The Road to War and the Road to Peace
By Jann S. Wenner
RS885/886: December 27, 2001
Among The Dead of September, the majority were young, hard-working men and women just beginning to take their place in the world, settling into careers and raising children. Taking inspiration from the New York Times, which every day has been running a page of obituaries of the victims, we are, in this issue, remembering some of the many Rolling Stone readers who died on the eleventh. These lives share a common ground not only in death but also in their love of music and its ability to affirm and celebrate what is good in us. More than ever, we need to keep that love close to our hearts. The baby-boom generation, and its younger siblings and its children, came of age in an era in which popular music encouraged a reflexive anti-authoritarian stance. All power was to be questioned, and being anti-war, we lived by the credo “Give peace a chance.” The older among us think of only one war – not the video-game air battles over Iraq and Bosnia brought to us on CNN, but Vietnam, an unwinnable and unjustifiable war that cost the lives of 58,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 3 million Vietnamese. And it also cost a generation’s faith in the U.S. government. The war in Vietnam instilled a lifetime of distrust of national leaders and the forces – politics, the media, business – that create and support United States policy.
So it’s strange now, not only to be in favor of a war but also to be rather gung-ho about it. While I am convinced of the need for this fight against the terrorists, I am trying to change my own deep distrust into healthy skepticism. What exactly are we fighting for? Are we going to win? If we do win, will we have to fight again? Have we got the right leaders? Are we going to be safe in our own country? Are we prepared to take on and share the economic sacrifices? Do we have the moral and intellectual courage to turn war into peace?
In my mind these days, I keep hearing a lyric from a lesser-known Dylan song: “Señor, señor, can you tell me where we’re headin’/Lincoln County Road, or Armageddon?/Seems like I been down this way before.” Those lines are from “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and the song’s subtitle is enough to give you pause.
If we go to war on the premise of such grandiose and naive slogans as “the fight to eradicate evil,” we will understand little. Fuzzy ideology, instead of a clear and honest depiction of our interests and commitments and role in the world, will not rally our citizens for long but will only avoid a necessary debate. A “crusade against evildoers” is not a satisfying justification, not in the short run and certainly not for the long haul.
In the most basic terms, the army led by Osama bin Laden wants the United States military out of the Middle East; bin Laden wants to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia and the other Western allies in the region, and he wants to control the area’s vast global treasure: oil. He has wrapped those political aims in a violent version of Islam, but he is not comprehensible in religious terms. He speaks the delusional rhetoric of a somewhat deranged and self-important rich kid. (“The U.N. is nothing but a tool of crime,” he recently said.) His worldview justifies murder and violence against all manner of imagined enemies, including Americans, petty thieves, adulterers and women... to name a few. As the song says, “Oh, you never ask questions/When God’s on your side.”
The cost of oil is the reality of our current dilemma. Saudi Arabia has been bin Laden’s primary financier. It is the land of his birth and his education. It was home to fifteen of the nineteen hijackers. And the United States is the primary engine of the Saudi government’s wealth and military security.
That is a devil’s bargain. The United States has no earthly business propping up the royal family of Saudi Arabia – whose overindulged princes live as swinging Westerners abroad yet teach virulent anti-Western religious hostility in their schools and fund the expansion of extremist Islam throughout the world – except for our apparently bottomless thirst for their oil. Bin Laden is part of the price we pay for that oil, the cost that accrues to us for defending the Saudi royal family against the rage of its own disaffected sons. We are fighting to eliminate the threat to our life and safety in our country, but, as a disturbing corollary of that, we are fighting for the light crude that the Saudis and the U.S. oil companies sell to us. Our president, a former oilman, knows this as well as anyone.
The numbers that describe our oil addiction are a numbing litany of blind consumption with no regard for the consequences. The U.S. accounts for twenty-five percent of global oil consumption, although we have only three percent of the world’s known reserves. Our dependence on foreign oil increased by more than twenty percent during the last ten years.
