Two ships passed in the night in the past week. More than 400,000 people marched in New York to dramatize the ecological disaster already upon us in advance of the UN climate summit, and millions more marched across the globe. A couple of hundred miles away, Congress voted to authorize and fund a new war in Iraq and Syria by margins of 319-108 in the Republican-controlled House and 78-22 in the Democratic-led Senate.
Oh, and a war-crazed veteran named Omar Gonzalez sprinted up the White House lawn with a three-inch knife, presumably looking for his commander in chief. As usual, though, Barack Obama was nowhere to be seen. He’d made his getaway four minutes earlier by helicopter with the royal, er, First Family to the still-green acres of Camp David.
What does all this tell us, class? First, that a fair number of people are pretty concerned about the future of the planet, at least in blue states where the theory of evolution has managed to catch on. Second, that the fools and scoundrels who misrepresent us in the halls of government have plunged us once again into an oil-besotted war to prop up the military-industrial-surveillance complex, and to keep the threat represented by a few fanatics — I mean, climate sanity and the democratic process — from ever reaching the shores of the Potomac.
You can’t blame this one just on the Republicans. The vote for war was 78 percent in the Senate, 66 percent in the House. Of course, some Republicans will vote reflexively against anything proposed by the president, which may not be the worst rule of thumb to use. But a few, notably Rand Paul, had actual objections to the idea that the best thing for the two most war-ravaged nations on the planet was to pulverize them with more bombs.
Of course, war is not particularly good for the environment, and it is even less so for living things. What it is good for, apart from profiteering, is changing the subject on any other matter. Like the impending extinction of species, including our own.
Oh, yes, Obama is addressing the subject of climate change. He’s telling underdeveloped nations what they should be doing to avoid going underwater. It seems the Leader of the Free World has decided to anoint Bangladesh as the standard-bearer in the fight to save the planet.
America, alas, has more pressing obligations, like supplying the Islamic State with fresh arms and recruits. (When you see those guys driving around in Humvees, waving their General Dynamics ordnance, you have to wonder whose army you’re looking at.) Meanwhile, the desertification of California proceeds apace, while Phoenix turns into a floodplain.
The story line out of Washington is that Obama is a reluctant warrior. When he ramped up our failed war in Afghanistan, Bob Woodward assured us that he’d been rolled by his generals against his own pacific instincts. When he bombed the bejesus out of Libya without Congressional authorization (didn’t need any, he said), he was allegedly pushed into it by the furious war hawks of the European Union, David Cameron and Francois Hollande.
As he wrapped up the war in Iraq in 2011 (actually only hitting the pause button), he called it a noble cause that expressed American idealism at its best. Meanwhile, we were bombing away in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, winning hearts and minds the way we usually do. Now the Ebola virus is giving us the excuse to send uniforms into West Africa. Plenty of terrorists there too, and it’s only a matter of time before we start bumping into them.
You might be getting the drift by now. Obama can’t get an immigration bill out of the Republican House, but then he couldn’t get gun control
legislation even out of committee in a Democratic Senate. He’s standing there in the middle of his second term like a boy in the street whose toys have been taken away. He waits to get whomped in the midterm elections a few weeks from now.
Without a war, he’d be hard-pressed to explain why he still remains in office other than to hold Hillary Clinton’s coat. Maureen Dowd even suggested a couple of months ago in The New York Times that he should manage to get himself impeached to be put out of his misery. It was a good idea, but the Republicans, despite their protestations to the contrary, actually like Barack Obama exactly where he is.
His phantom second term in office is actually the fourth term of the George W. Bush administration but with a nominal Democrat to take the heat, and what’s not to like about that?
Speaking of a phantom president, how about a phantom war? Oh, the bombs are real enough, and so are the civilian dead we once again won’t be counting. But the enemy is — whom did you say? — an outfit named the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or maybe the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or is it the Islamic State, that used to be al-Qaida, and that had a few hundred or maybe a couple of thousand fighters when it miraculously conquered a quarter of Iraq, and the next month had morphed into an army of 20 to 30,000, or was it 30-50,000?
Depends on the briefing you’re getting. And now, surprise, we’re also bombing another group, Khorasan, which no one had heard of before this week. I’m not making this up, though maybe Langley is. The Iranians have accused us of simply manufacturing terrorist organizations out of whole cloth, or maybe running them ourselves.
I dunno, but the Iranians have considerable experience in this line, what with Hezbollah and other contrivances. I just find it passing strange that we bomb people first and announce their existence second. How’s that for a war of “choice”?
It is a matter of fact that modern jihadist groups got their start either through CIA recruitment and funding, as in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s, or as a response to our imperial presence in the Middle East in general. Certainly we opened the gates for them in Iraq and Libya, and they have needed no invitation from us in Syria. In a real sense, then, we are fighting our own shadow. But, to repeat, real people are getting killed.
War, Randolph Bourne said, is the health of the state. He was speaking of World War I—you remember, the war that Woodrow Wilson told us would end all wars—but it might be more simply said today that war is the business of the state: and a very big business it is. What it isn’t, though, is any business of yours and mine. A runaway executive simply makes war when and as it likes, and a Congress that will impeach a president over a dress stain won’t act as we lay waste on two continents.
Meanwhile, the world got a little warmer this summer. The glaciers retreated. The polar caps continued to melt. But, first things first: somebody might be trying to plant a dirty bomb in Radio Shack. Or, then again, maybe not.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University He can be contacted at [email protected]