Can the Antiwar Movement Take Advantage of Bush’s “Spectacular” Failure?

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Rioting and violence continue across Pakistan following the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto.  It’s a disaster for Pakistan — and also for U.S. President George Bush.  The front page of the New York Times stated (Dec. 28):

The assassination highlighted, in spectacular fashion, the failure of two of Bush’s main objectives: his quest to bring democracy to the Muslim world and his drive to force out the Islamic militants who have hung on tenaciously in the nuclear-armed state considered ground zero in Bush’s fight against terrorism.

Even before the killing, top U.S. officials were warning of a catastrophe in the making.  On Dec. 23 high-ranking Washington figures told reporters that despite $5 billion in aid since 2001, the effort to bolster the Pakistani military against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had “largely failed.”  What’s more, most of the $5 billion was not even used for that purpose: millions were used to finance weapons systems designed to counter India or simply to prop up Pervaz Musharraf’s dictatorship — which now seems to be in terminal crisis.  For more on the Pakistan crisis, go to the article by Tariq Ali: “A Tragedy Born of Military Despotism and Anarchy” (Dec. 28). 

These front-page declarations of White House policy failures punctuate a month of emperor-has-no-clothes embarrassments for Bush.  For years the President and his Neocon cabal lorded it over all other factions of the policy-making establishment.  But in December Bush’s elite critics — having decided that Neocon policies were damaging U.S. interests — struck back.  Playing dirty the way Bush and Cheney have for seven years, they went public with a series of reports spotlighting the lies, cover-ups, and disastrous results of Bush-Cheney adventurism.

The biggest blow was a new National Intelligence Estimate released December 3.  This NIE declared that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that U.S. intelligence agencies “do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”  The report was an in-your-face proclamation discrediting the central argument in Bush’s crusade for a military attack on Iran.

Three days later, the New York Times revealed that the CIA had destroyed two videotapes documenting the “harsh interrogations” of al-Qaeda operatives.  Writing in Timespeak, the report stated that “the destruction raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission.”  In plain English this means that government officials committed war crimes and then destroyed the evidence.

Then “senior unnamed officials” leaked news (Dec. 16) that “the Bush administration and NATO have begun three top-to-bottom reviews of the entire [Afghanistan] mission” out of fears that the U.S. was losing that war.  The leakers said there was “growing apprehension that one of the administration’s most important legacies may slip away.”


All these reports were issued, leaked and/or promoted by figures who regard themselves as dedicated guardians of U.S. power.  The “intelligence professionals” who wrote the NIE; the policy-makers who released it and spoke to reporters about torture, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and the New York Times editors aren’t prone to embarrass U.S. Presidents without careful consideration.  But they have all concluded that Bush-Cheney-Neocon policies spell disaster for U.S power and influence.

Most of Bush’s elite critics are still too scared of “you-don’t-support-the-troops” demagogy to confront the President head on.  Hence the latest cave-in by congressional Democrats in voting Bush the no-strings-attached funds he wants for Iraq.  But via backroom maneuver and leaks, they are trying to change Bush’s course and make sure a more prudent imperial custodian can come to power.

It’s always satisfying to watch thieves and killers fall out.  But beyond that, the antiwar movement can learn a great deal from this spectacle — and take political advantage of it as well.

Every one of these reports is concrete evidence of how badly Washington’s policies have failed.  The sources of these declarations did not go public primarily out of a sudden attack of good conscience (though some among them may be doing a bit of belated soul-searching).  Rather, these hard-nosed figures have concluded that U.S. power has bumped up against realities it cannot simply declare away: (1) an attack on Iran would set in motion events way beyond U.S. control and end with the U.S. more politically isolated and militarily over-stretched than it is already; (2) Bush’s entire Pakistan policy — based upon backing the Musharraf dictatorship and then trying to arrange a backroom deal between Musharraf and Bhutto — threatens a debacle which would end U.S. influence over a huge, strategically located, and nuclear-armed state.  Because of what’s at stake, an attack on Iran must be prevented and Pakistan policy turned around even at the cost of Bush’s remaining credibility and prestige.

These elite divisions are victories for the U.S. antiwar movement, even if our role in them is smaller than that of forces arrayed against Washington in other parts of the globe.  And they provide more “teachable moments” where new and broader constituencies can be reached with a consistent antiwar message.


The headline on analyst Saul Landau’s analysis in Progreso (Dec. 24) — “NIE Watergates Bush” — cut to the heart of what happened to Bush this last month.  Landau explains:

In the early 1970s, the Establishment worried about Nixon. He brought a California crowd into the White House who didn’t consult the bastions of old power and wealth.  Then, “Deep Throat” emerged to reveal details of Nixon’s involvement in a criminal break-in at Democratic Party Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex, and of a subsequent White House cover up. . . .

