MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 25

International Socialist Review, September–October 2002


Attack on Iraq

The fake debate over invasion


From International Socialist Review, Issue 25, September–October 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


THIS SUMMER, the Bush administration and several leaders of the Republican foreign policy establishment have engaged in a strange public dispute over Bush’s plans for a “preemptive” war on Iraq. In the latest exchange, Vice President Dick Cheney scored one for the ultra-hawks in his blood-curdling Veterans of Foreign Wars speech.

“The debate is over,” neoconservative hawk William Kristol told the Boston Globe. “[Cheney’s speech] marks a transition from an administration weighing what to do to an administration beginning to make its case at home and abroad over the next two or three weeks in favor of an attack.”

For its part, the State Department appeared to distance itself from Cheney’s remarks. A week after Cheney dismissed international weapons inspections of Iraq as useless, Secretary of State Colin Powell called for them.

All of this has made the self-proclaimed “dream team” of U.S. foreign policy look more like the Keystone Kops. Bush and his gang thought their proclamations would rally support for “American leadership.” Instead, their apparent bungling united nearly every U.S. ally and Gulf protectorate against a unilateral U.S. strike on Iraq.

The Economist, the voice of a former empire, slapped down the new one: “The administration still seems oddly reluctant to persuade even likely supporters to back military action. In holding back, Mr. Bush’s team seems to confirm the general suspicion that it does not give a hoot what anyone thinks–including Congress.”

Certainly one aspect of the constant war talk is Bush’s need to keep negative news about the economy, corporate scandals, and other subjects unfavorable to him out of the media. Media critic Norman Solomon calls this Bush’s “wag the puppy” strategy. With the public backing him on little else, it makes sense for Bush to keep the war pot boiling through the 2002 congressional elections. But seeing the dispute over Iraq as simply an election-year ploy is to put it into a too-narrow focus.

After all, if Bush and Cheney were only following a script that Bush’s adviser Karl Rove wrote, it’s doubtful that establishment figures like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft or former Secretary of State James Baker would feel the need to weigh in.

At root is a division in the ruling class about how to address what foreign policy experts call “American primacy.” Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has had no serious rival to its military power in the world. And even though the 1990s boom fell into recession last year, the unprecedented advance of the U.S. economy nudged it ahead of most of its economic rivals.

That’s why Cheney’s talk about Saddam Hussein posing a “mortal threat” to the U.S. is such nonsense.

The fact remains that the U.S. has no rivals on the world scene. And the U.S. government–under Bush, and under Clinton before him–wants to keep it that way. The question isn’t whether or not war against Iraq is the aim of U.S. imperial policy. It’s how to go about it.

The “hawks” in the administration, including Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, spelled out their goals long before last September 11 in a secret 1992 Pentagon paper. The paper laid out a vision of a post-Cold War world where the U.S. would aim to “prevent the reemergence of a new rival. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”

Toward this end, the hawks asserted a U.S. right to intervene anywhere unilaterally:

“We will retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies and friends.”

After someone leaked the document to the New York Times, the hawks were forced to back down in the face of criticism. The paper’s inclusion of U.S. allies in Europe among the list of potential “new rivals” shocked the political elite. Now, the same crew behind the Pentagon paper, in power under Bush II, feels it has license to enact a vision considered too controversial in 1992.

The Scowcrofts and the Bakers don’t disagree with the need to maintain U.S. dominance. Nor do they rule out unilateral U.S. action. But they worry that a “preemptive” war to enforce a “regime change” in Iraq will backfire unless U.S. allies are arm-twisted, cajoled, and bribed into at least the appearance of broad support.

Democrats like former President Bill Clinton or former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have simply echoed some of Bush’s Republican critics.

Where the hawks feel that U.S. power alone can force the world to bow down to American primacy, the establishment critics think it’s preferable to get U.S. allies to “want what we want.” Despite protestations, Washington is likely to get its way. As the Wall Street Journal recently commented, in return for its support for war, Russia “is expected to seek an understanding with the U.S. that it will have a freer hand in putting down its rebellion in Chechnya and that it will get a portion of the postwar contracts for rebuilding Iraq.” France’s President Jacques Chirac has already begun to shift his position, too.

