No neutral ground: Alternatives to war

By Robert Jensen

[A lecture delivered to the Dallas Peace Center at Grace United Methodist Church, Dallas, October 8, 2001.]

In his message to the nation on Sunday, George Bush got one, and only one, thing right: “There is no neutral ground.”

He is right, in kind of a twisted way. After Sunday, Oct. 7, for Americans to claim neutrality would be self-indulgent, a position available only to those who are comfortable in their privilege and willing to hide in that privilege. As Dante said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

It is a strange day when one can quote George Bush and Dante together, but these are strange times. Times of great moral crisis.

Bush is right about neutrality, but wrong — dangerously wrong — about what our choices are.

The choice for the American people is not between supporting terrorists who kill our brothers and sisters in the United States or supporting the war that our president has begun, which has already killed our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan and will no doubt kill many more in many more places, if we are to believe what the politicians and generals say.

Our choice is different. We must choose between sanity and insanity. Between a path toward justice and a path of war.

The sane path is the path toward justice. That path gives us two tasks. First is the justice necessary to hold accountable those who have killed innocents. Second, and every bit as important, is the justice that could dry up the reservoirs of pain and oppression in which terrorism breeds.

The path of insanity is war, the belief that we can repeat the mistakes of the past and achieve new results. The belief that missiles can solve the problems caused by policy.

I say the path toward justice, rather than the path of justice, because justice is not a state of being, it is a goal toward which we must continually strive. Much of the talk of the past month has been about bringing the terrorists to justice, and that focus has been appropriate in the face of such an inhuman crime. But if we are to talk seriously about security for Americans, that question of justice must be dramatically expanded. We must ask: “What about justice around the world?”

Notice that I said “security for Americans,” not “national security.” For 56 years we have been told that American foreign policy and the military machine were geared to protecting national security. That has been true, if one understands the phrase “national security” not to mean the security of the people of the nation, but the security for a small segment of that nation to pursue its economic interests around the world with as little disruption as possible.

Let’s go back to 1948, when State Department planner George Kennan wrote:
“The US has about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming, and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about such vague and unreal objectives as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

For 56 years, the United States has hung onto idealistic slogans, all the time acting just as Kennan recommended. Our leaders continue to use the pompous and empty rhetoric of world benefaction, of democracy and freedom. So, the attack on Afghanistan is sold to us as humanitarian; we have to take out Taliban air defenses to allow our planes to do air drops of supplies (never mind that air drops are the most ineffective and dangerous way to distribute food). Because part of the Taliban air defenses are mobile, we have to bomb everywhere. We bomb them so we can feed them. Well, some of them. And not enough to stay alive. But that is all the humanitarian cover that is needed in a country where most people get their news from CNN and FOX.

Now it is time to ask: Have these policies to protect national security protected our security, the security of the people? The answer was delivered on Sept. 11.

So, let us begin the task of thinking seriously about those policies. Let us take up the examples that Osama bin Laden himself has offered.

Before we do that, let us be clear: To examine U.S. foreign policy and the complaints of the Arab and Muslim world is not to in any way suggest that terrorism can be justified. We must separate the task of explanation from justification. The killing of innocents can never be justified. But just as obvious: To prevent further killing of innocents, we must try to understand the motivations of terrorists.

I do not pretend to know what motivates Osama bin Laden. But it is not difficult to understand what he uses to motivate his followers. In the videotapes he uses to recruit people into his network, bin Laden mentions three specific U.S. policies:

One is U.S. support for Israel and the U.S. role in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The anger of Arabs on this count is justified. For more than three decades the United States has been the biggest obstacle to a just settlement of that conflict. The much vaunted “peace process” that the United States directs is simply the latest round in a long policy of rejecting the international consensus for a regional peace. The U.S. policy is clear: It give $3 billion a year in aid to Israel, which is turn performs the duties of the local enforcer of U.S. power.

Second is the ongoing economic sanctions on Iraq. Again, the complaints of the Arab world are justified. For more than a decade, the cruelest economic siege in modern history has been in place, at the demands of the United States. We are told it is to weaken Saddam Hussein (our one-time friend turned the-next-Hitler when he disobeyed U.S. orders), yet he only grows more powerful. And in the meantime, over a decade more than 1 million civilians have died as a direct result of the sanction, according to U.N. studies.

Third is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, in the holy lands of Islam. These troops are there to prop up a Saudi government that has no legitimacy and would collapse without U.S. support, but which cuts favorable deals with U.S. oil companies and banks. The also are there to assert U.S. power in the region. Is it so surprising that much of the Arab world is not pleased with this policy?

Those troops — several thousand in Saudi and Kuwait — are of course a remnant of the Gulf War. It is instructive to remember that war as we march ahead a decade later into another conflict.

The Gulf War began with a crisis in the Middle East, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Let’s put aside the considerable evidence that the United States wanted to set up Iraq — subtly encouraging Iraq to make a move against Kuwait to resolve its grievances about borders, oil fields, and debts, allowing a war that the Bush administration desperately wanted — and just concentrate on what we know for sure. The United States used that Iraqi invasion to extend its power in the Gulf. It derailed any attempts at a diplomatic settlement of the crisis and made sure that the solution would be military and American imposed. U.S. officials declared over and over that there would be no negotiations, and then were praised for their great diplomacy. When just before the war Hussein looked as if he might concede most of his agenda and negotiate a withdrawal, the Bush administration was worried, for they knew they could not justify a continued military presence without a war. “We have to have a war,” Bush said to his advisers (see Bob Woodward’s book, Shadow). And the war came, with at least tens of thousands killed immediately and hundreds of thousands to die in the immediate aftermath from disease and malnutrition.

