The McGill Report
February 28, 2003
A GLOBAL CITIZEN THINKS ABOUT WAR
I would wish this war to be fought for the liberation of the people of
I would wish that America had the will to fight and win this war to free
ourselves and others in the world from the threat of weapons of mass
destruction and to spread the gifts of liberty and equality and democracy.
I would wish we had the strength to embrace the global empire that we have
become and to rise with wisdom and courage to the challenges of leadership
as the world’s standard-bearer and guarantor of those shining ideals.
I would wish we had the will to accept the costs of that leadership.
Yet reality is not made from my wishes, and the reality is that we are
pursuing the war on Iraq to maintain the economic status quo in America,
while mouthing ideals to mollify our conscience and to preserve the
fiction that we can live forever like kings of the earth yet never pay the
It’s a damned difficult thing to think
about war. One reason is that in war by definition the usual rules don’t
apply. Death, not life, is the goal of war. Destruction and not progress
is its goal. Thank God we don’t have much experience making decisions in
such a state. And yet our lack of familiarity with war leaves us
unprepared to think through the situation well when the time comes to make
such a decision. And such a time is now.
There isn’t a tougher moment for a global
citizen than the one where you must sit down and decide on war – whether
to go to war personally or through the support you give as a citizen to
the government’s war effort.
In normal life, a global citizen
cultivates the ability to see connections between her daily life and the
lives of others who live across the oceans and around the world. Even
subtle clues speak of a grand interconnection to a global citizen, and
these clues pull her towards uncovering what possibilities and
responsibilities these connections may imply. The simple stitching in a
pair of shoes made in Malaysia, or the tang in tea leaves picked in Sri
Lanka, or the lilt of an Irish accent overheard at the grocery store
checkout line, all of these speak to a global citizen of the
interconnectedness of today’s world.
War offers a sudden stark illumination of
the usually hidden global connections that underpin our daily lives. In
fact, war or its imminent possibility offers so violent an exposure of
these underlying realities that many people, understandably, choose to
shield their eyes and turn away.
The contemplation of such human
connections – of the responsibilities they imply and of the possibility
that they might suddenly be destroyed – may be so painful that the task is
deferred or denied. In the present case, despite the heightened awareness
of our nation’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, it would be amazing if
more than a small fraction of the country’s 16 million owners of
gas-guzzling SUVs took the lesson seriously enough to cut back on their
driving, much less sell their cars. An even harder task is to imagine, in
sufficient detail that it changes behavior, how innocent people will die
when U.S. bombs accidentally, yet inevitably, stray into residential areas
in Baghdad, or when close fighting erupts in the cities.
There are four basic perspectives on this
possible war. Two of them are held by supporters of the U.S. president’s
efforts to forcibly oust Saddam, and two are held by those who are opposed
to his plans.
The war’s supporters define the goal of
the war as:
To liberate the Iraqi people from
tyrannical rule in order to establish a beachhead of liberal democracy in
the Middle East;
B. To ensure the long-term stability of the global
economy in order to protect the long-term prospects of the U.S. economy;
The war’s detractors meanwhile define its purpose as:
C. Foreign adventurism in the affairs of a brutal
regime which nevertheless controls only a small portion of the world’s oil
and poses no immediate threat to U.S. national interests;
D. An imperial land grab orchestrated by a handful of
scheming oligarchs and fat cats whose goal is to preserve their grip on
power, boost their oil company stocks, and protect their lavish
The (A) crowd -- the liberal hawks -- is the most interesting group
because it counts among its members many who forged their politics in
opposition to the Vietnam War. Now these former draft card burners are
cheering Bush’s plan to blast Saddam out of existence. They see the
possible bombardment of Iraq as the latest in a series of wars and
revolutions that have expanded liberal democracy around the world. The
former Democratic Senator Bob Kerry, Dissent magazine editor Mitchell
Cohen, and American Prospect editor Richard Just are other liberals who
favor forcibly removing Saddam.
Those in the (B) camp, meanwhile, see the war’s main purpose as
maintaining global stability by eradicating Saddam as an agent of global
terror. The bible to this group is “The Threatening Storm” by Kenneth
Pollack, a former CIA analyst in the George H.W. Bush administration, who
offers extensive documentation of Saddam’s long efforts to acquire nuclear
and other weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam had the bomb, Pollack
argues, he would almost certainly use it to seize Saudi Arabian and
Kuwaiti oil fields, or to destroy them while trying. The only real
disagreement in this camp is over how much time the U.S. should spend to
develop domestic and international support for the war and to work with
Iraqi opposition groups before sending in the troops.
Two camps favor answer (C) – libertarians, always wary of foreign
entanglements, and geopolitical thinkers who see Saddam as a brutal yet
eminently rational and self-protective man who is, therefore, deterrable.
