Jonathan Schell

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?

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At Last: The Real Story of the Vietnam War

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Nuclear Renaissance

The review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a five-yearly event, opened in New York on May 2 without benefit of an agenda. The conference had no agenda because the world has no agenda with respect to nuclear arms. Broadly speaking, two groups of nations are setting the pace of events. One -- the possessors of nuclear arms under the terms of the treaty, comprising the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- wants to hold on to its nuclear arsenals indefinitely. The other group -- call them the proliferators -- has only recently acquired the weapons or would like to do so. Notable among them are North Korea, which by its own account has built a small arsenal, and Iran, which appears to be using its domestic nuclear-power program to create a nuclear-weapon capacity.

As the conference began, Iran announced that it would soon end a moratorium on the production of fissile materials and Pyongyang declared that it had become a full-fledged nuclear power -- a declaration buttressed by testimony in the Senate from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, that North Korea now has rockets capable of landing nuclear warheads on the United States. If the two countries establish themselves as nuclear powers, a long list of other countries in the Middle East and North Asia may seek to follow suit. In that case, the NPT will be a dead letter, and the gates of unlimited proliferation will swing open.

The two groups of nations are in collision. The possessors want to stop the proliferators, and the proliferators want to defy them as well as ask them to get rid of their own mountainous nuclear arsenals. One of the liveliest debates at the conference concerns the nuclear fuel cycle, whereby fuel for both nuclear power and nuclear bomb materials is made. In the possessor countries, proposals abound to restrict this capacity to themselves, thus digging a moat around not only their arsenals but their nuclear productive capacities as well. The proliferators respond that the world's nuclear double-standard should not be fortified but eliminated: In the long run, either everyone should have the right to the fuel cycle -- and for that matter to the bombs -- or no one should. (This was the view of Pakistan and India until, in May 1998, they remedied the inequity in their own cases by testing nuclear weapons and declaring themselves nuclear powers.)

Far more contentious is the new American military doctrine of pre-emptive war, aimed at stopping proliferation by force, as the United States said it sought to do by overthrowing the government of Iraq. Inasmuch as the Bush administration has suggested that even nuclear force might be used, the new policy represents the ultimate extreme of the double standard: The United States will use nuclear weapons to stop other countries from getting those same weapons. The proliferators accordingly fear a world whose commanding heights will be guarded by the nuclear cannons of a few nations, while the rest of the world cowers in the planet's lowlands and back alleys. Nuclear disarmament, once the domain of the peace-loving, would become a prime engine of war in an imposed, militarized global order.

The debate between the nuclear haves and have-nots is probably unresolvable anytime soon. Certainly it will not be settled at the review conference. And yet, as is true of so many adversaries, the two groups of nations have more in common with each other than with other nations: They both want nuclear weapons. And if one looks at what is happening on the ground, a remarkable uniformity appears. All the parties in this quarrel are expanding their nuclear capacities and missions. In a sense the two groups, even as they threaten each other with annihilation, are cooperating in nuclearizing the globe.

The end of the cold war was supposed to be the beginning of a farewell to nuclear danger, but now, 15 years later, it's clear that a nuclear renaissance is under way. China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Britain are all increasing their arsenals and/or their delivery systems. (In an amazingly undernoticed development, the shadow of danger from Chinese nuclear weapons is falling over larger and larger areas of the United States.) The United States, even as it reduces the number of its alert nuclear weapons -- though not the total number of nuclear weapons, alert or otherwise -- is rotating its nuclear guns away from their traditional Cold War targets and toward Third World sites. (The United States and Russia built up such an excess of nuclear bombs during the Cold War that they can string out their dismantlement almost indefinitely without carving into their joint capacity to finish off most of human civilization.) Britain likewise is redirecting its targeting. Its Defense Secretary has stated that even the modest step of declaring no-first-use of nuclear weapons "would be incompatible with our and NATO's doctrine of deterrence, nor would it further nuclear disarmament objectives." In other words, Britain may find it necessary to initiate a nuclear war to achieve nuclear disarmament. Finally, individuals and terrorist groups are reaching for the bomb and other weapons of mass destruction. Osama bin Laden, for instance, has declared that obtaining such is the "religious duty" of Muslims, and Sept. 11 gave us an example of how he might use them.

All but unheard in the snarling din are the true voices of peace -- voices calling on the one group of nations to resist the demonic allure of nuclear arms and on the other group to rid themselves of the ones they have, leaving the world with a single standard: no nuclear weapons. Of the countries represented at the conference, fully 183 have found it entirely possible to live without atomic arsenals, and few -- barring a breakdown of the treaty -- show any sign of changing their minds. In the UN General Assembly the vast majority of them have voted regularly for nuclear abolition. Behind those votes stand the people of the world, who, when asked, agree. Even the people of the United States are in the consensus. Presented by AP pollsters in March with the statement, "No country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons," 66 percent agreed. In other countries, the percentage of supporters is higher. On the day their voices are heard and their will made active, the end of the nuclear age will be in sight.

This article will appear in the May 23rd issue of The Nation.

Something Strange

As I followed the initial coverage of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I was reminded of a time in the early 1980s when I spent some months researching the effects of a nuclear war – the thermal pulses from the detonations, the bursts of radiation, the blast waves spreading out from ground zero, the immediate local fallout and the delayed stratospheric fallout. Of course, my research was into a merely possible event – humanity's only actual experience of nuclear blasts having been the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – whereas the news from the Indian Ocean was actual.

