Up Against War and Peaceniks

By Tom Sandborn | December 24, 2001

On December 19, my old pal Stan Persky weighed in at dooneyscafe.com with an essay titled "War and Peaceniks." In it he includes me in his rogues’ gallery of peaceniks, misguided souls who are far less enthused than he is by the current American adventure in Afghanistan. He rebukes us for not recognizing what he takes to be self evident- that "getting the terrorists" is the first and essential step in any response to September 11. He insists that this must precede any other aspect of the debate. He says that there is no more plausible approach than Bush’s , and no convincing argument to "do next to nothing," which he takes to be the policy proposal of the peacenik left.

He goes on from there to some general reflections on the differences between American and Canadian TV coverage of the war (noting with approval that CBC passes what he calls the "Noam Chomsky test", in that its talk shows include pundits like Tariq Ali, Linda McQuaig and Rich Salutin, all of whom oppose the war and present critical perspectives missing from the patriotic gore that flows endlessly from CNN screens ) and upon the threats to civil liberties posed by post 9-11 legislation in the US and Canada ( not too grave, in his view, because some polling conducted by mainstream outlets like the Globe and Mail and the New York Times reflects fairly widespread public concerns with civil liberties being protected.)

Along the way Stan has some good-natured fun presenting me as a credulous if lovable dupe who accepts at face value wildly unlikely claims from the left wing Internet world about Afghan civilian casualties and American oil interests as a factor in motivating the American war agenda in Afghanistan.

All of this content is delivered in the signature mild, urbane, and amiable authorial voice that Stan has perfected over the years, a prose style that makes him one of the most interesting and persuasive writers on public affairs in Canada today. As a long time friend, and devoted fan of Stan’s writing, I am reluctant to take issue with him in public, well aware of the time tested maxim about never entering a battle of wits unarmed. Usually I reserve our political and literary disputes for the less daunting context of our weekly lunches in Vancouver. However, he’s in Bangkok now, and bound for Berlin, so the readers of dooneyscafe.com will have to put up with us while we have it out in the semi-public format of cyberdebate.

Stan’s central claim here is that we peaceniks fail, unlike George W.Bush, to understand that "we have to get the terrorists," and are calling for inaction. Now, "blood for blood" revenge doesn’t strike me as an idea that is either original or useful, and I remain unpersuaded that creating new cohorts of martyrs is a good way to discourage future terrorists, I do, however, have to plead guilty to Stan’s central charge. Despite the fact that I have grandchildren who live not too many miles from the Pentagon, and a sister close to Manhattan, I don’t share the knee-jerk American response that calls for punishing one vile act of terrorism by bombing attacks that by their very nature guarantee large numbers of innocent civilian casualties. If that makes me what Margaret Thatcher used to call a "wet", so be it.

As for not wanting anything done, I think the charge is only tenable if you accept Stan’s premise that the one thing, the only thing that must be done is a military attack on Afghanistan. I want a long list of things done, including political movement toward a real system of international justice that could take on criminals like Osama Bin Laden and his murderous crew- not to mention American war criminals like Bush’s recent appointment as ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, who ran a terrorist ring himself for the US during the Contra campaigns against Nicaraguan Sandanistas. Negroponte’s campaign, by the way, created a casualty list 10 times larger than the victim list at the World Trade Tower.

Like many Stan would call peaceniks, I want to get all the terrorists, and until the American empire shows more enthusiasm for a genuine international justice system that will call American terrorists like Negroponte and client-state military goons like the ones currently conducting a terror campaign in Columbia to account, I retain the right to be skeptical about the real motivation for the Afghan war. The United States has been, for decades now, one of the most powerful obstacles to the creation of a system of international justice, having opposed the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998,refused to sign the Land Mine Treaty in 1997, withdrawn from the International Conference on Racism in 2001,refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 1984 when it characterized US activity, (including the murders and tortures committed by Negroponte’s protégé’s the Contras) as "unlawful use of force", and refused to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979. The US is the only country in the world except Somalia that has failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Stan quotes me in his article as making two unsubstantiated claims that he presents as exemplary of peacenik fuzzy mindedness—first, that the bombing in Afghanistan has killed "primarily" civilians, and second that the main motive for the Afghan campaign is to establish a client state there that will protect an American pipeline to bring Caspian basin oil to market. Both suggestions, obviously palpably absurd to my old friend, he dismisses as the product of "alternative leftist media" or Chomsky "dicta". We can leave moot for the moment the question of why Persky values the Chomsky test as a way of evaluating media coverage in one paragraph of his essay and then dismisses positions with which he differs for passing the same test. Let’s talk for a minute about dead civilians and oil interests.

