SOLOMON: What's Democracy Got to Do With It?

In late May, the president of the United States openly violated the War Powers Act -- and the national media yawned.The war powers law, enacted in 1973, requires congressional approval if the U.S. military is to engage in hostilities for more than 60 days. As that deadline passed on May 25, some members of the House spoke up. "Today, the president is in violation of the law," California Republican Tom Campbell pointed out. "That is clear." And Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich added: "The war continues unauthorized, without the consent of the governed."But sophisticated journalists in the nation's capital just shrugged. To them -- and to the Clinton administration -- the law is irrelevant and immaterial, a dead letter undeserving of serious attention. In this dark time of push-button warfare, when more and more eyes are getting adjusted to shadowy maneuvers, it's possible to discern a pattern of contempt for basic democratic principles.Forget all that high-sounding stuff in the civics textbooks. Unable to get Congress to vote for the ongoing air war, the president insisted on continuing to bomb Yugoslav cities and towns, destroying bridges and hospitals, electrical generators and water systems. Boasting of the Pentagon's might, he has pursued a Pax Technocratica with remote-control assurance.Attorney Walter J. Rockler, a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials more than half a century ago, is among the Americans outraged at what is now being done in their names. On May 23, his essay in the Chicago Tribune denounced "our murderously destructive bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.""The notion that humanitarian violations can be redressed with random destruction and killing by advanced technological means is inherently suspect," he wrote. "This is mere pretext for our arrogant assertion of dominance and power in defiance of international law. We make the non-negotiable demands and rules, and implement them by military force."With enormous help from mass media, the White House has been able to marginalize the public on matters of war and peace. Reporters and pundits routinely portray top U.S. officials as beleaguered experts whose jobs are difficult enough without intrusive pressures from commoners. More than ever, the American people are serving as spectators while elites make crucial foreign-policy decisions.When military action is on the agenda in Washington, public opinion can be troublesome, even obstructionist. That's one of the hazards of democracy -- or at least it should be. But the Clinton team has learned to mitigate the danger that the public will intrude on the process of deciding whether the United States should go to war. It's a trend that has been accelerating in recent years.In February 1998, key U.S. officials traveled to Ohio State University for a "town hall meeting" about a prospective American missile attack on Iraq. Airing live on CNN, the session went badly from the vantage point of Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Samuel Berger, whose responses to tough questions seemed inadequate to many viewers. The trio left Columbus with egg on their faces.Evidently, the debacle made a big impression. Since then, leery of any high-profile forum that could get out of control, the White House has not even gone through the motions of consulting the public before launching a military attack -- on Sudan and Afghanistan last August, on Iraq last December, and on Yugoslavia this spring. With warfare on the horizon, President Clinton's attitude toward the American public seems to be: When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it.This approach has met with little challenge from news media. In fact, many journalists in Washington seem to share the view that the public is inclined to be too meddlesome -- and should not be allowed to tie the hands of foreign-policy specialists who may wisely wish to pursue the goals of U.S. diplomacy by military means.While the decision to go to war is momentous, the public has found itself in the role of passive onlooker. Rather than submit to a process of national debate, the White House prefers to present Americans with a fait accompli. One of the effects of the missile attack launched against Yugoslavia on March 24 was to truncate the public debate before it had even begun.When U.S. military action is involved, Clinton's policy-makers seem to regard the public as a sort of unruly -- and perhaps rather dumb -- animal that must be tamed and herded for its own good. What we've seen is the implementation of a formula for bypassing genuine public discourse: Go to war first. The public can raise questions later, while the war escalates and the propaganda machinery spins into high gear.And they call it democracy. Norman Solomon's most recent book, "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media," was published this spring.


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