Still, the similarities were striking. As would happen in a nuclear war, villages and small cities were scoured from the face of the earth. "Before" and "after" satellite photographs showed the erasure even of geographic features of the landscape. Islands sank. New harbors formed. Towns were lakes. Like photographs of bombing damage, the before photos showed the fine articulation of human cultivation and dwelling – in this case, a salad of greenery laced with lines of red tile roofs and roads – and the after pictures were a smear of browns. As in nuclear war, the sweep of destruction was immense, involving a dozen countries, some as far away as East Africa. As in nuclear war, the ground was carpeted with corpses. Like the fires set by nuclear war, the flooding waters tore friends and families apart, leaving some to die while others saved themselves. As in nuclear war, it was not just immense numbers of individual lives that had been swept away; it was also the support systems of human life – transportation, fresh water, power, medical services. And so many of the injured who might otherwise have survived could not be cared for, and died. As in nuclear war, the many tales of individual survival both brought the experience to life and yet at the same time seemed to falsify it. For at its heart were the tens of thousands who had perished and could tell nothing.

Yet while a nuclear war would be man-made, the tsunami was nature's work. "There is something strange happening with the sea," someone called out to Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who was vacationing in Sri Lanka and saw the sea suddenly rise. Just as strange, it then withdrew with a sucking sound, leaving a wide stretch of the seabed bare, the fish gasping. And then it rushed back in again. A man in Indonesia said, "The water separated, and then it attacked." A Kenyan man said, "It was like seeing the sun setting in the east. The tide was crazy. The water wasn't following the rules." Something strange happened with the land, too, when the earthquake that caused the tsunami struck. And soon even the sky seemed to be acting strange. "It was like Armageddon," said Zukarnaen Buyung, a Sumatran construction worker. "We didn't know it was a wave. We thought it was some kind of rain. Everything behind us was black. The sky, the water." All of nature – water, land and sky – was breaking the rules, and attacking.

Few disasters have come as greater surprises than this one, and part of that surprise was its origin in nature rather than man. Perhaps that's one reason George W. Bush and Tony Blair, shuttered in the closed universe of the man-made "war" on man-made terror, were so slow to awaken to the dimensions of the catastrophe. (Both leaders remained on vacation for more than a week after the event.) They seemed unable to conceive of a tragedy that was both irrelevant to their crusade and hugely exceeded it in scale and human importance. But in truth, most people around the world seemed disoriented by nature's shock. The human capacity for mass destruction has been so highly developed in our time that we seem, without quite realizing it, almost to have claimed title to the art, as if to say, "Wait, how can nature do this? Isn't killing hundreds of thousands of people our business?"

Certainly, the response was slow, both locally and internationally. The original American offer of $15 million was a disgrace to the country. Even to mention such a figure in the face of such suffering was a mockery. The word "stingy," used by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, is one of the kindest that might be applied. Of course, as Egeland soon pointed out, he had not explicitly singled out the U.S. response to the tsunami for criticism; he had spoken more generally of the miserly contributions in recent years from all rich nations – which nowhere reach even 1 percent of GDP – to international humanitarian aid. (In this company, the United States is a veritable Scrooge, giving about 0.15 percent of GDP.) But coming the same day as Bush's $15 million commitment (a third of the sum that a businessman has just paid to buy a large house in Wainscott, Long Island, and less than last year's year-end bonus for the president of Goldman Sachs), it was inevitable that the criticism would be taken as it was. The U.S. commitment has now risen to a more respectable $350 million and is likely to rise further. Misinterpretations don't usually lead to good results, yet this one has.

But the literal meaning of Egeland's criticism was as important a message as the salutary misreading. In his exact words, "We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries, and it is beyond me why we are so stingy, really. ... Even Christmastime should remind many Western countries, at least, how rich we have become." He was referring to the historical fact that in the past few decades the richer the rich have become, the less they have given in aid. Why, we might ask, is there, alongside armed forces in almost every country, no established international rescue army – no well-funded international force fully equipped with emergency gear ready to give prompt aid in any large-scale catastrophe? Initial funding might be $100 billion – a mere 10 percent of the trillion or so the world spends annually on arms. Why, when human need is the greatest, should the human response always be left to improvisation? There is no reason to think that nature had any lesson in mind, whether about the world's bloated, multiplying nuclear arsenals or anything else, when it shoved one tectonic plate beneath another, causing the earthquake that caused the tsunami. But we are free to draw a lesson: Leave mass destruction to nature. Our job should be to protect and preserve life.

A Heartless War

For some time now, American political discussion has seemed to revolve around little stock phrases, such as "defining moment" (at the time of the first Gulf War), "the end of history" (at the end of the Cold War), "the economy, stupid" (in the early Clinton years), "shock and awe" (as the second Gulf War began). Sometimes there's a revival of one or another. One of these is "winning hearts and minds." It became popular during the Vietnam War and is enjoying a vogue in the context of the war in Iraq.

However, the phrase has undergone an interesting evolution. This is reflected in two recent columns, one by Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post , the other by Mark Bowden in the Los Angeles Times . You might suppose that any reflection on hearts and minds would revolve around the elections that are planned for January in Iraq. How, someone might ask, can the United States, now hugely disliked in Iraq, make itself so appealing that Iraqis would vote for a government cut to our specifications? Yet the principal occasion for the two writers' reflections is instead the military campaign – specifically, the Marines' assault on Fallujah.