This isn’t a debate between hawks and doves. It’s a policy dispute between figures who assume that the U.S. is an imperial power and must act like one. And when the Bush administration gives the order for war, you can be sure that all of today’s establishment critics–and many of Bush’s international ones–will “stand with the president.”

As the International Socialist Review goes to press, the gap in this already narrow debate is closing fast, as Bush makes a flurry of calls to allies and prepares to make his case to the UN. Already, Cheney and Powell have, in true tag-team form, switched positions. Cheney began in early September emphasizing that the U.S. is “trying very hard not to be unilateralist.” Powell, meanwhile, switched to hard-cop, asserting, “The president will retain all of his authority and options to act in a way that may be appropriate for us to act unilaterally to defend ourselves.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the UN Security Council in 1994 that the U.S. “will behave multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must.” This policy has now been turned on its head: The U.S. will act unilaterally if it can, multilaterally if it must.

That’s why it’s so crucial today for activists to stand up and begin organizing against this war–and not to get bogged down in wishful thinking that there are “moderates” in the White House who can stop it, or that the UN– if and when Bush demands its backing–will be anything but a fig leaf for U.S. Imperialism.

* * *

U.S. Politics

“September 11 effect” fading?

IN THE year since the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush has lived a more charmed life than usual. Wrapping his right-wing policies in the American flag and strutting around decrying “evil,” he managed to silence all but his most determined critics. For a few months, a normally compliant press turned to putty as it compared him to Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Now, the establishment’s view of Bush isn’t so deferential. In its “one year since September 11” issue, Time magazine summed up its own and the Republicans’ worries about Bush: “It is tempting to believe that Bush rose to the occasion last September because flag and country demanded it. But with the passage of a year, and a chance to watch the president in action at home and overseas, it’s harder to get away from the idea that Bush didn’t rise to meet history but that history fell to meet him. There is now a growing sense in the Republican Party that it is time for Bush to move on–and a growing apprehension that he cannot find the ways and means and words to do so.”

This was the sort of commentary that would have subjected Time to torrents of abuse from right-wing thought police only a few months ago. But the U.S. press always lines up with a winner. And Bush isn’t looking too invincible these days. In fact, a recent New York Times/CBS poll indicates a 24-point drop in Bush’s 87 percent approval rating after September 11. He is on pace to lose all of the “September 11 effect” in time for the midterm congressional elections. A late-August poll of registered Illinois voters is even more striking. Forty-six percent disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy while 43 percent approve. That’s a sharp turnaround from April when 56 percent approved of Bush’s management of the economy and only 32 percent disapproved. The poll found that 55 percent believe that Bush is more likely to look out for the interests of big corporations than those of ordinary people. And perhaps most significantly, Bush’s approval rating fell to 59 percent from 82 percent two weeks after September 11–roughly where it was five months before the attacks. Now 32 percent give Bush a negative overall rating, compared to 12 percent in October.

If the terrain of mainstream American politics has shifted, it’s because the “September 11 effect” obscured, but did not erase, the underlying concerns of ordinary people. As early as January 2002, opinion surveys showed domestic economic issues drawing even with “terrorism” as Americans’ main concern. The spectacular collapses of Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Arthur Andersen and a host of other corporate leaders finally got the media’s and Congress’s attention. Then the stock market’s loss of more than $1 trillion in value in July alone–and all the retirement savings losses that implied–made economic anxiety a front-burner topic. For an administration that had banked on riding the “war on terrorism” to political gain in 2002, this was truly bad news.

These shocks to the economic and financial system dealt a severe blow to what commentator Kevin Phillips calls the “free-market theology” that has dominated political and economic discussions for more than two decades. Suddenly, politicians who had stuffed their pockets with corporate cash for years began denouncing corporate criminals. And Republicans who had convinced themselves that masses of people supported their plans to privatize Social Security urged their candidates to back off this stand–even denying that they supported privatization.

Just as important, the economy that government and corporate officials insisted would “bounce back” in the second half of 2002 looked instead closer to the second leg of a double-dip recession. Unemployment remained stuck at 5.9 percent as the economy virtually ceased to create jobs. What’s more, the number of Americans out of work for more than 6 months hit its highest rate ever. A government report on mass layoffs, released in July, showed that employers planned to lay off almost 250,000 in the second half of 2002–hardly a harbinger of recovery. With most Americans more worried about their jobs than about the stock market, it was no surprise that closely watched “consumer confidence” indices plunged in August.

