war with failing regimes in the Middle East, and in combating terrorism--to reduce the heavy US military and geopolitical footprint in the region. That means withdrawing US forces from Iraq and organizing regional diplomacy, including with Iran and Syria, to contain the civil war from spreading. It would mean addressing the legitimate grievances of many in the Islamic world, especially Israel's occupation of the West Bank. And it would mean changing the conversation with the people of the Arab and Islamic worlds from the danger of extremism to the economic opportunity that peace and cooperation could bring.
A purposeful opposition must form to rethink America's role in the world. There are large and fateful questions to confront: What kind of country does the US want to be in the 21st century? Republic or Empire? Global leader or global cop? Where, as Sherle Schwenninger asked in the Nation's pages a few years ago, "is the America that is less one of warrior and preacher/proselytizer and more one of architect and builder?" How can America act like an imperial power in a post-imperial world? Much can be accomplished by focusing on the questions that conventional opinion ignores. And starting the discussion now can help establish new terms and limits for the next president elected in 2008.
Concretely, Congress should be pushed to take legislative action to renounce the Bush doctrine of "preventive war." As The Nation warned on the eve of the 2002 war resolution vote, "the decision to go to war has a significance that goes far beyond the war....It declares a policy of military supremacy over the entire earth-- an objective never attained by any power....The new policy [of preventive war] reverses a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks. It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to be attacked by them...It accords the US the right to overthrow any regime--like the one in Iraq--it decided should be overthrown...It declares that the defense of the US and the world against nuclear proliferation is military force." Declaring the Bush doctrine of endless war defunct will not solve the problems posed by Iraq, but it will reduce the likelihood that we will see more Iraqs in our future.
With the 2008 elections upon us, it is unlikely that the Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) will rethink their official national security strategy in any significant way. But citizens committed to a vision of real security can launch a debate framed by our own concerns and values. If we have learned anything in the past six years, it is that even overwhelming military power is ill suited to dealing with the central challenges of the 21st century: climate crisis, the worst pandemic in human history (AIDS), the spread of weapons of mass destruction, stateless terrorists with global reach, genocidal conflict and starvation afflicting Africa, and a global economy that is generating greater instability and inequality.
A real security plan would widen the definition of security to include all threats to human life, whether they stem from terrorism, disease, environmental degradation, natural disasters or global poverty--a definition that makes it clear that the military is only one of many tools that can be used to address urgent threats. A last resort. This alternative security strategy would also reconfigure the US presence in the world -- reducing the footprint of American military power, pulling back the forward deployments drastically and reducing the bloated Pentagon budget by as much as half.
Yes, at home, all this will take time and will have to overcome the fiercest kind of political resistance. Yet this is not an impossible political goal, now that Americans have seen where the military option leads. Dealing intelligently with reality is not retreat. It is the first wise step toward restoring genuine national security.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2007 The Nation