Back in the days of Vietnam, the phrase acquired a definite meaning: In a war of pacification, winning battles was not enough; you also had to win the population's hearts and minds. If you did not, each victory in battle would only be the prelude to further battles, and at the end, when you left, all your work would be washed away by the contrary will of the local people, as happened in Vietnam. It was possible to rule by the sword, as empires have done through the ages, but then you had to be ready to occupy the country indefinitely. Winning hearts and minds, therefore, was not a frill of policy but its foundation, the sine qua non of victory.

In his discussion of the invasion of Fallujah, Hoagland begins with a seeming acknowledgment of the Vietnam lesson. He recognizes that the measurements of success cannot merely be the "numbers of insurgents killed or captured, or bomb factories seized or obliterated." For "as Americans learned to their grief in Vietnam," such measurements are "elusive and illusory." We expect to hear at this point that winning hearts and minds is necessary, and Hoagland does not disappoint. But he introduces a variant of the old phrase. Fallujah, he says "is part of a battle for minds rather than 'hearts and minds.'" (The title of the article is "Fighting for Minds in Fallujah.") What can he mean? What happened to hearts?

The answer is that the "immediate objective is to dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection," and "the price they will pay for doing so is being illustrated graphically in the streets of Fallujah." This isn't a lesson for the heart – the organ of love, enthusiasm, positive approval. The reaction of the heart – whether Iraqi or American – could only be pity, disgust and indignation. Thus, only the "minds" of "the townspeople" could draw the necessary conclusions, as they survey the corpse-strewn wreckage of their city. In short, the people of Iraq will be stricken with fear, or, to use another word that's very popular these days, terror. Then they'll be ready to vote.

Bowden takes up the same theme. "Guerrilla war is always about hearts and minds," he notes. He acknowledges that most of the guerrillas would have escaped in the long buildup to the attack. Still, he argues, the attack was important. True, it will not influence the "boldest" souls, who are motivated by "nationalism, religion, kinship or ideology." (All these things were applauded in the recent American election, but they apparently are to have no place in the life of Iraqis.) But "ordinary people" can still be won over. How? He arrives at the same conclusion as Hoagland. "I suspect fear has more to do with influencing them than anything else." Most Iraqis, "like sensible people everywhere, are looking to see which side is most likely to prevail." The stake for them is "survival" – depending on which side is more likely to kill them. Bowden wants it to be the United States. The payoff is not any concrete achievement of the attack; it is the spectacle of the subjugated city, which "works as a demonstration of will and power."

Certainly, the assault on Fallujah has given the Iraqi people a lot to look at, and a lot to think about. Some 200,000 people – the great majority of Fallujah's population of some 300,000 – were driven out of their city by news of the imminent attack and the U.S. bombardment. No agency of government, U.S. or Iraqi, which turned off the city's water and electricity in preparation for the assault, offered assistance. Nor did the United Nations Refugee Agency or any other representative of the international community appear. And where are the people now? And what stories are the expelled 200,000 telling the millions of Iraqis among whom they are now mixing? We don't know. No one seems to be interested.

When the attack came, the first target was Fallujah General Hospital. The New York Times explained why: "The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties." If there were no hospital, there would be no visible casualties; if there were no visible casualties, there would be no international outrage, and all would be well. What of those civilians who remained? No men of military age were permitted to leave during the attack. Remaining civilians were trapped in their apartments with no electricity or water. No one knows how many of them have been killed, and no official group has any plans to find out. The city itself is a ruin. "A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction," the Independent of Britain reports, "with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, telegraph poles down, power and phone lines hanging slack and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets."

Both columnists do mention the elections. Bowden says the best hope for Iraq is "for elections to take place," and Hoagland believes the attack on Fallujah will "clear the way" for them. Ballot boxes are to spring up in the tracks of the tanks. Some commentators even refer to "the Sunni heartland." (As far as I can tell, no one has yet asked how Iraqi "security moms" will vote.) Meanwhile, the insurgency, failing so far to learn its lesson, has opened fronts in other cities, which may soon get the same treatment as Fallujah. "They made a wasteland and called it peace,"

Tacitus famously said. It was left to the United States, champion of freedom, to update the formula: They made a wasteland and called it democracy.

Why We Must Leave Iraq

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, once a supporter of the war in Iraq, has been rethinking his position. The day after Sen. John Kerry's speech at NYU attacking the president's war policies, Cohen wrote, "I still don't think the United States can just pull out of Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing."

Well, let's discuss it.

The United States should just pull out of Iraq.

There are many issues in politics that are very complicated. The war in Iraq is not one of them. Common sense in regard to this war rests on two rock-solid pillars:

(1) The United States should never have invaded Iraq.

(2) Now it should set a timetable to withdraw and leave.

These two propositions go together. The litany of reasons why it was wrong to invade Iraq – that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, no ties to al Qaeda and only the dimmest prospect of democracy – are the same as the reasons why it is now wrong to remain there.

And in truth, the war would have been an even greater mistake if the reasons given for it had been based on reality – if the weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda had existed. People don't have to ask themselves today what might have happened if Vice President Cheney had been correct in saying, as he did before the war, that Iraq had "reconstituted its nuclear weapons" and if CIA director George Tenet had also been correct in saying that the sole circumstance in which Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction would be if his power were threatened. Had both men been correct, there might have been a use of weapons of mass destruction against American troops in the Iraq theater, or even on U.S. soil (if the ties to al Qaeda had also been real), and a possible use of nuclear weapons by the United States in retaliation.

