The Global Test

Whatever happens next month, we all have plenty of work to do

The Global Test
Illustration By Doug Potter

For a revealing example of the narrowness of the available U.S. political conversation, one need look no further than the post-debate argument over John Kerry's use of the term "global test" for preemptive military actions by the U.S. In response to a Jim Lehrer question, Kerry said the president always reserves the right to preemptive action. "But if and when you do it," he continued, "you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove it to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons." The plain sense of the remark is that, having taken such an action, the government needs to be able to defend it legitimately at home and abroad, "out of a decent respect," as Thomas Jefferson might put it, "for the opinions of mankind."

Hardly a radical notion, but the Bush campaign pounced, deriding the remark as a "Kerry Doctrine" that would require a president to submit defense of American security to the approval of foreign countries (said Bush mysteriously) "like France." Former Chevron oil tanker Condoleezza Rice upped the ante, wondering charmingly how a poor defenseless behemoth like the U.S. might garner approval from countries "like Cuba" or Syria.

Except perhaps in Bill O'Reilly World, the misdirection hasn't quite worked. The Kerry campaign counterattacked – "First Bush lost the debate, and now he's lying about it" – and though the president is still desperately flogging this nonsense to his prescreened campaign extras, the spinmeisters have largely subsided. No doubt by the time you read this, Dick Cheney will have given it another chorus in his debate with John Edwards, but it's the refrain of an administration that has but one hammer in its toolbox, and will pound away to the bitter (God willing) end.

– and There Is No Peace

I bring all this up not to defend Kerry's willingness to be a warmonger – he's shown he can do that himself, and we have ample historical evidence of Democratic "preemption" stretching back a generation and more – but to highlight the extreme restrictions of U.S. political discourse. Had Kerry indeed suggested that before invading other nations we should consider the opinions of our allies and the international community, and ignore them at our peril – the post-debate media reaction would have been merciless, and the pundits would be picking his bones. Had he had the courage (or the foolhardiness) to point out that only a few days before, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had grimly acknowledged to a British reporter that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had in literal fact been "illegal" – the outcry from all the institutional U.S. political sources would have been deafening.

Except among ordinary people or off-brand prog publications like this one, it remains simply unspeakable in polite (read "elected") company to suggest that the U.S. cannot do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants. Think back only to last year's legislative session, when the entire, bipartisan Texas House – with less than a handful of brave exceptions – gathered at the dais to loudly endorse the illegal U.S. war against Iraq, which has since taken 1,000 American lives, thousands of casualties, many more thousand Iraqi lives and devastated communities, and is only the virulent punctuation on more than a decade of siege war against civilians. Perhaps a few of those folks are at long last having second thoughts, and their constituents are far ahead of them, but there exists no currently available institutional expression of national anti-war sentiment that was widespread even before the latest war began, and which continues to grow much more quickly than the political system will accommodate it.

What does the Kerry campaign offer that national and international yearning for peace? "Victory!"

The Long Road

So where does that leave us? Not with a symbolic third party campaign (pick your impotence) dedicated to ideological purity – rather, still inside a frankly Roman, militarist culture dominated by an economics of corporate accumulation and a politics of global dominance. That will be true whoever wins on Nov. 2, although the potential for progressive movement remains better under a Kerry presidency than under another Bush administration, thoroughly dedicated to reaction and therefore locking out any constituencies representing economic fairness, equitable justice, the defense of public institutions (other than the military), public space, environmental protection, and so on.

There's been much ink spilled about the supposedly misplaced shadow of the Vietnam War over this election, with war hero and protester Kerry facing off against draft dodger and militarist Bush. In fact, the historical distinction between the two men is less important literally than symbolically: Bush and Kerry represent the two sides of a U.S. culture war that began in earnest about 1965, and which continues throughout most of the country's public institutions – why else have Cheney, Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, and all the rest risen from the political grave like ravenous zombies?

And whether we embrace him entirely or not, Kerry's political career was created and made possible by the cultural and political rebellion that moved him and so many of the rest of us to fight against the Vietnam War and the permanent culture of war that it inaugurated. That rebellion still goes on, he is its momentary standard-bearer in our institutional politics, and a victory for him would be a victory for all of us, in that long and very far-from-finished struggle to take back our public institutions and make them instruments, once again, of ordinary democracy.

And win or lose, that struggle and our responsibility to it as citizens remain the same. end story

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presidential election, John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Kofi Annan, Iraq

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