As a result, the Republicans entered the midterm campaigning season with a lot less swagger than when they predicted Bush’s “war on terrorism” popularity would create a new Republican majority. Polls suggested the possibility of Democratic gains at all levels of government.

Given what has unfolded in 2002–news about bungling in the FBI and CIA; corporate and stock market collapses; Bush and Cheney’s ties to corrupt corporations; jitters about a new war in Iraq; and continued mass layoffs–it’s a wonder that the GOP isn’t bracing for a landslide defeat. Liberal American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner echoes this: “This administration should be on the defensive, on every front. But despite foreign policy divisions that rival those of the Democrats during Vietnam, the Republican Party is not about to fall on its sword. What’s missing is an opposition party with a strong story and the courage of its convictions, on the whole range of issues.”

Lucky for the Republicans that their chief opposition is the Democratic Party. In America’s two-party system, the Democrats benefit from being Choice Number 2. But they have hardly done a thing to deserve what support they’ve gained. Senate Democratic le›ders helped ram through the wretched USA Patriot Act last October, and Democrats have willingly voted for Bush’s huge increase in Pentagon spending. On issues that are more dear to them, they have been unable to produce a bill supporting Medicare funding for prescription drugs. The “corporate accountability” bill, passed with much fanfare in July, was heading for burial in a Senate committee before WorldCom’s fraudulent accounting pushed even Wall Streeters to call for it.

For more than a year, Democratic support has propped Bush up. Now, when even Republicans are denouncing corporate greed, the loudest Democratic voices heard were those cautioning the Democrats not to give in to “class warfare.” When normally conservative Al Gore defended a populist response to Bush’s shameless shilling for the corporate agenda, he garnered abuse from Democratic insiders.

The Democrats and liberals are caught in a straightjacket of their own making. Their main appeal lies in promising solutions to everyday concerns–like support for the unemployed or Medicare prescription drug benefits. Yet they refuse to oppose the two main Bush policies standing in the way–Bush’s tax cut for the rich and his huge military buildup.

If Democratic politicians’ debts to big business have made them slow to attack, what’s the excuse of someone like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney? The rising tide of working-class anger seems unfocused because the one major organization that could articulate it in class terms–the AFL-CIO–remains more committed to the Democrats electoral goals than to workers’ needs. And organizing a class fightback risks alienating those corporate donors that the Democrats depend on.

If the Democratic machine’s ties to big business compromise it, Sweeney’s ties to the Democratic machine compromise him. At best, Sweeney talks about “working families” as he ritually endorses the standard list of poll-tested Democratic election themes like support for prescription drug benefits under Medicare. But he refuses to rally public and vocal opposition to everything from Bush’s threats to break a West Coast dockers strike or the anti-worker “bankruptcy reform” legislation his Democratic friends support. And so opportunities to move mainstream politics a few inches leftward–and to actually win something for ordinary people–aren’t even taken.

The collapse of the Bush administration’s credibility may produce Democratic gains in the fall. This will certainly cheer millions who’ve hated Bush since the day he stole the 2000 election. But for gains that will improve our lives, ordinary people have to take the initiative to build the day-to-day fights in workplaces and communities.

* * *

Corporate Criminals

The rich don’t pay

DURING MORE than two decades in which politicians pledged to get “tough on crime,” the U.S. prison population has exploded–roughly quadrupling since 1980. Longer sentences, less parole, and longer prison terms for low-level offenders all contributed to this eruption, making the U.S. responsible for incarcerating 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

If you’re a corporate criminal, however, there’s little need to worry. Long prison terms are only reserved for “bad” criminals, like nonviolent drug offenders in New York who face a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life for selling two ounces or possession of four ounces of a narcotic substance. Almost 30 percent of New York’s 69,000 prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, and of those, 94 percent are Black and Latino.