How fortunate we are that Cheney, at least, was factually mistaken! That he was wrong is the bright side, if you like, of the current mess. His disastrous factual errors may have saved us from his catastrophic policy errors. Nor has the war brought with it any new justification for itself. On the contrary, it has added fresh reasons for leaving. If the story of the occupation so far – a story of scarcely imaginable incompetence, misfired intentions, collapsing plans, multiplying horrors and steadily growing resistance – teaches a single clear lesson it is that the United States is a radicalizing force in Iraq. The more the United States pursues the goal of a democratic Iraq, the farther it recedes into the distance. The longer the United States stays the course, the worse the actual outcome becomes.

Let there be as orderly a transition as possible, accompanied by as much aid, foreign assistance and general sweetness and light as can be mustered, but the endpoint, complete withdrawal, should be announced in advance, so that everyone in Iraq – from the beheaders and other murderers, to legitimate resisters, to any true democrats who may be on the scene – can know that the responsibility for their country's future is shifting to their shoulders. The outcome, though not in all honesty likely to be pretty, will at any rate be the best one possible. If the people of Iraq slip back into dictatorship, it will be their dictatorship. If they choose civil war, it will be their civil war. And if by some happy miracle they choose democracy, it will be their democracy – the only kind worth having.

Kerry's speech was the beginning "at long last" (his words) of a serious debate in the campaign over the war. The speech was heralded by his charge, a few days before, that George W. Bush lives in a "fantasy world of spin" – the first telling, or even widely audible, phrase that Kerry has used in his entire campaign for president. Bush, indeed, has an audacious personal quality that has somehow served him well so far: full frontal repudiation of facts known to all. Faced with the absence of WMDs in Iraq he once simply said, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction." Faced with a Presidential Daily Brief titled "bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.," he and his spokespersons called it "historical." In his universe, faithfulness to delusion is "consistency." It reached its apogee at the GOP convention, where the president presented a picture of the war in Iraq from which all current facts – the street fighting, the bombing, the kidnappings, the torture, the departing allies – had been removed.

"Staying the course" meant staying in the imaginary world. At the convention, the president, if we are to judge by his sudden dramatic rise in the polls, apparently drew a majority of the country into that world with him. Yet almost immediately thereafter, he sank again in many polls. As of this writing, the polls are in anarchy, showing anything from a double-digit Bush lead to a dead heat. The polling may reflect the confusion of a public groping to deal with its immersion in the imaginary world. Like a movie audience emerging from a feel-good blockbuster onto the icy streets, the public probably cannot help noticing that what is before its eyes is quite different from what was on the screen. The bright and shining lies are always more appealing, at least for a while, than the plain truth. Could the resulting double-vision be the reason for a certain flip-flopping, so to speak, of the public itself?

In his speech, Kerry embraced one of the pillars of common sense, finally declaring that the war was a mistake, saying of the president, "Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no." He did not proceed, however, to the necessary corollary, that withdrawal is necessary, though he hinted at it. Each of his concrete proposals – to find allies, train Iraqi police, speed up reconstruction, hold elections – is fine, but none guarantee the success in creating a "viable" Iraq that he still seems to promise.

He has put one foot in the real world, but left the other in the imaginary world, leaving himself open, still, to the flip-flopping charge that Bush immediately leveled against him again. Only 100 percent fantasy will do for the president. But Kerry has at least begun the journey – one as hard as the journey from his service in Vietnam to his protest against it – toward the real. Give him credit for that.

Empire Falls

When I was writing my book, "The Unconquerable World" just before the Sept. 11 attacks, others were much readier than I to call American policies "imperial" and the United States an "empire." I hesitated; I hung back. After all, one theme of the book was that the age of empires was over. The newly expired twentieth century, I pointed out, was one huge boneyard of empires: the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Ottomans, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians. Imperial rulers had repeatedly been amazed to find themselves overmatched by the localized, intense, and finally unquenchable forces of national resistance movements. More startling still, the success of those movements invariably depended mainly on political, not military strength. In some cases, such as Gandhi's independence movement against the British in India, and the Polish rebellion against the Soviet empire, the struggles succeeded without using violence at all.

The twentieth-century anti-imperial movement triumphed almost everywhere. No political creed, feudal or modern, was able to defeat it. Yet almost any political creed proved adequate for winning independence. Liberal democracy (the United States in 1776, Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s), communism (China, Vietnam, Cambodia), racism (the Boers of South Africa), militarism (many South American states), theocracy (Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in the 1980s), even monarchy (Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century) had all proved suitable for achieving self-determination. In these circumstances, it seemed almost unimaginable that the United States could really be aiming at that hoary old nightmare of the ages, the always-feared but never-realized ambition to win universal empire, otherwise known as "world domination" (as people used to say of the Soviet Union's goals in the Cold War years). In any case, didn't "imperialism" mean rule over other countries – viceroys issuing orders from grandiose palaces, occupying armies, colonial administrations – which were methods mostly avoided by the United States?