What have we seen in the past month? A horrible attack on civilians occurred, and a response was necessary. But what response? From midday on Sept. 11, the Bush administration, backed by Democrats in Congress and cheered on by the media, declared the solution to this would be massive military retaliation. U.S. officials have declared over and over that there would be no negotiations, that the Taliban must meet all demands without question. This is what Americans call diplomacy, but is a transparent sham. For this, the Bush administration was praised for its great restraint for waiting 26 days before it unleashed the dogs of war.

Now we are on the path of war. Now we are reacting to the provocation of Sept. 11 with another attempt to impose our will upon the world through our military. It is precisely this kind of use of military power that has brought us to this place in history. We are targeted because of what we have done. Again, that is not to justify the terrorist attacks; it is to try to understand them. If the United States did not have such a record of cruel and callous policies to deepen its domination in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden would not be able to recruit suicide squad members. Whatever bin Laden’s agenda and theology, it is the legitimate anger of the Arab and Muslim world that sustains his network.

So, the question for the American people: Are we strong enough, moral enough, mature enough to face these facts and choose a new course?

Our leaders have demanded that we continue on the path that brought us here. That is, quite simply, insane, if one’s goal is the security of the American people and justice in the world.

But the men who plan these things are not insane, of course. They just believe that the national security is primary over the security of people, and they care not one whit for justice. And they believe that they can continue to ensure the national security with the same tools that has bolstered it for 56 years: The threat of force and the use of force; the most destructive military capacity in the history of the world and a willingness to use it.

What those of us outside the planning circles of the elite have to understand is that these methods have ensured national security for their interests, but they have comprised the security of the people. And we have to understand that only we can change that. We first have to craft arguments that can help other people see these things. So, let’s talk strategy.

I know many principled pacifists, and I have great respect for them. I am not a pacifist; I believe there are times and places where it is just to respond to violence with violence in order to protect innocents and seek liberation. But whatever one’s view of that question, the argument I think we have to make right now to the public is not about nonviolence as a moral imperative.

From my experience as a guest on many talk radio shows the past few weeks, I can tell you that pacifism is of interest to virtually no one in the United States. Even if you are a pacifist, I would strongly recommend that you make other arguments. The only public display of pacifism that could possibly mean anything right now would be for pacifists to put their bodies on the line, to put themselves somewhere between the weapons of their government and the innocent victims in Afghanistan. Short of that, statements evoking pacifism will be worse than ineffective; they will paint all the antiwar movement as self-indulgent and out of touch with reality.

I think we must focus on something beyond “war is bad.” Yes, war is bad. But we must make clear and rational arguments that expose the façade of U.S. foreign policy and its vapid talk of humanitarian intentions. We must make Americans face the fact that our country is the empire, and it operates with the same imperial arrogance and cruelty that has been the mark of all empires. And we must make them see that the empire protects only a small segment of elites, not the people.

My goal here tonight is simple: I am afraid, and I want you all to be afraid, too. The men in the White House and the Pentagon have unleashed the dogs of war, but I fear they have unleashed something far worse than any war we have ever seen.

I remember the beginning of the Gulf War. I remember the sadness and fear I felt when that war began. I remember how day by day, as the bodies piled up, I would die a little inside. It was a difficult time. In many ways, I have never recovered from that; it was a harsh coming of age for me.

But this feels different. This feels far worse. This doesn’t feel like a war. Let us name what has happened: Not just a war, but a new insanity has been unleashed upon the world. An unlimited war that our leaders counsel could go on indefinitely. A war against enemies in the “shadowy networks,” which means we will never know when the shadowy enemy is vanquished. This is quite possibly the policy-makers’ shot at the final, and permanent, militarization of U.S. society. Add to that the possibility of more terrorist attacks from the fringe of the Arab and Muslim population even more convinced of the depravity of Americans, and the possibility of entire countries destabilized. Are you scared? How can you not be?

This insanity was touched off by the fanaticism of men who believe they understand God’s will and have the right to kill to bring about that vision.

This insanity has now been furthered by the fanaticism of men who believe they have a right to run the planet by force to protect their privilege.

These men have drawn lines and told us we must choose sides.

I will choose sides, but not on their terms.

I will choose not just to speak for the peace that our leaders have rejected, but also to speak hard truths about the unjust world that our leaders seek to maintain.

Our president is right; there is no neutral ground.

So, let the men who talk with God and the men who play with power draw their lines. And let the rest of us step outside of the lines into a circle. Let us not only join hands in prayer but also lock arms at the barricades of dissent and civil disobedience. Let us build a movement that can steer a nation off the path of war and onto the path toward justice.

Let us take the president’s final words from Sunday and make them our own:

“We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail” at the task of our lifetimes, the task of creating justice where there is so much oppression, the task of regaining sanity in a world gone mad.