The so-called energy crisis earlier this year – a cynical manipulation that cost Californians some $25 billion – gave us valuable insight into the White House/oil-industry agenda: public spending and tax subsidies to expand the oil industry, with conservation dismissed as a useless national policy, a mere “sign of personal virtue,” in Vice President Dick Cheney’s heartless phrase.
The road to reduced dependence lies in conservation, increased efficiency and the development of energy sources that are not based on fossil fuels. For example, raising fuel-efficiency standards to forty miles per gallon would save about 2.5 million barrels a day by 2020. That’s the same amount we import each day from the Persian Gulf and, by every estimate, far more than could be drained from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
What we need now is a national energy policy that scales back our dependence on imported oil, a goal that would not only strengthen our national security more than any number of military bases secreted in the sands of Saudi Arabia but would also enhance our reputation abroad by lessening our support of brutal dictatorships and our role in the destruction of the environment.
The Home Front
Hundreds Of Thousands of Americans have lost their jobs at the very moment when they are being advised that spending money at the mall is their patriotic duty. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed an “economic stimulus” package that serves up $146 billion in tax breaks to corporations such as IBM ($1.4 billion) and General Electric ($670 million) that were doing quite well even before being generously offered this windfall. GE, for example, earned $9.8 billion in the first nine months of the year, a 6.8 percent increase from the comparable period in 2000. Another beneficiary would be Enron ($254 million), the book-cooking Houston energy company that was a major financial supporter of the Bush campaign.
In addition to expanding corporate offshore tax havens, the House bill would also repeal the minimum tax on corporations, which, since 1986, has ensured that all profitable corporations pay some taxes, regardless of the various breaks they receive. Incredibly, the repeal’s impact would be retroactive, so corporations would be refunded taxes collected from them for the past fifteen years.
The greed is outrageous. Almost eighty-five percent of the GOP package goes to corporate and business tax cuts and to upper-income taxpayers; the rest to low- to moderate-income earners and the unemployed. The so-called Economic Stimulus Bill passed by the House Republicans is a scandal, and under the current circumstances of recession and high unemployment, it is an obscenity.
The battle over airport security was not reassuring. Even after four planes were hijacked and more than 4,000 people killed, conservative House Republicans, working in tandem with a White House lobbying campaign, dusted off anti-union, anti-big-government dogma, attempting to keep airport security in the hands of low-wage, no-benefits employees of private firms. This, despite a 100-0 vote in the Senate in favor of a federalized security force. Pure and simple, this was a stew of discredited ideology and political paybacks. It was not patriotism.
Just as disheartening was Attorney General John Ashcroft’s announcement in the first week of November that the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI would prosecute doctors in Oregon who did patients’ bidding under that state’s assisted-suicide law, which in a 1996 voter referendum passed by a 60-40 majority. The week before, Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided medical-marijuana centers in California operating legally under that state’s laws. Does a wartime Justice Department really have nothing better to do than deny AIDS patients, people suffering from cancer or others who are dying relief from their pain?
Insofar as the media and the military are concerned, Dan Rather described the issue succinctly in the previous issue of Rolling Stone. Speaking of his experience covering the Vietnam War, Rather said, “The political leadership of the country, for its own self-serving purposes – combined with ideological forces – attempted to create a wedge between the press and the military.” If the U.S. suffers setbacks in the war, if our strategy is mistaken, the enemy certainly knows it and tells the world about it. The only people kept in the dark are the American people, who, when informed, will support a just war – and will accept ground troops and casualties as necessities – and resist an unjust one.
The Road To Peace
Osama bin Laden’s best weapon against us has been our own policies. We must demonstrate to the Islamic world – and the world at large – that we are prepared to join the community of nations and work for a just international peace. We must do a great deal more than grab our oil and give the revenue to corrupt elites. It should take only one terrorist attack to teach us that it is far too dangerous to turn our back on the world.