To these folks, the likelihood of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction
will actually increase if the U.S. strikes now, perhaps by activating
sleeper terrorist cells in the United States, or by launching
chemical or biological weapons against Israel once a war starts. Those who
chose answer C also chide the administration for justifying its war plans
with principles it would be impossible to follow consistently, such as
neutralizing every possible nuclear power and deposing every nasty
dictator in the world.
The partisans of answer (D) are a passionate assemblage of unreconstructed
leftists, progressives, idealists, and politicized artists and writers who
paint the perpetrators of the possible war in cartoonish grotesques.
America is the new global empire and a bloody capitalist crusader; George
W. Bush is a reckless cowboy, a malleable dunce, the pet of a Texas oil
cabal; Rumsfeld is the devil incarnate; Powell is a noble man sadly
corrupted; and etc. These are caricatures, yes, but they are not for that
reason necessarily wrong.
Who can doubt that George W. Bush, who slurs his words to sound like a
swaggering Texas Ranger, in some part of his soul is itching to avenge the
man who tried to kill his pa? “Saddam’s misfortune is to sit on the second
biggest oilfield in the world, and Bush wants it,” writes the British spy
novelist turned global citizen, John le Carre. “If Saddam didn’t have the
oil, he could torture his citizens to his heart’s content. Other leaders
do it every day – think Saudi Arabia, think Pakistan, think Turkey, think
Syria, think Egypt.” More nuanced liberal critiques, such as Michael
Walzer’s, actually favor a forcible ejection of Saddam, but one that is
mounted by the UN to enforce its inspections, as opposed to a police
action to further the American ruling elite’s “aggrandizement of their
wealth and power.” Says Walzer: “There can’t be any disengagement from the
war against privilege and corruption, both of which are embodied in our
Where does the U.S. administration fall among these choices? By my lights
it is pursuing the war to maintain global economic stability (B), which
for former oil company executives George W. Bush and his top advisers is
tantamount to self-aggrandizement (D), while publicly justifying the
aggression in terms of traditional American ideals (A). The most
frequently implied of those ideals is that of the U.S. as the righteous
redeemer of an evil world. Of course, rhetoric aside, no one believes that
Gulf War II won’t be just as much about preserving U.S. access to oil
supplies as Gulf War I was. In that earlier desert excursion, you’ll
recall that the U.S. government’s first explanation of the war’s rousing
purpose –“to save democracy in Kuwait” – was quickly dropped when the U.S.
public realized no such thing existed.
Between his candidacy and his presidency, George Bush changed his vision
of America’s role in the world completely. As a candidate he was
isolationist, while as President he is aggressively internationalist under
the banner of the war on terror. This complete reversal of position
undermines the credibility of U.S. international actions, because it draws
into question whether the we have the will to follow up military action
with long-term support that builds friendships and creates new
Also, there is something in Bush’s manner, and I am not the only one, that
makes me doubt the sincerity of his podium rhetoric. His dropped g’s, his
fondness for cowboy metaphors, and his sly schoolboy demeanor, as if he
were always about to towel-snap somebody, puts me off. He doesn’t possess
the personal gravitas to speak convincingly of great political ideals. To
me the isolationism of candidate Bush sounded more genuine, more ardent,
more convincing. Especially when compared to his privileged upbringing,
during which he never showed much interest in foreign travel or exploring
the world, his newfound passion for “helping others” rings hollow in the
I believe that a person and a nation must be ready to fight and die for
ultimate principles; and I believe that unless we generously share the
gifts of freedom and equality with others, we will lose them ourselves.
So my dilemma is not that ousting Saddam by force is a bad idea. It’s a
good idea and it’s the right idea. It’s just being carried out by the
It’s wrong because Bush’s actions don’t reflect his words. Wrong because
he’s a Yale graduate with a fake Texas accent. Wrong because he lacks the
humility that’s a necessary adjunct to strength. Wrong because when it
comes to a guiding vision of the world, he promised us one thing and now
he is delivering another. How can you trust the guy?
A chance encounter with an old friend last weekend helped me to formulate
where I stand on the U.S. military effort to oust Saddam. My friend is a
retired physician who spends his summers in Minnesota and winters in sunny
Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s got a beautiful
big house in each place; he dresses in spiffy tailored suits and silk
ties; and he drives a nice car which I assume is nearly new. We met at a
swanky Indian restaurant next to the Phoenix
Arts Center where, after we had
downed our three-course meal of chicken tikka, shrimp biryani, vegetable
dishes and imported beer, we attended a concert of the Emerson Quartet. In
other words, we enjoyed an evening the likes of which 99 percent of the
earth’s inhabitants could never dream of having.
My friend is resolutely against the war to oust Saddam. “Bush just wants
to kill the guy who tried to kill his father!” he said. “And for this
petty reason he wants to drag the entire country into an incredibly
dangerous and costly war that no other nation in the world will support!”