These differences regarding empire were quickly settled after Sept. 11. I gave up my reservations. Like the empires of old, the United States set out to rule foreign lands – directly, as in the case of Iraq (I won't even pause to rebut the risible claim that that country was recently handed "sovereignty") or indirectly, as in Afghanistan. I joined others in speaking of American empire. We were hardly alone. In fact, if there was one thing that everyone suddenly seemed to agree on, it was that the U.S. was an empire, and a global one at that. There were the right-wingers, like New York Times columnist David Brooks, celebrant of America's yuppie class, who called the United States the first "suburban empire," and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who wanted the U.S. to step up to "national greatness" and "benign" empire. (And which empire has not seen itself as benign?) There were the new realists, like the journalist Robert Kaplan, admirer of Henry Kissinger, who championed American "Supremacy by stealth," and supplied U.S. policy-makers with "Ten Rules for Managing the World." There were the liberal imperialists – or, as I think of them, the romantic militarists – like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East and elsewhere at the point of a gun. And then there was the left, which had long excoriated American imperialism and still did. Once, the left had stood alone in calling the U.S. imperial and was reviled for defaming the nation. Now it turned out to have been the herald of a new consensus. Yesterday's leftwing abuse became today's mainstream praise.

And surely there was no word in the extant vocabulary but imperial for the post-Sept. 11 policies of the Bush administration – for its unilateralism, its doctrines of preemptive war and regime change, its frankly avowed ambition to achieve global hegemony (although the administration itself continued to disavow the imperial label).

Yet the consensus was short-lived. As the debacle in Iraq unfolded, the note of the imperial trumpet grew uncertain. I also began to wonder again about my embrace of the language of empire. My old reservations started cropping up in new forms. For one thing, if, as so many mainstream commentators were saying, the United States was self-evidently an empire, when did this happen? Was it with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican-American war of the 1840s, the allied victory in the Second World War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that left only the "sole superpower" standing? Or was it perhaps at some undetermined moment in the giddy decade that followed? Did any of the new mainstream imperial apologists notice the development, or alert anyone else to what was happening? Was I looking the other way when the transformation was announced? I am unaware that any candidate ran on an imperial program, or that any voters voted for one. Or did empire simply sneak up on the country – a stealth empire indeed – as in the case of the British empire, once famously said to have been acquired in a fit of absence of mind? Can a people rule the world without noticing it?

Such an account of American history involves a spectacular denial of agency – and of democratic responsibility – to voters and politicians alike. Moreover, an assumption that the imperial deed is already done deprives the public of decision-making power for the future. Why debate a decision already taken? American empire then acquires the tremendous weight of accomplished fact, and the only realistic question becomes not whether to run the world, but only how to do so. Before the Iraq invasion, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard wrote that the United States was an empire "in denial." He wanted the United States to wake up and face its imperial responsibilities: "enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest," "laying down the rules America wants," "carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century – Ottoman, British and Soviet." For "in the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones – Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two – that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past." This was reluctant, sorrowful imperialism. The British historian Niall Ferguson took the argument a step further, writing an entire book, Colossus, praising the fallen British empire and inviting the United States to step into its shoes.

These ideas seem to me to embody a grand misreading of events. Ignatieff and Ferguson appear to look at twentieth century history as a contest among empires that was won by the United States, opening the way for it to run the world. As I see it, however, the United States is likely to prove the last of the long series of imperial tenpins that have been knocked down not by other empires but by local independence struggles. Once it has become clear to everyone that the American imperial bid has failed, and with it the entire age-old imperial enterprise, we can return to the mountainous real work of our time, which is to put together what we have never had but now must create – an anti-imperial, democratic way of organizing the world.

We're now almost three years into the out-of-the closet American imperial timetable, and I doubt even the most eager imperialists can argue that things are going well. North Korea, a member of the President's "Axis of Evil" has reportedly become a nuclear power, in defiance of the explicit threats made by the global hegemon. Iran, another Axis member, is heading down the same path. The long-awaited recovery of the American economy, like the empire it is supposed to support, is stalling. American forces are stretched to the breaking point around the world. World opinion on all continents has turned against the United States. But the centerpiece of the imperial endeavor is of course the war in Iraq, as Ignatieff recognized in his pre-war essay, in which he wrote that Iraq was "a defining moment in America's long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic."

The war, launched in pursuit of a mirage (those missing weapons of mass destruction), is an unqualified disaster. But the most remarkable "intelligence failure" in Iraq was not to see weapons of mass destruction where there were none; it was to blind ourselves to the struggle of national resistance that history told us would have to follow American invasion and occupation. It was perfectly reasonable (though mistaken) to think that Saddam Hussein had revived his WMD programs. It was delusional to imagine that the people of a post-colonial country would happily accept a new occupation. No consultation with British or French or Israel intelligence agencies was needed to grasp this lesson. It was writ large in the annals of twentieth century history, including the voluminous records of the United States' defeat in Vietnam. The lessons of Vietnam remain important not because the Vietnamese nation resembles the Iraqi nation but because Vietnam was America's very own, protracted, anguished experience of the almost universal story of imperial defeat at the hands of local peoples determined to run their own countries.