In December 2007, intelligence boss Mike McConnell released an NIE report that humiliated Bush and Cheney.  By making facts about the non-functioning of Iran’s nuke program public, the NIE removed the Bush zealots’ ostensible reason for starting another war.  Compare that report with Bush’s September claim that Iran’s nuclear program could ignite World War III; reminiscent of Cheney’s 2002 rhetoric to show why Iraq needed invading because Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger to make a nuclear WMD. . . .

The intelligence community sucker punched the Great Intimidator — in public. . . .  It derailed the White House policy of the bombing of Iran and led to a prolonged scream from Neocon heavies who now bleat on TV about ‘treason’ in high places. . . .


The revelations that the CIA destroyed tapes of its agents torturing people won’t end government-sanctioned torture next week.  But it will make it rarer, as some of the torturers and their commanders begin to worry about some day being caught and maybe even brought to trial.  It also provides another opportunity to get past all the convoluted rationales, smoke-and-mirrors language and flat-out denial on television to talk to millions about the torture’s deep roots in U.S. history.  Here the antiwar movement can learn something from conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan, whose wrote in late November: 

It is, sadly, a simple fact that torture was once a deep part of the American way of life, inextricable from slavery and racism, for a very long time.  It was worst in the South, but not unknown elsewhere — well into the twentieth century.  The ease with which some in the new GOP reconcile themselves to it with respect to terror suspects, as long as it is directed at ‘the other,’ cannot be fully understood outside this context.  “Waterboarding,” for example, a torture technique the majority of GOP candidates cannot bring themselves to condemn and which the new attorney-general refuses to declare illegal, was used against African-Americans to extract false confessions in the South.  And lynching was often accompanied by gruesome torture.  A reader writes:

The ugly truth is that for the 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, this country committed torture against thousands of its own citizens.

White Southerners, faced with the specter of black economic mobility, developed a variety of methods to squelch these advancements, the most violent and dehumanizing of which was the spectacle lynching.  The term lynching evokes a scene of spontaneous violence hastily committed by small group of hysterical citizens, but the sad reality is that a typical lynching was a deliberate, organized ritual that unfolded over the course of days or weeks, often in collusion with local law enforcement.

Newspapers advertised the event and thousands of spectators attended with wives and children in tow, snapping photographs, purchasing concessions and memorabilia, and eagerly discussing the means of execution.  Hanging was the most common method, but lynchings incorporated a combination of torture techniques including castration, branding with hot irons, eye-gouging, severing of appendages and burning alive. . . .  At one particularly notorious lynching in Paris, Texas, the crowd numbered 10,000 . . . women and children munched on popcorn and snapped photos as a black man was tortured and burned alive.’


Faced with failures in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and torture, the Bush administration decided to make a big show of settling the Israel-Palestine conflict.  But just a few weeks after that Grand Photo Session in Annapolis, what are the prospects?  Here it doesn’t take a leaked report to tell the tale: each day’s news stories are enough.

In the last two weeks alone, the Israeli government has rejected Hamas’ offer of a truce, authorized expansion of settlements on the West Bank that even the Bush administration supposedly regards as obstacles to peace, and killed dozens of Palestinians in ongoing bomb and missile attacks.  Washington remains silent, signaling Israel that there’s no need to worry: Annapolis was just another effort to pressure a Palestinian leader to officially accept dispossession and now it’s okay to go back to occupation as usual.


At home it will be a spring of antiwar activity.  Tactics ranging from “peace voter” organizing targeting all 2008 candidates to civil disobedience against war making institutions to ongoing counter-recruitment and support-military-resisters efforts will all play a role.  An activity with special potential is the 2008 Winter Soldier effort being organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW):

This March, in what will be history’s largest gathering of U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iraqi and Afghan survivors, eyewitnesses will share their experiences in a public investigation called Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.

Winter Soldiers, according to founding father Thomas Paine, are those who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours.  With this spirit in mind, IVAW members are standing up to make their experiences available to all who are concerned about the direction of our country.  Once again, our country needs Winter Soldiers.

From March 13-16, 2008, IVAW will gather in our nation’s capital to break the silence and hold our leaders accountable for these wars.

For full information, go to <>.

Max Elbaum Max Elbaum is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso 2002).  Elbaum is also a member of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a group represented on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras invites you to sign on to its announcement list (3-4 messages per month) to receive regular reports, interviews, flyers, and news recaps.  Go to the War Times website at  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras is a fiscally sponsored project of the Center for Third World Organizing.  Donations to War Times are tax-deductible; you can donate on-line at or send a check to War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, c/o P.O. Box 99096, Emeryville, CA 94662.

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