My rebuttal to my friend was this: “You’re right up to a point. But don’t
you realize that you and I are living in the newest global empire, and all
that’s happening now is that one cost of citizenship in the empire is
From the flight deck of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln, which is heading now
from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf region, a U.S. Air Force pilot told a
TV journalist recently: “Our job is power
projection. We have guys flying hundreds of miles off this ship to do the
nation's business." The pilot’s voice was untinged by the reticent
or embarrassed tones that characterized U.S. military pronouncements for
three decades after the Vietnam War. It was the pure, unconflicted,
pitch-perfect voice of the world’s newest global empire.
America maintains five global military commands posted on four continents;
its economy pumps life-giving capital into scores of developing countries;
its consumer goods and movies and music are universally admired and
accepted; its language is the international language; its currency is a
safe haven; and for all the resentment our global presence engenders, just
ask the people where it really counts – e.g., South Korea, Israel, Bosnia,
or Kosovo – whether they approve of America’s global prowess and military
Our cushy lives so rich in material pleasures, educational possibility,
health care, and leisure, are all supported by commercial tendrils of
empire that efficiently suck low-priced goods from developing countries,
while also inexorably attracting the smartest and most ambitious natives
of other countries to our shores. Compared to our next-door-neighbors here
in the U.S., we may feel we don’t own enough or make enough money and thus we may
want more. But compared to the rest of the world, we already have
everything. We have everything because we as individuals have an empire –
a commercial, cultural, and military global power – supporting us.
We are a military global
power, and if we were not we would not enjoy the commercial and cultural
advantages that we do.
The key questions that citizens of
America’s global empire must therefore ask themselves are: Do I believe in the
motivating ideals of this empire? Am I willing to accept the costs – in
taxes and other forms of treasure – that it takes to maintain the empire
and the lavish life that I am able to live because I am the citizen of the
empire? Do we have the stomach to face the reality that we have much of
what we have because of our brute military power, and not because we are
smarter or better than everyone else?
Will we be able as a society to
develop into the first global empire that is also liberal, democratic,
humble, and wise? We will be able to develop the needed leadership skills
to engender in the rest of the world an attitude of respect and fondness
and gratitude towards us, instead of the anger and bitterness and
resentment of our arrogance that is now so common? In other words, will we
learn what we need to become the first global empire in world history that
actually survives to a ripe old age?
The early signs are discouraging. The U.S. military blew into Afghanistan,
did its urgent business and vowed eternal support of the long-oppressed
Afghan people, but now has basically flown the coop. Why should we believe
that our government will do any more to support a stable democratic
government in a post-Saddam Iraq? Where are the Bush government’s efforts
right now to build a national consensus around the need to rebuild postwar
Iraq into a democracy, just as we helped Germany and Japan to become
democracies after World War II?
Why are we not working right now to develop the good will of Iraqi people
prior to our bombing the daylights out of them? Vastly more democratic
radio broadcasts, U.S. propaganda leaflet drops, and covert operations
with opposition groups inside Iraq would help reverse the mistrust of
ordinary Iraqis for the U.S., built up from more than a decade of
disastrous economic sanctions.
Where is the U.S. government’s leadership in helping to educate Americans
about Arab culture and society? We may soon send an occupying imperial
force into the Middle East, there to stay for many years. The occupation
will not succeed unless the occupying force shows the Iraqi people some
respect, some knowledge of their culture, and even over time perhaps some
The first rule of international travel -- for soldiers, diplomats,
journalists, businessmen, and tourists -- is that a nation’s government is
not its people. Despite the despots who too often lead them, the ordinary
people of the world, across all cultures, are in large percentage
hospitable, generous, and kind. No military occupation leading to
democracy will work in Iraq without making a real connection with its
people at this basic human level.
Learning how to speak their language, recite their poems, read their
books, play with their children, and sing their songs would help. When we
march into Baghdad, we’ll need to make friends with the people we almost
Fevered worries on the dawn of a new war rise up now like shrieking
demons. We remember the hurt and the pain of the Vietnam War, not just the
hell of the war itself with the 58,178 dead but also the lingering wounds
of war that scarred the decades that followed -- the returning veterans
who were shamed for killing for their country; and all the young men with
PTSD, of whom some now still cry uncontrollably at a pin drop and suffer
flashbacks and night sweats; and then all the broken marriages, the
flip-outs, the drug addictions; and the tragic stories like that of Lewis
B. Puller, the decorated Marine who survived multiple amputations and
depression and alcoholism, only to succumb, finally, to suicide.
Are we ready again for another war so soon? Will the cost be equally as
terrible? Will it be worse? Can we survive such wounds? Are we doing the
On what grounds are we willing to risk our lives and our souls once again
in a military venture that is sure to kill many innocents?