How can we best serve our country? Lynne Cheney, the cultural activist and wife of the vice president, recently said, “If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history.” She went on to say that she “disagreed with assertions that children need to learn about world cultures now more than ever.” Of course, our history is important, but that statement must be seen for what it really is: a veiled call for “America First” isolationism. Our schools should expand their efforts to provide students with a broad international perspective.
There is so much more this country can do, and must do. In 1999, the World Bank reported that among the world’s thirty richest nations, the U.S. is the cheapest, devoting a mere 0.1 percent of its economic output to development in the world’s poorest countries. (And we stipulate that two-thirds of that be spent on American products.) That’s unconscionable.
President Bush has already been forced to reverse himself on the issue of nation-building. He has agreed to revisit his opposition to a treaty on biological-weapons enforcement that he had rejected last July, and in November had, at last, opened the door to low-cost pharmaceuticals in the poorer nations. It is now time to join the effort to stem global warming, and to show some real leadership on the issue. Last March, President Bush coldly rejected the Kyoto Protocols, the historic international treaty that provides a framework for reducing carbon emissions. If there is one clarifying step the president could take to signal that America is willing to put the good of the international community ahead of its own interests, it would be to reverse that decision. We should agree to the necessary cuts in burning fossil fuels and do what all the rest of the world’s industrialized nations are prepared to do.
If we are now at war, the challenge facing President Bush is to become the leader of all the American people. He must overcome his own narrow beliefs and take back the veto he has given to his party’s rigidly ideological right wing, epitomized by Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, and govern our nation judiciously from the center. He must provide leadership that is not bullied by homegrown fundamentalists, special interests or his old oil cronies. And he must inspire all Americans to rise to the momentous new opportunities presented in these times.
The American people, who have been lulled into a stupor of easy prosperity and titillating scandals, now realize that politics is more than fodder for late-night comedians. People once again believe in the importance of politics to directly affect their lives and are involved, engaged, anxious for honest, visionary and energized leaders. This is a time that demands leaders who will bring out the best in themselves and in all of us.
To be fair, President Bush has shown signs of being capable of that steadiness and determination. He has assembled an impressive national security team to conduct a determined, systematic campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But those are the immediate short-term goals. As Israel’s troubled history has shown, you can assassinate any number of terrorists, but if the causes of terrorism are not addressed and remedied, you will be fighting an endless, degenerative war.
The complex truth is that to truly win the war abroad, we must first win the war at home. We can only win over the hearts and minds of the Islamic world if we open our own hearts and minds to the Islamic world and the wide world around us and create an appropriate place for America in it.
That effort is what will bring us the true victory of peace. When we establish a domestic energy policy that does not require us to support shameful regimes, that will be a victory. When we devote more of our resources to encouraging development in impoverished nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, that will be a victory. If our media tame their ravenous hunger for triviality and devote themselves to educating and informing their audience of citizens, that will be a victory. If we join other nations in easing global warming and solving our various environmental ills, that will be a victory. The simple truth is, we can establish our own security by making ourselves better and by building a better world. As is so often the case, a musician put it into clear words. “We must pursue justice,” says Serj Tankian of System of a Down, “institutionalize peace and not believe in multinational lies.”
“The Greatest Generation” is what Tom Brokaw calls the men and women who fought in and won World War II. They are the models we might look to now, not only in our effort to meet the inspiring standards of their willingness to sacrifice and their determination to win but also in their desire to build a postwar world of peace and security.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a visionary who saw beyond the conflicts of the times into the necessity of a more hopeful future. “Today, we seek a moral basis for peace,” he said. “It cannot be a lasting peace if the fruit of it is oppression, or starvation, cruelty or human life dominated by armed camps. It cannot be a sound peace if small nations must live in fear of powerful neighbors. It cannot be a moral peace if freedom from invasion is sold for tribute.”
That will be victory.