Like every other chapter in the long history of the fight against empire, the war in Iraq has had its peculiar features. When the United States arrived in Baghdad, there was no pre-existing popular resistance movement (or movements) in place – Saddam Hussein had seen to that – , as there had been when the American military arrived in force in Vietnam. Neither was there any apparatus of an imperial puppet government at hand like Ngo Dinh Diem's in Vietnam. Instead, there was a double political vacuum. The consequence was anarchy, immediately visible in the looting of the country in the days following the conquest. Now, that vacuum is being filled on one side. Movements of national resistance have arisen in both the Sunni north and the Shiite south. (The Kurdish population is friendly to the United States but not to the Iraq that the United States wants it to join.) On the American side, a former Baathist official and CIA asset, Iyad Allawi, does the bidding of the United States without benefit of popular support. The contest has assumed a form distressingly familiar from other anti-imperial movements. The local resistors are weak militarily but strong politically. The imperial masters are powerful militarily but nearly helpless politically. History teaches that in these contests, it is political power that prevails. The shameful and piteous slaughter throughout southern Iraq of Iraqi Shiites, the people the United States supposedly went to war to save, has the look of one of those victorious battles that loses the war.

But the full truth may be that the war in Iraq was lost before it was launched. The preemptive war was pre-lost. The problem was not the Bush Administration's incompetence, great as that has been, but the incurable incapacity of any foreign conqueror to win local hearts and minds, on which everything, in the last analysis, depends.

Don't the recent fortunes of the "empire" as a whole reveal a similar pattern of political weakness underlying military strength? "Rise and Fall" – these are terms inseparably connected to the story of empires, and the question at any given moment has ordinarily been where an empire is on this curve. But the place on the rise-and-fall trajectory of today's American empire is not easy to calibrate. It seems to be rising and falling at the same time. It garrisons the globe, but accomplishes little. The emperor in Washington thunders his instructions to the five continents but is often disregarded. America's military power is "super," but its use seems to hurt the user. Perhaps the American empire was pre-fallen. It seems not so much to rise or fall as, all at the same time, to expand and contract, to thunder and retreat.

We should perhaps not be surprised by this merging of sequence. The handwriting announcing failure was not on the proverbial wall in the form of a prediction whose fulfillment had to be awaited, it was inscribed in every history book of the last hundred years. The verdict was delivered before the crime was committed.

I know the question is many-layered. Critics were calling economic globalization imperialism long before George Bush ever attempted regime change in Iraq, and they still have substantial reasons for doing so. But surely it would be as much a mistake to assume the triumph of an American imperial system while the issue is still in the balance as it was for the president to proclaim "mission accomplished" on the USS Abraham Lincoln shortly after American troops had taken Baghdad.

The new imperialists told us that the United States could run the world if only it snapped out of denial and got on with the job. The results are before our eyes. Is the United States then a globe-straddling empire? Not just yet – and maybe never.

Peace Is Not On-Message

"During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current President, the Vice President and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going, too. But instead he said, 'Send me.'

"When they sent those Swift Boats up the river in Vietnam... John Kerry said, 'Send me.'

"And then when America needed to extricate itself from that misbegotten and disastrous war, Kerry donned his uniform once again, and said, 'Send me'; and he led veterans to an encampment on the Washington Mall, where, in defiance of the Nixon Justice Department, they conducted the most stirring and effective of the protests, that forced an end to the war.

"And then, on my watch, when it was time to heal the wounds of war and normalize relations with Vietnam...John Kerry said, 'Send me.'"

So spoke President Clinton at the Democratic Convention – except that he did not deliver the third paragraph about Kerry's protest; I made that up. The speech cries out for the inclusion of Kerry's glorious moment of antiwar leadership; and its absence is as palpable as one of those erasures from photographs of high Soviet officials after Stalin had sent them to the gulag. Clinton's message was plain.

Military courage in war is honored; civil courage in opposing a disastrous war is not honored. Even thirty years later, it cannot be mentioned by a former President who himself opposed the Vietnam War. The political rule, as Clinton once put it in one of the few pithy things he has ever said, "We [Democrats] have got to be strong.... When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."

And now the United States is engaged in a war fully as wrong as the one in Vietnam. The boiling core of American politics today is the war in Iraq and all its horrors: the continuing air strikes on populated cities; the dogs loosed by American guards on naked, bound Iraqi prisoners; the kidnappings and the beheadings; the American casualties nearing a thousand; the 10,000 or more Iraqi casualties; the occupation hidden behind the mask of an entirely fictitious Iraqi "sovereignty"; the growing scrapheap of discredited justifications for the war. But little of that is mentioned these days by the Democrats. The great majority of Democratic voters, according to polls, ardently oppose the war, yet by embracing the candidacy of John Kerry, who voted for the Congressional resolution authorizing the war and now wants to increase the number of American troops in Iraq, the party has made what appears to be a tactical decision to hide its faith.

The strong and wrong position won out in the Democratic Party when its voters chose Kerry over Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. An antiwar party rallied around a prowar candidate. The result has been one of the most peculiar political atmospheres within a party in recent memory. The Democrats are united but have concealed the cause that unites them. The party champions free speech that it does not practice. As a Dennis Kucinich delegate at the convention said to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, "Peace" is "off-message." A haze of vagueness and generality hangs over party pronouncements. In his convention speech, President Carter, who is on record opposing the war, spoke against "pre-emptive war" but did not specify which pre-emptive war he had in mind. Al Gore, who has been wonderfully eloquent in his opposition to the war, was tame for the occasion. "Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war," he said, "isn't it now abundantly obvious that the way this war has been managed by the Administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?"