Could we in the United States ever imagine the lives of foreign people
with such detail and empathy that we would be compelled to act as morally
towards them as we do towards our own friends, families, and
Could we ever find a way to believe that the innocent citizens of Iraq are
truly our neighbors and thus are deserving of every respect, including the
courtesy that we not blow them up? As G.K. Chesterton said, “We make our
friends. We make our enemies. God makes our neighbors.” Can we find a way
to really love our global neighbors?
Moral philosophers offer possible answers to such questions, which lie at
the heart of global citizenship. The Greek philosopher Diogenes declared
himself to be not a patriot who owed allegiance to any particular
city-state, but rather to be “a citizen of the world.” The Roman Stoics
said that all human beings should enjoy the privileges of citizenship
because they shared the unifying trait of rationality. In an Enlightenment
treatise that’s rising rapidly in popularity, Perpetual Peace,
Immanuel Kant echoed the Stoic line with a twist, i.e., that governments
should respect the human rights not only of citizens but of foreigners, an
idea later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
So are we making progress after all? Without a doubt. The United States is
itself the greatest example of that progress, because here all people are
owed government protection of their basic human rights regardless of race,
religion, color, sex, age, caste, or station of birth. Persecuted refugees
from the world over have flocked to the United States for decades because
But a global war of which Iraq may only become the third (after 9/11 and
Afghanistan) major battlefield threatens to reverse this progress. The
erosion of human rights of both U.S. citizens and immigrants, which is
already underway in this country, is one sign of that. So are the possible
deaths – i.e., the loss of the right to life – of innocents in Iraq. I am
not saying that any amount of backsliding on human rights is indefensible;
if the threat to global society is big enough, surely some amount of loss
is acceptable. But if those rights are being eroded anywhere, as they are
now, it should be very carefully observed and monitored, like a persistent
low grade fever.
To extend the metaphor, such a fever should only be tolerated for a
transitional period of time, after which the patient recovers and goes on
to gain new heights of health. When will the present period of global
rights retraction be over? Have we set time limits and goals? If not, why
If the war happens it will be tragic and God-damned, because innocents
will surely die. But if it happens, its explicit goal should be not simply
the eradication of Saddam as a potential nuclear threat, which is spurious
because we all understand that Saddam is deterrable, as he has been for
thirty years. Rather, it should be done for the express purpose of the
liberation of the people of Iraq; and it should be done without gloating
or breast-beating; and only after longer deliberation and with a genuine
commitment to long-term support of liberal democracy in the Middle East.
And if the war does happen, as seems certain, once the bombs start to fall
there will be only one question, which is, what can we do now?
What can a global citizen do?
We might ask our boss for a leave of absence and fly to Iraq to help with
humanitarian aid. We could send money for that aid too, of course.
We could also make an effort to find the Iraqi citizens who live in our
area, and reach out to them to talk and share ideas. There are about
90,000 Iraqis living in the United States, according to the 2,000 U.S.
Census. Find them by asking around at work, at church, or networking
through friends. I did this recently and in southeastern Minnesota I found
a couple of Iraqi-Americans in Rochester, and another couple of them at a
restaurant in Minneapolis. At the restaurant, I chatted with the owner,
and he introduced me to an Iraqi friend visiting from London, who had a
brother who was executed by Saddam. This man had every reason to hate
Saddam, and he does. But he’s also opposed to Bush’s plan to oust him with
The reason? “This is something for Iraqis to do for themselves, because
they don’t trust the United States, and it will be a disaster.” He quoted
an old Arab saying to me: “Me and my brother against my cousin; me and my
cousin against the foreigner.” “In Iraq, the U.S. is the foreigner,” the
man told me. “They simply are not welcome by the Iraqis, but the U.S.
doesn’t understand this.” If you ask around, you’ll surely find
Iraqi-Americans with strongly different opinions, but that’s just part of
the process of learning about the messy, conflicted reality we face as we
Whatever your profession, you could probably also find some Iraq angle to
research and pursue. If a teacher, what is education like in
Iraq? If a doctor, what humanitarian medical efforts are underway to relieve
the disastrous health effects of the economic embargo of the past decade?
As a journalist, you could find local Iraqis to interview for the local
newspaper. And so on.
The point would be to listen, mainly. Which is just what we haven’t done
much of, either as a government or as a people, before we launched
ourselves into this likely war with Iraq.
We haven’t listened because we’ve been too busy enjoying life, eating at
fancy Indian restaurants, and drinking fine imported beers, and paying
$1.50 a gallon for gasoline and calling it an outrage, and living like
It’s been fun, but it’s a risky way to live. Just consult your history
books on Rome’s Julius Caesar, France’s Louis XIV, and England’s George
III. The moral: kings that don’t listen always pay the price in the end.
Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report