Working towards peace and sustainability

Putting the Iraq War in Context

Comments by Mid-Missouri Peaceworks Director Mark Haim at the January 27 Town Hall Meeting on the Iraq War

In order to understand the Iraq War, and not only to end it, but to prevent similar future episodes, we need to put the current conflict into a broader context, looking at U.S. foreign policy more generally, and historically. To do so, let me start by sharing a little personal history.

As a kid back in the early 1960s I, like most young Americans, had accepted the mainstream political perspective on Cold War issues like Cuba or Vietnam. Thus, I initially supported the War in Vietnam. I saw the war as necessary to prevent the spread of “evil Communism.” In 1967, when I was a senior in high school the Vietnam War was clearly going very poorly indeed and more and more people—myself included—who had been supporters, began turning against the war.

It became clear to me when I was 17 that we’d “made a mistake in Vietnam.” That was how it was phrased, “Vietnam was a mistake.”

Just six months or so later I was off to college. It was here, during my freshman year, that I was disabused of my naive belief that the Vietnam War was a “mistake.” Talking with some of the older activists (they were perhaps 20 or 21) I came to understand a bit more about the U.S. role in the world, and came to realize that wars like the one we were involved in then—or like the Iraq War today—are logical outgrowths of our economic system. I also learned that there is a name for the way we relate to the developing world and that is imperialism, or neo-colonialism.

I came to understand that the country I’d grown up in, while it defined itself to its citizens as a force for good in the world, a promoter of freedom and democracy, was instead all too interested in controlling and dominating other nations and their resources. I learned that this was the case especially throughout Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

I learned, over the next several years, of the many dozens of interventions, overt and covert, all around the world, that our country had engaged in for literally more than a century. If you’re not aware of these, I suggest Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, William Blum’s Killing Hope, or Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival.

I came to realize that the Cold War and anti-Communism were ideological constructs used to justify policies that long predated Communism (just think of the Monroe Doctrine and the Mexican War for example.). And, it is worthy of note that these policies have now have outlived the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact.

I also today recognize how today the so-called War on Terror has taken the place in our ideological framework of anti-Communism.

Back then I came to understand, further, that the imperialism I’m speaking of is primarily a system of economic control by transnational corporations, but that it was backed up by the force of militarism and the constant threat of the use of America’s military power.

Learning then that Vietnam was not a mistake, but rather was a logical outgrowth of the system, led me to understand that we needed to do more than just end the war, we needed to change the system at the root.

I remember as a college student being so angry and frustrated with John Lennon when he came out with what at the time I considered a ridiculous song. Lennon told the world “All We are Saying is Give Peace a Chance.” I knew, however, that we were saying so much more than that.

Since then, I’ve learned to like the song in spite of it’s reductionist lyrics. Along the way I’ve also learned more about the U.S. role in the world. What I’ve learned has reinforced my understandings of nearly 40 years ago. I believe just as firmly today that we need to work for a thoroughgoing paradigm shift, a “to the root” redirection of the U.S. economy, our values, priorities and institutions, as well as our foreign policy.

While many see the Vietnam War era peace movement as one of the great progressive success stories in recent history, the flip side that we must acknowledge is that as the war wound down, the movement stood down. Instead of pushing en masse for a radical societal redirection, as the body bags stopped coming home, most people in the peace movement stopped turning out.

The failure of the Vietnam era peace movement to bring about real change in the U.S. social order or the American role in the world leads directly to where we find ourselves today:

    • Our nation today has 4.6% of the world’s people, but we spend fully 48% of the world’s military budget.

    • Virtually every other nation with a significant military budget—I’m talking perhaps 4% of the world’s total now—is either a formal ally, like the UK, France, and Japan, or a nation we have major economic ties to, like China or Russia. All the so-called Axis of Evil states and other official enemies, like Cuba, have negligible military budgets and constitute absolutely no meaningful threat to our national security. We could actually cut our military spending by 80% and still have by far the world’s strongest military.

    • Our nation is also blessed with allies on our borders north and south, and vast oceans to the east and west. No nation has invaded our country since the War of 1812, and none threatens us today.

    • While young men and women are recruited and urged to enlist to “defend the nation,” the American military has very little to do with defending our so-called “Homeland.” Rather, it has everything to do with projecting power around the world.

    • The American military has a presence of some sort in 130 countries, on every continent, on every ocean and in the heavens.

    • Moreover, the U.S. military is not positioned to defend our nation against foreign threats, but rather to control geopolitically strategic regions of the world.

The foremost of these is the Persian Gulf. This region, which according to the CIA’s annual Fact Book is home to 65.5% of the world’s proven oil reserves, has been an area of primary concern in U.S. foreign policy since the Roosevelt administration. The policy of attempting to control the Gulf region has been bipartisan. It’s been the objective of every single U.S. administration throughout my lifetime. Just as, I should note, the Cold War was bipartisan and the so-called War on Terror is now bipartisan.

Our government has installed and removed governments in the Middle East at its choosing. It has engaged in covert actions, like the 1953 coup that removed the democratically elected government of Iran under Mossadegh, installing in its place the brutal Shah. It has supported tyrants and despots, including of course Saddam Hussein, as well as anti-democratic feudal aristocracies like the Saudi royals and the various Gulf emirs.

Our military has been sent in numerous times, but more often the U.S. has operated through proxies, like Egypt, Jordan or Morocco, whose militaries our government arms and trains.

It is clear that we will only outgrow our obsession with the Gulf and with the other oil rich regions of the world when we take the needed steps to make our economy energy efficient and move to sustainable, renewable alternatives.

Our hopes for a more peaceful, just and sustainable future are meaningless until we recognize the nature of the problem. Certainly, we must end the immediate and vast suffering that the Iraq War represents, but we must also challenge our fellow citizens to rethink the role of our nation in the world.

As long as the so-called “opposition” politicians keep saying things like “I hope that when you hear the debate in Washington that you understand that whatever our differences over the means, we are all agreed on the end,” they offer us no alternative to speak of. That was Hillary Clinton, by the way, speaking to U.S. troops in Afghanistan earlier this month. And as long as the “opposition” calls for a larger military, rather than dramatic cuts in military spending, they are not an opposition at all.

It’s high time for a redefinition of the role of the U.S. military to simply defending our nation’s borders, and for building real security through promoting a sustainable and economically just future here and around the world. We in the peace movement need to figure out how to make this, not what our troop levels in Iraq should be, the primary focus of political debate.

As we move to the public comment period of this town hall meeting, I challenge you to address not simply how can we end the Iraq War, but the more basic question: how can we outgrow and transcend the American Empire? How can we bring our nation into balance, devoting our resources toward creating a just, sustainable and prosperous future for all, rather than attempting to control and dominate through economic coercion and military bullying?

I leave these questions to you and look forward to hearing your responses.