What of the antiwar sentiment that is still in truth at the heart of most Democrats' anger? It has been displaced downward and outward, into the outlying precincts of American politics. The political class as a whole has proved incapable of taking responsibility for the future of the nation, and the education of the American public has been left to those without hope of office. Like a balloon that squeezed at the top expands at the base, opposition to the war increases the farther you get from John Kerry. Carter and Gore can express a little more of it. Howard Dean, who infused the party with its now-muffled antiwar passion, can express more still. Representative Kucinich, a full-throated peace candidate, has endorsed Kerry and has kind words to say about him but holds fast to his antiwar position. On the Internet, Tomdispatch.com, AlterNet.org, commondreams.org, antiwar.com, MoveOn.org and many others are buzzing and bubbling with honest and inspired reporting and commentary. Michael Moore is packing audiences into 2,000 theaters to see Fahrenheit 9/11.

It's not too early to worry about the dangers posed by the Democrats' strategy. In the first place, they have staked their future and the country's on a political calculation, but it may be wrong. By suffocating their own passion, they may lose the energy that has brought them this far. They have confronted Bush's policy of denial with a politics of avoidance. Bush is adamant in error; they are feeble in dedication to truth. If strong and wrong is really the winning formula, Bush may be the public's choice.

In the second place, if Kerry does win, he will inherit the war wedded to a potentially disastrous strategy. If he tries to change course, Republicans – and hawkish Democrats (Senator Joe Lieberman has just joined in a revival of the Committee on the Present Danger) – will not fail to remind him of his commitment to stay the course, and renew the charge of flip-flopping. But the course, as retired Gen. Anthony Zinni has commented, may take the country over Niagara Falls. Then Kerry may wish that he and his admirers at this year's convention had thought to place a higher value on his service to his country when he opposed the Vietnam War.

This article will appear in the latest issue of The Nation magazine.

The Lexicographers in the White House

Ever since the September 11 commission stated authoritatively what everyone knew already, namely that there is no evidence that Al Qaeda was in business with Saddam Hussein, a debate of a most peculiar character has unfolded.

Almost no facts -- and none of importance -- are under dispute. No one now claims that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, or any other attack on the United States, or even that Saddam's regime had any joint undertaking whatsoever with Al Qaeda. Rather, the debate revolves around the definition of words. The highest officials of the executive branch of the government, as if re-baptizing it as an academic department of a university, have turned themselves into so many linguists. What is a "tie," a "relationship," a "link," a "contact," "cooperation"? On questions like these, the White House abounds in opinions.

The language of the report, as everyone knows, was that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government had no "collaborative relationship." Nor was there "any credible evidence" that the two organizations had "cooperated on any attacks against the United States."

The New York Times, perhaps smarting from its recently confessed misreporting regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, editorially stated that "there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11" and demanded "an apology" to the American people from President Bush.

The Lexicographer in Chief and his Vice Lexicographer saw their opening and pounced. Bush stated that while the administration had never "said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated" with Iraqi help, "we did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda." So, "the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda." Cheney said that the "evidence is overwhelming" of a "relationship."

The co-chairmen of the commission, former Governor Tom Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton, seemed to try to smooth over the controversy by pointing out that they had not denied the existence of "ties," only of collaboration.

What was now missing, however, from the administration's new self-defense were all the factual particulars that had given supposed substance to the charge of a relationship in the first place. No longer did the President claim, as he once had, that Saddam was "dealing" with Al Qaeda, or that Iraq "sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda," or "provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training." The only relevant facts left on the record were the negative ones described by the commission: Al Qaeda's early attempts to attack Saddam, whose secular Arabism it despised, by helping Iraqi Kurds and its rejected attempt later to secure assistance from Saddam.

Perhaps the most strained attempt to rescue some shred of justification for the administration's position was William Safire's claim in a recent Times column that the authors of the commission report had conflated a true denial that Iraq was involved in September 11 with a false denial that Iraq and Al Qaeda had had "decade-long dealings." But Safire, a specialist in grammar and the meaning of words, must have thought that no one would check his assertion against the report itself, which specifically addresses the decade-long dealings and finds them to be the ones of enmity and refusal to cooperate just mentioned. (Nor in fact does the no-collaborative-relationship finding apply just to September 11; it refers to all Al Qaeda activities since it moved to Afghanistan, around 1996.)

By surrendering the factual ground while hanging tough philologically, the White House and its defenders tacitly bowed to the substance of its critics' case. If the war in Iraq was indeed somehow a good idea, it was not because the word "relationship" can be stretched by certain high-powered word-torturers to cover relations of hostility and rejection.

Does the debate, then, at least bear on the important domestic question of the President's credibility? It surely does, but in this matter there was not much news, for the administration's response to the collapse of its case repeated the well-worn pattern of its response to the downfall of its claim before the war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction: monotonous repetition of the falsehood in the face of manifest evidence to the contrary and then a redefinition of words (in that case, confounding actual weapons of mass destruction with mere "programs" for building them), and throughout a tireless insistence that they were right, detached alike from information and the meaning of words. They seem to believe that truth consists not of correspondence of word with fact but of an implacable consistency armored with impervious self-righteousness.

There is no evidence of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda; the Bush administration has consistently misrepresented this fact. These judgments are not the possible conclusions of a debate that still lies before us; they are the starting point of a new discussion. Its subject is neither the justifications for the war in Iraq nor the President's credibility -- for both are obviously in tatters -- but the response to all this by the country.

