Once again, an event of immense historical impact–the bombardment and invasion of Iraq by the United States–brings out the essayist in everyone. I will join the crowd today, but with an essay that is almost more cultural than political. It has recently occurred to me that the salient factor in the public’s support for the war called Operation Iraqi Freedom is their affinity for George W. Bush’s style. And this may also explain the deep split between U.S. opinion and those of nearly every other country in the world (Poland being a possible exception).
Bush has made this war his own to an extent without precedent. State Department Secretary Powell presented the intellectual’s war before the U.N., and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is good for pitch-hitting or second quotes, but Bush is the ultimate spokesperson for every turn taken in U.S. policy. And he carries out this job with a flair no one can imitate, whether it’s his recreation of grade B cowboy movie scenes (there ain’t enough room in this town for the both of us, Saddam–I’m givin’ you 48 hours to git out) or the ingenuous protests of a heartland Everyman (”Saddam could disarm any time he wanted. He could just drive up to the parking lot with a truck full of weapons and turn them over”–not an exact quote, because it’s from memory, but the gist of something Bush said a few weeks ago.)
When I read in The Nation today (in an article that apparently they did not put online, “Building Cities for Peace,” March 31, 2003 issue) that a small town in Connecticut they described as “Republican-leaning” voted overwhelmingly to oppose the war, I realized that American’s reaction to the war is divided culturally, and probably (though I don’t have statistics on this) geographically. If the reference to driving up to a parking lot with a truck resonates with you, if you find it an exemplary execution of honest plain thinking, you probably go for the war as a whole. Otherwise, you are as repelled by war as by Bush’s folksy commentary on it. This is not a matter of intelligence or attention span or anything else simplistic; it’s a matter of personal style.
So this is a cultural war. Not in the sense of fundamentalist Islasmism against traditional Western liberal philosophy (as is believed by those who mistake excuses for reasons) but in the sense of why people support it and why they don’t.
Bush is not stupid, but he deliberately dumbs down the conversation because he knows that doing so benefits his position. Shortly after the parking lot remark, chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix delivered a carefully reasoned speech in which he explained why it would take months to prove that Iraq was free of illegal weapons, even with full cooperation. This speech, needless to say, did not make it onto the nightly news.
The only way to break the grip that the Bush Administration and the major media outlets have put on discourse seems to be to reduce one’s beliefs to similar ten-word formulae. I am a bit embarrassed by some of the simplistic statements that the broadcaster and newspapers have quoted from the anti-war side–but the overwhelming point is just that: they have been quoted. Don’t assume their more nuanced believes match what they said to get on TV.
So this is Bush’s war. It didn’t begin that way, of course. The roots of the invasion go back to a doctrine expounded long ago by a few right-wingers such as Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, long before George W. Bush could even name the countries on Iraq’s borders. You can read about the doctrine’s history in
or even in today’s
New York Times
if you like your information mainstream. But Bush is the reason for the war by now, because he made it his through his style.
Others tried to make it their war too. Tony Blair strove quite assiduously to do so, but was firmly told by his compatriots and the Europeans (dare I say fellow Europeans?) that it was Bush’s war and not his. One gets the distinct impression that the Turkish military would like to make a little bit of it their war, and others will jump in the breach soon enough. But for now it remains Bush’s war.
Wars as expressions of conflicts between individuals are nothing new, of course. What else was the Battle of Hastings in 1066? But it’s appalling that a modern war of such scope should be the result of the way Hussein and Bush rub on each other.
And the practical implications of that? There is no point any more in debating terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction (as I did in another
a few weeks ago), or oil, or the Palestinian situation, or any other aspect of reason.
We are in the age of passion. You joined this war (or its opponents) years ago, without knowing it. I suppose human history has always catapulted itself ahead, or backward, with similar blindness. There is not much anyone can do now until it is all over; but once we have some breathing room we must start to take the duct tape off of our eyes.