The antiwar movement was in my neighborhood earlier this month. So I decided to talk to them; I dusted off my mini-cassette recorder and did a dozen or so protester-in-the-street interviews to get a sense of who goes to these things, and why they do. Here are a few observations:
1) Activists are not deep thinkers. They speak in handy slogans and reason by way of the nearest platitude. (This is perhaps true by definition, no less on the right than on the left; if you can trace the logic on both sides of a divisive issue, you usually can’t get worked up enough to take to the streets.) Every single protester I talked to was certain that President Bush’s stated cause for going to war — denying Saddam weapons of mass destruction — is merely a ruse; Bush’s real objective is to control Iraq’s oil. The protesters presuppose, in effect, their own psychic capacities to discern Bush’s true intentions while denying Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al., even the possibility of making educated guesses about Saddam’s.
2) Most of the protesters believe, in a more general sense, that the United States conducts its foreign policy in a way that deliberately persecutes “people of color.” We side with the Israelis against the Arabs, several of them mentioned, because Jews are white. None could quite account for our siding with Bosnians Muslims against Christian Serbs — though one protester mentioned, when I pointed this out, that that was Bill Clinton’s doing, not Bush’s.
3) On a related issue, every single protester I spoke with concurred that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and, especially, John Ashcroft are irredeemably evil — two of them called Ashcroft a Nazi — but when I asked them their thoughts about Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice their tones softened. They spoke of their admiration for them, conceding only that they were “disappointed” by Powell’s and Rice’s support of Bush’s agenda; most were convinced that Powell and Rice were being muzzled, forced to hide their actual feelings about the war; one protester even speculated that Powell might be being blackmailed. The protesters are, in other words, like many on the political left, backhanded racists, unwilling to forthrightly condemn blacks for the very beliefs and actions they find repulsive in whites.
Even saying that, however, I was repeatedly struck by the decency of the people I interviewed. This is a point that conservative columnists — and I’m as guilty as anyone in this respect — tend to gloss over. To be sure, antiwar demonstrations tend to be sponsored by a pathetic amalgam of racial arsonists of the Free-Mumia ilk, proletarian posers yearning to reenact scenes from the movie Reds, and pseudo-intellectual holdovers from the 60s whose great revolutionary gesture is the determination never to pay back their student loans. But the overwhelming majority of actual protesters are well-meaning people, kind-hearted to a fault, animated by a sincere belief that the threat of global terrorism can be deterred most effectively by negotiating our differences with Baghdad.
They want peace, which is commendable. But they want it now, which is dangerous.
The concept that antiwar activists cannot seem to get their minds around — and here is where their lack of depth is especially evident — is that there’s such a thing as a bad peace. (The corollary of this, of course, also eludes them: namely, that people who support the war might themselves be well intentioned.) History instructs us on the cost of a bad peace. The bad peace at the end of the World War I made inevitable an even deadlier Second World War. The bad peace at the end of the Persian Gulf War is now summoning us back to Iraq to finish the job. The worst peace of the last century was, paradoxically, the Cold War. In hindsight, Stalin needed to be stomped into the ground in 1945, but the United States was too exhausted by the defeat of Germany and Japan to do what was necessary; we bought into a policy of containment. True, an outright war with the Soviet Union would have been an unspeakable bloodbath — though an American victory was guaranteed by our status as the world’s only nuclear power. In any event, the decision not to go after Stalin, already a genocidal villain of Hitlerian dimensions, freed him to continue his murderous purges of Soviet dissenters; it also paved the way for fellow communist Mao Zedong’s horrific Great Leap Forward in China, at a price of 20 million souls, precipitated wars in Korea and Vietnam which killed millions more, and culminated in the Cambodian holocaust, with a body count of another two million. The decision to leave Stalin to his butchery brought peace, of a sort, to Europe in 1945. In the final analysis, the decision could hardly have turned out worse.
The last century should have taught us the price of a bad peace. For antiwar activists, however, “bad peace” remains an oxymoron. Peace is what they want, peace is what they demand, and the prospect of a lasting peace later, rather than a doomed peace now, does not compute. Indeed, it is characteristic of liberals to avoid painful, long term solutions to difficult problems in favor of ill-conceived but humane-sounding stop gaps that make them feel good about themselves. Racial quotas are a legacy of the Left’s craving for immediate gratification; so, too, is welfare dependency.
The war on terrorism is, without question, an exceedingly difficult problem. The protesters sing “Give Peace a Chance,” but that’s not even a logical stop gap in this case; it’s an invitation to our enemies, a baring of our throats, to be followed necessarily by a baring of our talons after our enemies strike again. Nor does the war on terrorism require further study. Sifting through the brew of social, political, cultural, economic, and religious pathologies behind the attacks of September 11, 2001 is an academic exercise; the bottom line of what happened that cloudless morning is that a lunatic fringe of Muslims called America’s bluff. Following World War II, American leaders carefully cultivated the idea that, if sufficiently provoked, we would unleash violence against our enemies of biblical proportions. It was a useful bluff; it did keep the Soviets in check until their system rotted away from the inside. The bluff was still in tact in 1991, when Saddam invaded Kuwait. It prevented him, when his army was routed, from responding with chemical or biological weapons.
September 11 changed all that. The lunatics provoked us, and, after initial outbursts of glee on the West Bank, the Islamic world held its collective breath. How would America respond to such carnage on its own soil? But our response, when it came, was utterly proportionate. Yes, we took down the Taliban, the regime that directly sponsored the attack, but we did so with a scalpel, not with a terrible swift sword. We could have decimated the Afghani population; instead, we liberated them.
The Islamic world took note.
We’re working to end Islamic terrorism the hard way, over the course of the next several decades. Taking down corrupt regimes. Establishing democratic institutions. Building nations. The Taliban came first. Saddam is next in line if for no other reason than we’ve got a pretext for going after him: He’s in violation of the surrender terms which kept him in power in 1991. And after Saddam? Maybe Syria. Maybe Iran. Maybe the Sudan. The testimonies of Iraqi civilians, after we liberate them, will provide us our next fig leaf for doing what needs to be done. Beyond that, the writing will be on the wall for Libya. For Egypt. For Saudi Arabia. Wherever radical Islam festers, we will go. And we will go in force, and in waves, and with an absolute certitude that the cause of individual liberty and human rights is just.
After a time, the people themselves won’t wait for us; they will witness the ordinary miracles of freedom, the better lives of liberated populations, and they will not abide tyranny for long. They will wise up, and they will rise up. No one wants to get caught on the wrong side of history. The Arabic word “Islam” means submission, but submission is meaningless, it is merit-less, unless it is undertaken freely. If in the end free people no longer submit themselves to Allah’s will, the religion itself will wither and die.
America is sure to take its share of hits in the meantime. God willing, nothing as cataclysmic as September 11, but American civilians will surely die at home and abroad as radical Islam enters its death throes. What we are doing is unprecedented. But what we are seeking is unprecedented.
It’s not a new world order.
It’s a new world.
— Mark Goldblatt, who lives in Manhattan, is author of the novel, Africa Speaks, now available in paperback.