The spotlight now shifts from the liars to the lied-to. How do we -- in the news media, in the country at large -- like it? Are we asleep or awake? Can we remember what was said to us a few months or even a few weeks ago? Do we care? Can we recall the proper meanings of words? Do we notice that thousands of people have been sent to their deaths on false premises? Do we have the mental or moral energy to do anything about it? These are the real questions put before us by the reports of the September 11 commission.

Politics and Truth

Halfway through Tim Russert's hour-long interview with Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry on April 18, there was an exchange that revealed in microcosm some of the fundamental unspoken rules of American politics in our day. Russert played a clip from Kerry's 1971 appearance on Meet the Press following his testimony as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A longhaired Kerry, in uniform, was seen saying that he stood by the essence of his testimony, in which he had said that veterans had admitted that they had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power." He added that under the Geneva Conventions such acts were war crimes.

Russert did not play the tape to congratulate Kerry for his truth-telling. On the contrary, he was clearly calling him on the carpet. He even suggested that "a lot" of Kerry's allegations had been discredited. In fact, every word that Kerry spoke then has been shown to be true in an abundance of testimony. Even now, new revelations pour out. For example, the Toledo Blade just won the Pulitzer Prize for unearthing the story of an army company that went on a seven-month rampage in Vietnam, routinely killing peasants, burning villages, cutting off the ears of corpses. Troops in the field can hardly engage in such conduct over a period of months without the knowledge and at least tacit approval of higher authority.

Kerry answered warily. He began by trying to make light of the clip. "Where did all that dark hair go? -- that's a big question for me," he joked. He went on to say that although some of his language had been "excessive," he was still proud of the stand he had taken. His predicament is worth pondering. The powers that be, with the approval of mainstream opinion, had sent him into a misbegotten war whose awful reality they covered up. When he helped uncover it, it was not they but he who was punished. In short, by sending young men into an atrocious, mistaken war, they created a truth so distasteful to the public that its disclosure, by discrediting the discloser, keeps them in power.

Was Kerry "flip-flopping" -- the Bush Administration's main campaign charge against him? Was he all-too-characteristically trying to back off from a position he had once taken while at the same time embracing it? And didn't this performance echo his complicated and equivocal stance on the Iraq war, in which he has said that his vote in the Senate to authorize the President to use armed force against Iraq was "not a vote to go to war" and that in 2003 he voted "for" the $87 billion supplemental authorization for the war "before" he voted "against it" (a statement the Republicans are making political hay with in a current TV ad)?

Kerry's equivocations are indeed related. For if as a soldier in Vietnam in 1968 and '69 he was brought face to face with one reality -- the human reality of the war -- then as a presidential candidate in 2004 he has been driven up against another -- the political reality that no antiwar candidate of modern times has ever made it into the White House. One might think that Kerry's good sense and bravery in opposing the Vietnam War three decades ago might stand him in good stead today. (How many Americans now think getting into Vietnam was a good idea?) But as the Russert interview shows, just the opposite is the case. It is Kerry's bravery as a soldier fighting the mistaken war, not his bravery as a veteran opposing it, that helps him in his bid for the presidency.

And so just as Kerry bowed to political reality by distancing himself from his old testimony while expressing continued pride in it, so he bowed to that same reality by voting for the Iraq authorization (while expressing opposition to "the way" the President went to war). Even today he will not acknowledge that his vote -- and the war -- were a mistake. Kerry is stuck between politics and truth. After the Congressional vote on the war, however, a peculiar thing happened. Kerry's political sails, far from filling with a fresh breeze, began to flap idly in the wind. Polls and pundits agreed: His nomination was dead in the water.

The action shifted elsewhere. For while opposition to a crazy war might not be a ticket to the White House, it was still good for something. It swelled a powerful popular movement. Huge demonstrations against the war took place in the United States, as they did throughout the world. In the time of Vietnam, antiwar sentiment propelled first Eugene McCarthy, then Robert Kennedy and later George McGovern into the forefront of Democratic politics. Now antiwar sentiment propelled Howard Dean into his brief moment of front-runnership. In the game of politics and truth, truth was sneaking in the back door. Suddenly, everyone was saying that the Democratic Party had recovered its energy, its "backbone."

But then came another surprising twist. A shrewd, or possibly over-shrewd, Democratic primary electorate, steaming with indignation against the war but apparently fearful of history's lesson that the antiwar man cannot win, shifted its allegiance from Dean to Kerry. All at once, the apparently political calculation that had underlain Kerry's vote for the war in the first place paid off, and he became the candidate.

Such is the archeology of the dilemma that Kerry and the Democratic Party face today. Their flip-flopping, which is real enough, is between the truth as they see it and politics as they know it to be. The party is an antiwar party that dares not speak its name. Its candidate is energized, but with a borrowed energy. He has a backbone, but it is a borrowed backbone.

The antiwar movement that has lent Kerry and his party this energy and this backbone faces a dilemma, too. On the one hand, it needs Kerry to win, even though he refuses to repent his vote to authorize the war. On the other hand, neither the movement nor Kerry can afford to let the antiwar energies that were and remain a principal source of their hopes and his, die down. The movement must persist, independent of Kerry and keeping him or making him honest, yet not opposing him. If truth must be an exile from the mainstream of politics, let it thrive on the margins.

Jonathan Schell, Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, is the author, most recently, of 'The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People' (Metropolitan).

This article was originally published in the May 10 issue of The Nation.

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