War on Iraq

Uncle oSAMa Wants You!

The anti-war movement needs a strong argument against attacking Iraq. Here's one: Osama bin Laden would be delighted if we did.
Among the riotous collision of political beliefs converging in the U.S. to oppose an invasion of Iraq, one recent image stands out -- both for its popularity and the questions its popularity raises. That image, first distributed in late September as one of TomPaine.com's advertisements in the New York Times and on TomPaine's web site, shows Osama bin Laden in an Uncle Sam outfit, with a riff on the iconic military recruiting poster: "I want YOU to invade Iraq."

Given the flood of assorted lobbying efforts, ads, flyers and images generated in opposition to the Bush Administration's Saddam Hussein obsession, the buzz on the Uncle oSAMa poster was astonishing. At least a half dozen times I encountered people or groups that were not just enthusiastic, but insistent: "You MUST get this image out!" A lot of people did, indeed, get it out. And it is undeniably powerful. But why?

As with all good political art, part of the reason is that while the poster is a clear message (of opposition), it's open to interpretation. People convinced the Bush Administration is a bunch of genocidally-minded fundamentalist zealots naturally assume that the implication is simple: Bush (or America) = bin Laden. But the more common assumption, I think, is that it means that bin Laden (should he be alive) would be delighted by an American invasion of Iraq -- that it would fuel not just Al-Qaeda's recruiting efforts, but anti-American hatred throughout the Islamic world (and beyond), and, ultimately or perhaps quite immediately, bring his apocalyptic vision of world war between Islam and Christianity to fruition.

That particular point -- that with an invasion the opinion of America on the Islamic street will plunge even further, and often into the territory of blind hatred -- is virtually unarguable; proponents of invading Iraq seem to think that most Iraqis will welcome America's troops as liberators from Saddam, and that any other Islamic opposition isn't really that important and can be dealt with by the U.S., Israel, or any of our fine, American-armed dictators (and their American-trained secret police and torture chambers) in the region. And besides, they'll either a) get over it, or b) always hate America anyway, because we're such a beacon of freedom and democracy and "they" just naturally hate that sort of thing.

There's no doubt that Islamic reaction -- and the possibility for expanded and indeterminate war in a volatile, resource-rich (and hence coveted) and heavily-armed part of the world -- is one of the several major reasons for opposing Bush's war plans. But the popularity of the Uncle oSAMa image speaks, I think, to another, generally overlooked part of the anti-invasion movement. The poster is powerful precisely because most people find the idea of abetting Osama bin Laden to be repugnant. In other words, a significant -- probably the most significant -- portion of the war opposition also loathes Osama bin Laden and what he represents.

That's not nearly as clear-cut an observation as you might think. Unfortunately, the anti-war movement -- particularly its major street demonstrations -- have frequently been represented, from the stage and in the media, by ideological fringe elements like ANSWER ("America Needs Slogans With Empty Rhetoric!") -- which is to say, the International Answer Center -- which is to say, Ramsey Clark, he of the Slobodan Milosevic (and Rwandan genocide) Fan Club -- which is to say, your Stalin-loving friends at the Workers' World Party. Or, similarly, Not In Our Name, a movement sparked by your Maoist friends at the Revolutionary Communist Party. Whatever else can be said of these political dinosaurs -- who have been less than forthcoming about their pedigree and wildly disingenuous in representing themselves publicly as THE anti-war movement -- most opponents of Iraq invasion don't share their foreign policy views on a wide range of topics.

But the TomPaine.com poster takes the formulation one step further. If we are to believe the numbers in public opinion polls -- and while many progressives don't, stay with me a moment -- something like 70-80 percent of Americans favored a military response after 9/11, while up to two-thirds of Americans either outright oppose invading Iraq or support it only under the condition that either it's supported by "the international community" (dubious, but the Bush Administration will now argue it after last week's Security Council resolution); or that America not incur many casualties in such an invasion (dubious, and verging on delusional).

Why would someone support, say, invading Afghanistan, and oppose invading Iraq? The reasons are many and compelling. Al-Qaeda and its ilk represent far more of a threat, for starters -- in the region, on U.S. soil and to the world. The Afghan connection to 9/11 was much clearer, and therefore the argument of self-defense. We're not done in Afghanistan yet. America can't afford two major wars. Preemptive, unprovoked attack violates both international law and sets a horrible political and military precedent, one likely to rebound against America itself. The objective of preventing anti-American terrorism will be ill-served by invading Iraq and inciting more terrorists. The list goes on.

Such arguments are the political center in this debate. They are neither reflexively anti-war nor anti-Bush. They are respectful of the military and of America. They take the initial and perhaps most important of George Bush's ever-shifting rationales for the War on Terror at face value -- that above all else, it's our government's responsibility to its citizens to do all it can to prevent attacks like 9/11 from happening again.

One can certainly also argue that America's foreign policy, with its imperial arrogance and ever-mounting wake of "collateral damage," represents as morally repugnant a spectacle as bin Laden's fundamentalism. Certainly, both result in the loss of untold innocent lives, and it's not clear whether it's better or worse that America's is in the service of a more clearly defined, and more achievable, objective -- or that that objective (global imperial dominance) is better or worse than bin Laden's dreams of global theocracy. But bin Laden is no political leader; he's the titular head of a wide-ranging network of murderers who wrap their rage in political and religious motives and apply it to massive crimes. While bin Laden's professed motives for 9/11 -- U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, support for Israel's repression of Palestinians and imposition of deadly economic sanctions against Iraq -- are legitimate grievances, almost all progressives (let alone the rest of the country) are against him, not with him.

The movement to forestall -- or cut short -- an increasingly likely invasion of Iraq needs to make this very clear. Various movements are afoot to supplant groups like ANSWER in providing a public face to the anti-war impulse. They need a message, and it's not enough that it won't center on freeing Mumia (or Milosevic). And the message is as simple as Osama in Uncle Sam garb.

It's time to put the Bush Administration itself on the defensive in the War On Terror. We want Al-Qaeda and its ilk eliminated. They're the problem; Saddam Hussein, while reprehensible, is not. Are the Bushies with us or against us?
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