An Open Letter to
the Members of Congress
The Nation magazine, October 14, 2002
Soon, you will be asked to vote on a resolution authorizing
the United States to overthrow the government of Iraq by military
force. Its passage, we read on all sides, is a foregone conclusion,
as if what the country now faces is not a decision but the £
disclosure of a fate. The nation marches as if in a trance to
war. In the House, twenty of your number, led by Dennis Kucinich,
have announced their opposition to the war. In the Senate, Robert
Byrd has mounted a. campaign against the version of the resolution
already proposed by the Bush Administration. He has said that
the resolution's unconstitutionality will prevent him from voting
for it. "But I am finding," he adds, "that the
Constitution is irrelevant to people of this Administration."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the Washington Post, oppose
the war. Telephone calls and the mail to your offices run strongly
against it. Polls and news stories reveal a divided and uncertain
public. Yet debate in your chambers is restricted to peripheral
questions, such as the timing of the vote, or the resolution's
precise scope. You are a deliberative body, but you do not deliberate.
You are representatives, but you do not represent.
The silence of those of you in the Democratic Party is especially
troubling. You are the opposition party, but you do not oppose.
Raising the subject of the war, your political advisers tell you,
will distract from the domestic issues that favor the party's
chances in the forthcoming Congressional election. In the face
of the Administration's pre-emptive war, your leaders have resorted
to pre-emptive surrender. For the sake of staying in power, you
are told, you must not exercise the power you have in the matter
of the war. What, then, is the purpose of your re-election?
If you succeed, you will already have thrown away the power
you supposedly have won. You will be members of Congress, but
Congress will not be Congress. Even the fortunes of the domestic
causes you favor will depend far more on the decision on the war
than on the outcome of the election.
On April 4, 1967, as the war in Vietnam was reaching its full
fury, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A time comes when silence
is betrayal." And he said, "Some of us who have already
begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling
to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must
speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited
vision, but we must speak."
Now the time to speak has come again. We urge you to speak-
and, when the time comes, to vote-against the war on Iraq.
The case against the war is simple, clear and strong. The
Administration calls it a chapter in the war on terror, but Iraq
has no demonstrated ties either to the September 11 attack on
the United States or to the Al Qaeda network that launched it.
The aim of the war is to deprive President Saddam Hussein of weapons
of mass destruction, but the extent of his program for building
these weapons, if it still exists, is murky. Still less clear
is any intention on his part to use such weapons. To do so would
be suicide, as he well knows. Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo
of California has reported that in closed session Administration
officials have been asked several times whether they have evidence
of an imminent threat from Saddam against the United States and
have answered no. She elaborated, "Not 'no, but' or 'maybe,
'but 'no."' On the other hand, if he does have them, and
faces his overthrow and possible death at the hands of US forces,
he might well use them-or, more likely, give them to terrorist
groups to use after his fall. He may be doing so even now.
Some observers have likened the resolution under discussion
to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 authorizing President
Johnson to use force in Vietnam. But that was passed only after
a report was received of two attacks on US naval forces. (We now
know that the first attack was provoked by a prior secret American
attack and the second was nonexistent.) The new resolution, which
alleges no attack, not even a fictional one, goes a step further.
It is a Tonkin Gulf resolution without a Tonkin Gulf incident.
Even if Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction and wishes
to use them, a policy of deterrence would appear perfectly adequate
to stop him, just as it was adequate a half-century ago to stop
a much more fearsome dictator, Joseph Stalin. It is not true that
military force is the only means of preventing the proliferation
of these weapons, whether to Iraq or other countries. An alternative
path is clearly available. In the short run it passes through
the United Nations and its system of inspections, now more promising
than before because Iraq, responding to US pressure, has opened
itself unconditionally to inspectors. At the very least, this
path should be fully explored before military action-the traditional
last resort-is even considered. Such a choice in favor of multilateralism,
diplomacy and treaty agreements should be part of a much broader
policy of nonproliferation and disarmament of the kind that has
already enjoyed great success over the past several decades. Under
the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for example,
182 nations have agreed to do without nuclear weapons. The larger
issue is whether proliferation- not just to Iraq but to many other
countries as well-is best addressed by military or political means.
But the decision to go to war has a significance that goes
far beyond the war. The war is the product of a broader policy
that has been spelled out in the clearest possible terms by the
Bush Administration. Two other countries with nuclear programs-
Iran and North Korea-have already been identified by the President
as potential targets for military attack. The Administration's
recently published "National Security Strategy of the United
States" sets forth even larger ambitions. It declares a policy
of military supremacy over the entire earth-an objective never
before attained by any power. Military programs are meanwhile
forbidden to other countries, all of whom are to be prevented
from "surpassing or equaling" the United States. China
is singled out for a warning that by "pursuing advanced military
capabilities," it is following an "outdated path"
that "threaten[s] its neighbors." The new policy reverses
a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks.
It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations
even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to
be attacked by them. It trades deterrence for pre-emption-in plain
English, aggression. It accords the United States the right to
overthrow any regime- like the one in Iraq-it decides should be
overthrown. (The President would like international support and
he would like Congressional support but asserts his right to wage
war without either.) It declares that the defense of the United
States and the world against nuclear proliferation is military
force. It is an imperial policy-more ambitious than ancient Rome's,
which, after all, extended only to the Mediterranean and European
world. Nelson Mandela recently said of the Administration, "They
think they're the only power in the world.... One country wants
to bully the world."
A vote for the war in Iraq is a vote for this policy. The
most important of the questions raised by the war, however, is
larger still. It is what sort of country the United States wants
to be in the twenty-first century. The genius of the American
form of government was the creation of a system of institutions
to check and balance government power and so render it accountable
to the people. Today that system is threatened by a monster of
unbalanced and unaccountable power-a new Leviathan-that is taking
shape among us in the executive branch of the government. This
Leviathan-concealed in an ever-deepening, self-created secrecy
and fed by streams of money from corporations that, as scandal
after scandal has shown, have themselves broken free of elementary
accountability-menaces civil liberties even as it threatens endless,
unprovoked war. As disrespectful of the Constitution as it is
of the UN Charter, the Administration has turned away from law
in all its manifestations and placed its reliance on overwhelming
force to achieve its ends.
In pursuit of empire abroad, it endangers the Republic at
home. The bully of the world threatens to become the bully of
Americans, too. Already, the Justice Department claims the right
to jail American citizens indefinitely on the sole ground that
a bureaucrat in the Pentagon has labeled them something called
an "enemy combatant." Even the domestic electoral system
has been compromised by the debacle in Florida. Nor has the shadow
cast on democracy by that election yet been lifted. Election reform
has not occurred. Modest campaign reform designed to slow the
flood of corporate cash into politics, even after passage in Congress,
is being eviscerated by executive decisions. More important, this
year's Congressional campaign, by shunning debate on the fundamental
issue of war and peace, has signaled to the public that even in
the most important matters facing the country neither it nor its
representatives decide; only the executive does.
Members of Congress! Be faithful to your oaths of office and
to the traditions of your branch of government. Think of the country,
not of your re-election. Assert your power. Stand up f' the prerogatives
of Congress. Defend the Constitution. Reject the arrogance-and
the ignorance-of power. Show respect for your constituents-they
require your honest judgment, not capitulate to the executive.
Say no to empire. Affirm the Republic. Preserve the peace. Vote
against war in Iraq.