Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month


(An Internet Exclusive, March 29, 2003)

At this writing war on Iraq appears to be hours away. It may be over by the time you read this.

The Bush administration has been remarkably optimistic not only about victory, but about the results of victory. Given the incredible military might of the United States, victory seems a foregone conclusion. The results are another matter.

The administration has predicted a whole series of benefits to issue from this war. Civilian casualties will be few; the Iraqi people will cheer and welcome the American conquerors; democracy will quickly take root in Iraq, and will spread contagiously throughout the region; the Palestinians will get their own state; the cost of occupation will be modest and at any rate will be paid for by conquered Iraqi oil resources; and the negative impact on the U.S. economy will be minimal. In addition, though this isn’t being said out loud, George W. Bush will be reelected in 2004.

In short, everything is bound to go right. It had better. Until now the administration has been notably maladroit in handling events. It has alienated not only friendly governments, but most of civilized mankind, with its combination of military and diplomatic bullying. Newsweek has just run a cover story titled “Why America Scares the World.” As Fareed Zakaria writes, “While the United States has the backing of a dozen or so governments, it has the support of a majority of the people in only one country in the world, Israel. If that is not isolation, the word has no meaning.” It’s easier to buy off a few rulers than to bribe the conscience of humanity.

Not so long ago this was the most admired country on earth, in spite of the shrill invective of Communist tyrants and Middle Eastern fanatics. Today ordinary people around the globe regard the United States with fear and loathing. They receive Bush’s moralistic arguments for war with moral contempt.

[Like an earthquake 
...]The war has gone so badly before it began that it’s hard to see how it can produce Bush’s rosy scenario after it ends. He seems to think that a quick victory will quiet all qualms. But nobody opposes the war because the United States may lose it. Everyone knows the United States is invincible. That’s the trouble. What it does to Iraq it could do to almost any other country, and this may be only one of many wars to come.

A poignant detail: desperate pregnant women in Baghdad have been asking doctors for Caesarean deliveries, fearing that they may lose their babies if they go into labor when the American bombing starts. Other pregnant women will be killed, and their babies with them.

Perhaps Catholic hawks, instead of trying to change the Pope’s mind, should think of war as, among other things, a form of abortion. The old Pole has seen war first-hand, unlike most of the people who are trying to persuade him that blasting Iraq meets the criteria of just warfare.

Bishop John Michael Botean, of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Canton, Ohio, has just laid it on the line. In a carefully reasoned pastoral letter sent to all Romanian Catholic churches in the United States, he warns that “any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is an objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin.” This war, he adds, “does not meet even the minimal standards of Catholic just war theory.” It is “intrinsically and gravely evil and therefore absolutely forbidden.” There is a true Catholic shepherd speaking.

Modern warfare is like an earthquake. It kills indiscriminately. Nobody denies this; at most, the advocates of war assure us that civilian casualties will be “minimal,” without estimating how many that might mean. Those who start such a war against another country can never be in conformity with the principles of just war; but those who defend their country against attack may well be fighting justly, no matter how doomed their efforts may be.

Of course the aggressor will usually win, because he only starts the war when he calculates that the victim is too weak to defeat him. This is probably why Bush is so much more eager to attack Iraq than, say, North Korea. Even his sycophants don’t uphold him as an exemplar of Christian knighthood.

Opponents of this war may hope for one small consolation. Unlike the first Gulf War, this one will probably be well covered by the press, at least the international press. In the previous war, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, kept American reporters under tight control; not that they weren’t disposed to cooperate anyway. But this time the foreign press will very likely resist American censorship and show the civilian carnage incident to the U.S. “liberation” of Iraq.

[Those who defend their country against attack may be fighting justly.]For all their faults, the news media today make it very difficult to sanitize war. A single photograph can refute mountains of propaganda. If a war is just, why would anyone want to conceal its effects anyway? If this is a war for freedom, why not allow a free press to cover it? If the United States is a democracy, as Bush proudly insists, shouldn’t the people see just what their government is doing in their name?

This is a war of the powerful, by the powerful, for the powerful. It’s being waged for power (whether or not that power takes the specific form of controlling the world’s oil supplies) by men like Cheney, who believe in power and little else. Have these men ever done anything to promote democracy in their spare time? I daresay it has never been a notable personal passion of theirs.

Powerful men, as Shakespeare observed, will always have their flatterers. As soon as Bush declared “war on terror,” he suddenly became a Great Wartime President, and the neoconservative press celebrated him for qualities nobody had ever suspected in him before. In a flash he became an amalgamation of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (meant as a compliment, of course).

Yet during the 2000 campaign his mediocrity was treated as a given. He owed his political career to the simple fact that he was a president’s son; and he was considered more “electable” than other candidates. Even the neoconservatives who now fawn on him preferred the rabidly pro-Israel John McCain.

Bush’s verbal clumsiness is easy to ridicule. After watching a recent interview with the impressive Jacques Chirac, I reflected that France has one thing the U.S. doesn’t have: a president who speaks fluent English. But it’s more serious than it may seem. A man who lacks competence in his own language is apt to lack any real sense of history and tradition.

Bush is not only devoid of these things, but unaware that they are important. He is the sort of “practical” politician who wants to make history without knowing any. His mind is a tissue of cliché. His vaunted “moral clarity” is nothing more than shallow propaganda, thin and repetitious. (Propaganda is always marked by specious “moral clarity.”)

At first Bush seemed to offer relief from the moral shabbiness of the Clinton years. But now he is reminding us that there is more than one way of being a disastrous president.

Joseph Sobran

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