On Friday 13 September 2013 at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) held a discussion on America’s war antics. The event had been planned a week before, when it seemed assured that the United States would conduct some kind of military raid on Syria. It was not clear to us whether the meeting we planned would be a condolence meeting for what would certainly befall the region or a strategy session to see how we might get involved in practical matters, or both. As it turned out, the bombing run was forestalled. The urgency of the discussions remained. We presented our short talks and a lively discussion followed, in which some questioned the morality of presenting talks on US policy when the pressing needs of Syrians had not been addressed, and others egged us on to think more clearly about the contradictions between national interests of the United States and the international role that it seems to have usurped. Those discussions are in the ether, and more will need to be said of them. For now, we offer our three presentations. More such discussions are planned this year. The next will be a conversation between Karim Makdisi and Coralie Hindawi, both of the AUB politics faculty, moderated by Vijay Prashad, and to be held on Friday 27 September.
“America and the International Community” (By VijayPrashad)
In 1973, matters were grave for US power. The countries of the Third World Project had passed a resolution in the UN General Assembly that threatened the economic and political architecture of US hegemony–the New International Economic Order (NIEO). The NIEO’s ambit was nothing less than a total transformation of the world economy through the use of commodity power (led, in no small part, by the example of the oil producing states, whose cartel had threatened the multinational corporations’ writ over the purchase and sale of commodities). The “Oil Weapon” wielded in 1973 offered proof that the NIEO demands were not empty. The Third World, backed hesitantly by the Soviet bloc, came to the table with some muscle. They were no longer the “verandah boys,” as a Ghanaian diplomat put it a decade previously.
It was at this point that US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger invited Daniel Patrick Moynihan to take the US seat at the UN Security Council’s Horseshoe Table. Moynihan was a clever choice. A Democrat from New York, Moynihan was nonetheless an early neoconservative. He was the author of a 1965 study (The Negro Family) which argued that poverty among African Americans was a result of disorder in the Black family, whose fathers could be properly disciplined by a tour in the US military. Moynihan was a past master at linking domestic ailments to imperial ambitions, here securing recruits for an increasingly unpopular US military and putting the stick about urban areas wracked by the blight of racist social policy and the slow demise of US manufacturing.
In 1975, in Commentary, the magazine of the neoconservatives, Moynihan laid out the argument that the problems of the Black family in the United States and the Third World were “of their own making and no one else’s and no claim on anyone else arises in consequence.” In a private discussion, Kissinger told Nixon, “that Commentary article is one of the most important articles in a long time. That is why it is essential to have him at the UN.” Moynihan was invited to the White House where Kissinger and Nixon gave him his marching orders. “One mistake we make,” Moynihan complained to them, “is acting like the General Assembly has semi-legislative powers.” Kissinger concurred, “We need a strategy. In principle, I think we should move things from the General Assembly to the Security Council. It is important to see that we have our confidence and nerve.” In addition, Kissinger said that the US has to “get hold of the Specialized Agencies,” such as UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNICEF, ILO and so on.
At the United Nations, Moynihan used every opportunity to push against global democracy–he firmly supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 and defended Israel against any challenge to its occupation of Palestinian lands. When the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, known as the “Zionism is Racism” resolution, Moynihan used all his rhetorical skills to pillory the United Nations’s members–he said that the United States “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” Moynihan had found the hammer with which to beat down not just Resolution 3379, but the role of the UN General Assembly as the arbiter of the “international community,” the role it had tried to play since the formation of the United Nations in 1945 (and a role that the UN Charter endorses). Moynihan now worked to sideline the General Assembly, where the Third World had a clear majority and to move matters of importance to the UN Security Council, where it had a veto and where its allies dominated, or else the Group of Seven (G7, formed the next year in 1974).
The United States used its financial weight to pressure the United Nations and its agencies to line up behind its narrative of world affairs, notably on Israel but not exclusively so. The new United Nations would have to accept the neoliberal economic storyline and policy space that was pushed by Global North corporations, represented by the US Treasury, the City of London, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the OECD and the G7. On the use of US power, there is a straight line from the United Nations’s paralysis before the US diplomatic maneuvers around Israel to the 2005 generation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and onwards. When Moynihan left the United Nations, he wrote his memoir, which was entitled A Dangerous Place. Therein he wrote, “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”
From 1945 to the 1970s, the term “international community” was fraught. It could mean the will of the UN member states; it was often used like that by UN officials in their writings–the mandate of the UN agencies came from the consensus work of the UN General Assembly. From the 1970s onward, the UN member states have been sidelined, suborned to the narrative of neoliberal development on the one hand and to provision of support for the hub and spokes system of US power on the other (with the United States as the hub, with its allies as the spokes and with the bulk of the planet on the wheel – held at bay). Democratic governance in the UN system has been set aside, as a kind of Imperial Security Council and its P5 vetoes hold sway there. Clever utilization of an “international” media provides careful cover for the way the US moves its agenda among the P5–when the US vetoes or threatens to veto a resolution that sanctions Israel (say on settlements), this gets minimal outrage; but a veto from Russia or China is broadcast as genocidal. When President Obama says “international community” he means the G7, not the General Assembly. That is what is now meant by the “international community,” a decline in international democracy from the 1970s.
