Here’s a strange reality of the last 17 years of the American way of war: in the spring of 2003, before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, millions of people took to the streets, hundreds of thousands in the United States, to protest a coming war that was likely to lead to disaster. Ever since, unlike in the Vietnam years, Washington has fought its never-ending, ever-spreading wars without significant opposition or protest. Undoubtedly, this is at least in part because the country’s all-volunteer military let much of the population off the hook when it came to easy-to-ignore conflicts in distant lands. Stranger yet, however, has been the remarkable lack of opposition to those wars, as well as to the soaring funding of the national security state that goes with them, in the halls of Congress (with the rarest of exceptions).
It wasn’t always so. In 1966, for instance, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, a former friend of Lyndon Johnson’s, came to feel that he “had been taken” by the president’s Vietnam War policies. In response, he convened televised public hearings to dissect that conflict and, in doing so, validated opposition to it, which was already in the streets. Today, you couldn’t find a congressional committee chairman who would stand in opposition to our permanent wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa or to the ever-vaster sums of money being poured into the Pentagon. I mean, can you imagine any major figure in Washington today, Republican or Democrat, writing a book about American foreign policy titled, as Fulbright’s was, The Arrogance of Power? Dream on!
Remember that, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration’s open-ended resolution authorizing the use of military force (which led to the invasion of Afghanistan and so much that followed) was opposed by only one member of Congress, Representative Barbara Lee. In explaining her vote, she made it clear that she was “convinced military action would not prevent further acts of international terrorism” and feared giving “a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11th events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic, and national security interests, and without time limit.” How right she turned out to be. And the thanks she got for it? Death threats, of course.
Still, late as it is, something is finally beginning to shift. Only recently, for instance, Senator Bernie Sanders gave a foreign policy address that felt genuinely Fulbrightian, speaking truths that, obvious as they may be, are anything but commonplace in Washington. “As an organizing framework,” he said, “the Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership. Orienting U.S. national security strategy around terrorism essentially allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate policy for the most powerful nation on earth. It responds to terrorists by giving them exactly what they want.”
Similarly, as part of a growing congressional movement to abrogate or end the U.S. role in the grim Saudi war in Yemen, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna recently pointed out that “the Yemeni people are suffering. Instead of supporting more bombing, the United States can help bring peace to the region. Congress has an urgent responsibility to act.” So perhaps it’s particularly timely that, today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the new book Twilight of the American Century, offers a sweeping set of suggestions to possible 2020 presidential candidate Warren for what a more reasonable, less-warlike but not less involved set of American global policies might look like.