It isn’t clear, of course, just how many Afghan casualties, military or civilian, have been created since the American bombs began to fall. Press coverage of this war is even more tightly controlled than during George the First’s Gulf War adventure, so it is hard to know who are the primary victims. What is clear, at least to Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire, relying on reports in the mainstream media, is that close to 4,000 civilian casualties can by verified. Many of these made-in -America corpses used to be children. On Oct 11 160 were killed in the village of Karam, on the 18th another 47 in a Kandahar marketplace, on the Dec. 1 250 killed in KamaAdo, Khan-e-Mairjuddin and Zaner Khei — and so it goes. The American campaign has killed more civilians than the mad pilots of Sept. 11–Is it time to stop the revenge yet? Apparently not–as I write on the 23 of December, the media sky is full of trial balloons for American expansions of the war into Iraq or Sudan. Soon enough we’ll have more civilian dead to mourn, if the martial clamor on CNN even lets us hear about them.

As for the suggestion that American policy in this moment is driven as much by the interests of the big oil companies as it is by any abstract principle of justice, or even by the desire to root out terrorism, here are a few facts that are part of the public record. The current Bush administration has more high ranking officials drawn from Big Oil than any in US history, starting at the top with George W., whose family connections helped him make a fortune in the global oil patch despite a notable lack of business acumen or common sense. Dick Cheney, of course, used to run Halliburton, the world’s largest oil services company, and Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice sat on the board of Chevron. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans was the CEO of a natural gas company before being called to Washington. Six of the top ten life-time contributors to George W’s campaign coffers have been oil men, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

For years now, American oil companies have been interested in a secure pipe line for oil from the Caspian basin (which holds as much as 33 times the oil reserves of the Alaskan North Slope, enough to meet US petroleum needs for 30 years) down through Afghanistan to the sea. A US government energy information factsheet issued in December of last year says " Afghanistan’s significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographic position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. This potential includes proposed multi-million dollar oil and gas export pipelines through Afghanistan." In 1998, Cheney told a meeting of other oil executives " I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." A pipeline across a newly pacified Afghanistan would allow oil companies to take Caspian oil into expanding Asian markets or cross the Pacific to North America.

None of the above is meant to suggest, as some have done, that the CIA was behind the horrors of Sept.11,the masterminds behind a diabolic plot to stir up war fever and justify an enormous shift of power into the hands and the bank accounts of what that premature Chomskian Dwight Eisenhower used to call the military industrial complex. (Just because bin Laden is one in a long line of psychopaths and murderers who have been on and off the Agency’s payroll doesn’t mean they are responsible for his most recent crime spree. The rage and solipsistic, self-congratulatory nature of religious fanaticism in all its ugly variants are more than enough to explain what motivated the terrorists that day. And enlightened self interest and opportunism is more than enough to explain the uses the American power brokers have found for the tragedy. ) It is, however, to suggest that we all need to think long and hard before we sign on to the current American project, which looks more and more like an open- ended expansion of US control outside its borders, a dramatic reduction in civil liberties within, and an alarming willingness to kill civilians whenever they get in the way. I am not sure that what Persky calls the peacenik left is united on much-at first glance we seem as muddled and divided on fine points of analysis as we have always been. But on a few points, I think, we are in agreement- What we are trying say to the folks in power is pretty simple – don’t kill children and pretend you are doing it in our names, and don’t insult our intelligence by pretending that what you are doing is about anything but the cheap politics of revenge and the highly profitable maneuvers of big business.

December 23, 2001, 1863 w.


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