“Securing the ‘Homeland’” (By Alex Lubin)
How America goes to war? It does not. At least not officially.
Since World War II, the United States has not officially declared war, but has instead engaged in various unofficial conflicts, security measures, or military actions.
Only thirteen military engagements have been approved by the US Congress, the last of which was a house resolution authorizing military engagement in Iraq.
Seven post-World War II US military engagements have been authorized by the UN Security Council, and funded by congress: Libya was the last one.
On at least 125 other occasions, the president has acted militarily without consultation or consent from Congress.
It has been more common for Americans to declare war on domestic social problems than to declare war on foreign governments. Although Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon never officially declared war on Vietnam, they did declare war on poverty and drugs. Ronald Reagan declared war on gangs and crime. More recently, there has been a war on terror, which in addition to enabling unspeakable violence in global gulags outside of national jurisdiction and targeted killings in violation of international law, has also led to the surveillance of US citizens, various police sweeps in poor urban communities of color, and mandatory registration programs in Arab/Muslim/south Asian communities.
The war on terror evidences a different sort of battlefield than those of the Cold War. In the war on terror the seeming domestic insecurities of crime and drugs have been fused with the global fight against non-state terrorist actors; in fact, the terms domestic and foreign have lost meaning and instead a vast new geography has replaced these terms: the geography of the homeland.
Protecting the homeland has become the US rationale America uses to police and secure the world; it uses its military at home and abroad in the name of homeland security. The concept of “homeland” is quite curious and for America is a post-9/11 concept. Throughout the period known as the American Century, at the apex of America’s cold War hegemony, the US referred to its territorial boundaries as the homefront or the domestic front, protecting Americans from the barbarous world of foreigners. The term homefront and domestic front conjured the image of the nuclear family, with clearly demarcated gender, race, and class boundaries, and was intended to serve as the bulwark against the violent and chaotic outside world. Within this context the US was charged with protecting the homefront through the policy of containment of communism abroad. Throughout the postwar period the executive branch wielded unchecked power to police the global sphere, particularly in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East as a means to protect its homefront and to maintain national economic growth.
After the Cold War, the bipolar logic of home/domestic sphere and foreign/international sphere has been eroded as the US has turned to a new rationale for waging military conflict. 11 September 2011 helped solidify the notion that the new threat to American security was not a foreign state power, but instead a diffuse ideology called terrorism. The war on terror has become a battle, as George Bush remarked, against those who hate “our freedoms.” The Bush Administration reorganized the military/security infrastructure in the United States in 2002 by creating the Department of Homeland Security, which would combine twenty-two agencies under one policing umbrella. Homeland Security combined, for example, the US Secret Service with both the Coast Guard and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. The war on terror thus collapsed the boundary between foreign and domestic, and has created a vast de-territorialized space called the homeland. The homeland is no longer contiguous with the borders of the United States, but instead is boundless, extended across borders and oceans. As my students said in response to the question, “where is America?,” America is now everywhere.
Protecting the homeland implies not merely on protecting the nation, but also on protecting a broad set of interests some domestic and others foreign, to which policy makers feel duty bound. Under the auspices of protecting the homeland, the US president, serves not merely as the “commander and chief of the United States” but also as the patriarchal leader of the homeland, which now includes international allies and, seemingly, women and children everywhere. Thus, when President Obama argued on Tuesday, “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used" he articulated the doctrine called R2P, “responsibility to protect.” Underscoring the gendered politics of protecting the homeland, Obama cast himself as a benevolent patriarch, protecting women and children abroad, as well as those at home.
Obama’s humanitarian protection of women and children is underwritten by the same patriarchal hubris that drove Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, to ask, “Isn`t that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?”
So, America does not go to war; it merely protects the global homeland, tucks it in at night, and ensures that bad guys don’t bite.
