Who is in Charge?
by Edward Said
March 8, 2003
The Bush administration's relentless unilateral march towards war is profoundly disturbing for many reasons, but so far as American citizens are concerned the whole grotesque show is a tremendous failure in democracy. An immensely wealthy and powerful republic has been hijacked by a small cabal of individuals, all of them unelected and therefore unresponsive to public pressure, and simply turned on its head. It is no exaggeration to say that this war is the most unpopular in modern history. Before the war has begun there have been more people protesting it in this country alone than was the case at the height of the anti- Vietnam war demonstrations during the 60s and 70s. Note also that those rallies took place after the war had been going on for several years: this one has yet to begin, even though a large number of overtly aggressive and belligerent steps have already been taken by the US and its loyal puppy, the UK government of the increasingly ridiculous Tony Blair.
I have been criticised recently for my anti-war position by illiterates who claim that what I say is an implied defence of Saddam Hussein and his appalling regime. To my Kuwaiti critics, do I need to remind them that I publicly opposed Ba'athi Iraq during the only visit I made to Kuwait in 1985, when in an open conversation with the then Minister of Education Hassan Al-Ibrahim I accused him and his regime of aiding and abetting Arab fascism in their financial support of Saddam Hussein? I was told then that Kuwait was proud to have committed billions of dollars to Saddam's war against "the Persians", as they were then contemptuously called, and that it was a more important struggle than someone like me could comprehend. I remember clearly warning those Kuwaiti acolytes of Saddam Hussein about him and his ill will against Kuwait, but to no avail. I have been a public opponent of the Iraqi regime since it came to power in the 70s: I never visited the place, never was fooled by its claims to secularism and modernisation (even when many of my contemporaries either worked for or celebrated Iraq as the main gun in the Arab arsenal against Zionism, a stupid idea, I thought), never concealed my contempt for its methods of rule and fascist behaviour. And now when I speak my mind about the ridiculous posturing of certain members of the Iraqi opposition as hapless strutting tools of US imperialism, I am told that I know nothing about life without democracy (about which more later), and am therefore unable to appreciate their nobility of soul. Little notice is taken of the fact that barely a week after extolling President Bush's commitment to democracy Professor Makiya is now denouncing the US and its plans for a post-Saddam military-Ba'athi government in Iraq. When individuals get in the habit of switching the gods whom they worship politically there's no end to the number of changes they make before they finally come to rest in utter disgrace and well deserved oblivion.
But to return to the US and its current actions. In all my encounters and travels I have yet to meet a person who is for the war. Even worse, most Americans now feel that this mobilisation has already gone too far to stop, and that we are on the verge of a disaster for the country. Consider first of all that the Democratic Party, with few exceptions, has simply gone over to the president's side in a gutless display of false patriotism. Wherever you look in the Congress there are the tell-tale signs either of the Zionist lobby, the right-wing Christians, or the military-industrial complex, three inordinately influential minority groups who share hostility to the Arab world, unbridled support for extremist Zionism, and an insensate conviction that they are on the side of the angels. Every one of the 500 congressional districts in this country has a defence industry in it, so that war has been turned into a matter of jobs, not of security. But, one might well ask, how does running an unbelievably expensive war remedy, for instance, economic recession, the almost certain bankruptcy of the social security system, a mounting national debt, and a massive failure in public education? Demonstrations are looked at simply as a kind of degraded mob action, while the most hypocritical lies pass for absolute truth, without criticism and without objection.
The media has simply become a branch of the war effort. What has entirely disappeared from television is anything remotely resembling a consistently dissenting voice. Every major channel now employs retired generals, former CIA agents, terrorism experts and known neoconservatives as "consultants" who speak a revolting jargon designed to sound authoritative but in effect supporting everything done by the US, from the UN to the sands of Arabia. Only one major daily newspaper (in Baltimore) has published anything about US eavesdropping, telephone tapping and message interception of the six small countries that are members of the Security Council and whose votes are undecided. There are no antiwar voices to read or hear in any of the major medias of this country, no Arabs or Muslims (who have been consigned en masse to the ranks of the fanatics and terrorists of this world), no critics of Israel, not on Public Broadcasting, not in The New York Times, the New Yorker, US News and World Report, CNN and the rest. When these organisations mention Iraq's flouting of 17 UN resolutions as a pretext for war, the 64 resolutions flouted by Israel (with US support) are never mentioned. Nor is the enormous human suffering of the Iraqi people during the past 12 years mentioned. Whatever the dreaded Saddam has done Israel and Sharon have also done with American support, yet no one says anything about the latter while fulminating about the former. This makes a total mockery of taunts by Bush and others that the UN should abide by its own resolutions.
The American people have thus been deliberately lied to, their interests cynically misrepresented and misreported, the real aims and intentions of this private war of Bush the son and his junta concealed with complete arrogance. Never mind that Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle, all of them unelected officials who work for unelected Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, have for some time openly advocated Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and the cessation of the Oslo process, have called for war against Iraq (and later Iran), and the building of more illegal Israeli settlements in their capacity (during Netanyahu's successful campaign for prime minister in 1996) as private consultants to him, and that that has become US policy now.
Never mind that Israel's iniquitous policies against Palestinians, which are reported only at the ends of articles (when they are reported at all) as so many miscellaneous civilian deaths, are never compared with Saddam's crimes, which they match or in some cases exceed, all of them, in the final analysis, paid for by the US taxpayer without consultation or approval. Over 40,000 Palestinians have been wounded seriously in the last two years, and about 2,500 killed wantonly by Israeli soldiers who are instructed to humiliate and punish an entire people during what has become the longest military occupation in modern history.
Never mind that not a single critical Arab or Muslim voice has been seen or heard on the major American media, liberal, moderate, or reactionary, with any regularity at all since the preparations for war have gone into their final phase. Consider also that none of the major planners of this war, certainly not the so-called experts like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, neither of whom has so much as lived in or come near the Arab world in decades, nor the military and political people like Powell, Rice, Cheney, or the great god Bush himself, know anything about the Muslim or Arab worlds beyond what they see through Israeli or oil company or military lenses, and therefore have no idea what a war of this magnitude against Iraq will produce for the people actually living there.
And consider too the sheer, unadorned hubris of men like Wolfowitz and his assistants. Asked to testify to a largely somnolent Congress about the war's consequences and costs they are allowed to escape without giving any concrete answers, which effectively dismisses the evidence of the army chief of staff who has spoken of a military occupation force of 400,000 troops for 10 years at a cost of almost a trillion dollars.
Democracy traduced and betrayed, democracy celebrated but in fact humiliated and trampled on by a tiny group of men who have simply taken charge of this republic as if it were nothing more than, what, an Arab country? It is right to ask who is in charge since clearly the people of the United States are not properly represented by the war this administration is about to loose on a world already beleaguered by too much misery and poverty to endure more. And Americans have been badly served by a media controlled essentially by a tiny group of men who edit out anything that might cause the government the slightest concern or worry. As for the demagogues and servile intellectuals who talk about war from the privacy of their fantasy worlds, who gave them the right to connive in the immiseration of millions of people whose major crime seems to be that they are Muslims and Arabs? What American, except for this small unrepresentative group, is seriously interested in increasing the world's already ample stores of anti-Americanism? Hardly any I would suppose.
Jonathan Swift, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist. Among his books are The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996), and Out of Place: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999).