While poor and Black defendants in the U.S. can be locked up for years for minor offenses, the story is entirely different for white-collar criminals. Fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, and other similar crimes carry an average sentence of not even two years–less than a third of the average term for drug crimes as minor as simple possession–according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In May 2002, white-collar offenders made up only 1,054 of the 160,193 people in federal prisons. But for most white-collar crimes, there are rarely trials or even charges filed, let alone prison sentences.

That’s good news for former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers. Ebbers presided over WorldCom while it defrauded investors by overstating its profits to the tune of $7.6 billion. What’s more, Ebbers personally raked in at least $11 million when Salomon Smith Barney cut Ebbers in on hot initial public offerings of stock in exchange for Ebbers bringing WorldCom’s huge consulting business to Salomon. In its July 1 special report on corporate accounting scandals, Business Week combined feigned moral outrage at the corporate accounting scandals and condescension towards ordinary people in its explanation of why corporate criminals will never do time.

Will the little guy finally be avenged? Don’t count on it . The laws regulating companies are ambiguous, juries have a hard time grasping abstract financial concepts, and well-counseled executives have plenty of tricks for distancing themselves from responsibility . What’s more, many of the abuses that have enraged the public are entirely legal. Companies can file misleading accounting statements that are in complete compliance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). They can boost their income, for example, simply by assuming that their pension plan investments will earn a higher rate of return in the future. Executives are also allowed to enjoy outrageous incomes and baronial perks without breaking any laws at all–so long as the board approves. And because so many of the laws governing corporate conduct are weak, there’s no way criminal or civil prosecution can ever be a complete substitute for regulatory reform–no matter how aggressive the White House promises to be. “Enforcement works for the tiny percentage of people who engage in truly egregious behavior,” says Henry T.C. Hu, a corporate and securities law professor at the University of Texas. “But for the far more numerous instances of lesser behavior, it is hard to reach them through enforcement.”

In Mississippi, where WorldCom’s corporate headquarters are located, Ebbers would probably face a tougher sentence if he were convicted of “maliciously injuring livestock” for which the penalty is up to five years in prison.

The defenders of the system–including the criminal justice system–argue that disparities in sentencing for crimes on the streets versus crime in the suites makes sense. After all, they say, street crime poses a direct and traumatic threat to life and limb, while corporate crime doesn’t pose the same risks to people. But for workers whose loss of retirement savings leaves them unable to pay medical bills or working for several more years, the distinction between street and corporate crime isn’t so tangible. But in any case, the truth is that the scale and violence of corporate crime are far greater than street crime. A conservative estimate of the number of deaths from occupational disease–caused by exposure to carcinogens and other toxins on the job–each year is 50,000. That compares with 20,000 people who were murdered last year. And this number doesn’t include people who die in a “workplace incident”–which unlike the term “workplace accident” doesn’t excuse corporate executives and managers who knowingly put workers in harm’s way by cutting corners on workplace safety regulations. Between 1984 and 1992, 95,000 workers died on the job, and 21.8 million suffered injuries that forced them to lose at least one day’s work.

Corporate America’s executives may succeed at escaping prison, but they won’t escape the political fallout that follows from the glaring inequalities between filthy rich executives and the workers whose retirement savings are wiped out, between corporate crooks treated with kid gloves and nonviolent offenders doing hard time.

Hundreds of thousands of workers affected directly by this crisis are already drawing conclusions about the way American capitalism works, conclusions that in many cases contradict opinions held before. Cara Alcantar, who had 1,600 stock options after four years at WorldCom, told reporters that she was naive to identify with WorldCom’s CEO. “I felt on the same side as Bernie Ebbers, on the cutting edge of technology,” she said. “I worked extremely hard, and I couldn’t imagine layoffs would ever happen to me.” Now Alcantar has been laid off, her stock options are worthless, and WorldCom says it can’t pay her severance. “Not only were they not looking out for our interests,” Alcantar said, “they were so greedy they made sure the money went into their pockets.”

And for George W. Bush, whose administration is more closely identified with Corporate America than any in history, the repercussions are only now beginning to be felt in his popularity ratings.

The more that bread-and-butter issues come to the fore and the further September 11 recedes into the past, the less credibility Bush has. In part, this explains why Bush is so anxious for war with Iraq, but it also shows why it’s necessary for socialists to point out the connection between the huge spending on the war abroad with the war on workers at home.

Last updated on 15 August 2022