“What Happens When the Majority of Americas Oppose a War?” (Elisabeth Armstrong)
My part of this discussion regards “What Happens When the Majority of Americans Oppose a War?” Besides “war,” another slippery term in this question is the word “majority.” If we take a notion of democracy at its most basic, common sense usage in the United States, a majority of Americans is over fifty percent of the people. In this usage, I come bearing good news. If a majority of Americans oppose a war, it tends to end (albeit slowly) or does not begin, as in the most recent case of Syria when sixty-four percent of Americans opposed strikes in Syria however bootless, however targeted. Well, actually the tipping point in the current era for opposing a war seems to be fifty-nine percent of Americans.
If we believe the polling data of Gallup, in the run-up to the last four US-initiated wars (i.e., the 1990 Persian Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo/Balkans war, the 2001 Afghanistan war, and the 2003 Gulf War) a clear majority Americans supported military aggression. The only exception to a bloodthirsty American public is the Kosovo/Balkans war in 1999, which had support of only forty-three percent; opposition of forty-five percent and a large minority with no opinion (twelve percent). In the Persian Gulf War in 1990, sixty-two percent of Americans supported the war. In the 2003 Iraq war, even with the flimsiest of evidence, fifty-nine percent of Americans were in favor of the invasion. As soon as the war began this support rose precipitously as did appreciation for George W. Bush (what pollsters and their ilk call the “rally around the flag” effect): seventy-five percent of the American public gave full-throated approval for the invasion. In all of these wars, the United States had UN approval for the military strikes.
An interesting case is the Persian Gulf War of 1990. In early November of 1990, only thirty-seven percent of the US public was in favor of a military intervention in Kuwait to drive out Saddam Hussein’s occupying forces. Fifty-one percent of the American public was against the war. In the same month, the United Nations passed a resolution to authorize by the removal of Iraq’s military from Kuwait by “all means necessary.” Immediately after the UN resolution, the US public reversed their levels of support: fifty-one percent supported the war and thirty-eight percent opposed it; support that rose until it reached to sixty-two percent in favor as the war began.
Even in the Vietnam War, when the draft was in full force, the majority of Americans did not oppose the war until August of 1968. They did not oppose it by fifty-nine percent until January 1971. And Nixon as a pro-war candidate for president in 1972 received a whopping sixty-one percent of the popular vote. The war did not end until 1975 when the United States finally conceded its defeat and pulled out troops. But if the Vietnam War disproves the rule about fifty-nine percent opposition (or illustrates its schizophrenic, fickle quality), then the wars after it do not.
For most of these wars, including the Vietnam War, American women give significantly lower support for war and military strikes. In January of 1991, during the heat of the Persian Gulf War, only forty-five percent of American women supported the war as compared to sixty percent of men. The exception to this gender gap is in the Afghanistan military occupation in 2001. In late September an equal percentage of women supported a ‘blank check’ for war against Afghanistan: nine out of ten American women wanted to see American military force against the country; nine out of ten American men agreed. They framed their support as military retaliation for the 11 September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. And only half of either women or men thought UN approval for the strikes was necessary to commence the war.
So, where does it leave those of us who opposed all or most of these wars? What about the rallies, the marches, the protests, the letters to the editor, the anti-war newspapers (shout-out to the Valley War Bulletin), the speak-outs, the educational community hall meetings, the anti-war talks by military veterans, the love-ins, the walk-outs, the wildcat strikes for peace, the disruptions of Congressional hearings and other creative means of opposing war?
The question in this panel is not about democracy. Democracy is not simply about majorities of citizens, nor (as George W. Bush and the neoconservatives would have it) about flipping a lever or dropping a piece of paper in a ballot box. Democracy is also about ideals, about justice, about documents of intentions like the US Constitution and its amendments, about what is right and wrong, about the values of people that share national citizenship. Democracy in the United States is about the bully pulpit of the presidency, of the media control over skewed information and flat-out inventions, of corporations that own the media, and bankroll the elections of Congress people and presidents, and of the inchoate sense that something is not right and someone out there is taking us all for a ride.
So perhaps my contribution is the most disturbing in its simplicity: Americans often support the going to war. Their support wanes as their friends and family die, go mad, or commit suicide; and as their access to schooling, food and housing becomes more tenuous. Their support wanes when they see the supposed benefits as well as stated goals slip into the sunset. But today we talk about how America goes to war, not how America ends a war. America goes to war, if polls about popular opinion don’t lie, in no small part because Americans want a war.
[For more on CASAR, click here.]