Questions for Mr. Bush
by George McGovern
The Nation magazine, April 22, 2002
The Bush Administration has vigorously and effectively responded
to the terrorist attack of September 11. The country seems united
behind that effort. Certainly there was no hint of a doubt in
the repeated standing ovations Congress gave the President's State
of the Union address, including his bold declaration that the
war on terrorism has just begun. The President singled out Iran,
Iraq and North Korea as the most likely next targets of America's
aroused ire against terrorists and governments that attempt to
acquire weapons of mass destruction that we, the Russians, the
British, the French, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis
and the Israelis already possess.
No longer in government, I do not have the benefit of national
security briefings or Congressional committee deliberations. So
perhaps instead of making assertions, it may be more appropriate
for me to ask some questions that have been on my mind both before
and since September 11.
Which course might produce better results in advancing American
security? Is it by continuing to boycott, diplomatically and commercially,
such countries as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Cuba and
threatening to bomb them? Or would we be better off opening up
diplomatic, trade and travel relations with these countries, including
a well-staffed embassy in each? If we are fearful of a country
and doubtful of its intentions, wouldn't we be safer having an
embassy with professional foreign service officers located in
that country to tell us what is going on?
Our leaders frequently speak of "rogue nations."
But what is a rogue nation? Isn't it simply one we have chosen
to boycott because it doesn't always behave the way we think it
should? Do such nations behave better when they are isolated and
boycotted against any normal discourse? What do we have to lose
in talking to "rogue nations" diplomatically, trading
with them commercially and observing their economic, political
and military conditions?
Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget, as the
President has proposed, wouldn't we make the world a more stable,
secure place if we invested half of that sum in reducing poverty,
ignorance, hunger and disease in the world? We are now twentieth
among nations in the percentage of gross national product devoted
to improving life in the poor nations. If we invested half of
the proposed new military spending in lifting the quality of life
for the world's poor we would be the first among nations in helping
Is it possible that such an achievement would reduce some
of the gathering anger that the poor and miserable of the earth
may be inclined to direct at the rich and indifferent? Why does
a wealthy zealot like Osama bin Laden gain such a huge following
among the poor and powerless of the world? Acting on the old adage
"charity begins at home," why not invest the other half
of the proposed new money for the Pentagon in raising the educational,
nutritional, housing and health standards of our own people?
Our military services are the best in the world. But with
a military budget at record levels, do we need to allocate another
$48 billion-an amount greater than the total military budget of
any other nation? Is not the surest foundation for our military
forces a healthy, educated, usefully employed citizenry? And is
not the best way to diminish some of the international trouble
spots, which might embroil our young men and women, by reducing
the festering poverty, misery and hopelessness of a suffering
Of course we need to take reasonable precautions in our airports
and other strategic points to guard against terrorists or nut
cases. As a World War II bomber pilot, I appreciate the role of
both tactical and strategic bombing in all-out warfare. But is
sending our bombers worldwide in the hope that they might hit
terrorist hideouts or such hostile governments as Iraq an effective
way to end terrorism? May it not more likely erode our current
international coalition, while fanning the flames of terrorism
and hatred against us as the world's only superpower, hellbent
on eradicating evil around the world?
The Administration now has seventy-five officials hidden in
bunkers outside Washington poised to take over the government
in the event of a terrorist attack. Is it possible that paranoia
has become policy? No such extreme measures were undertaken in
World War II, nor in the half-century of cold war between the
two nuclear giants, Russia and the United States.
All of us who love this land want our President to succeed.
Nothing would give me greater happiness than to see him become
a great President. But is it possible that our well-intentioned
President and his Vice President have gone off the track of common
sense in their seeming obsession with terrorism? Is there still
validity to the proverb "whom the Gods would destroy, they
first make mad"?
For half a century, our priorities were dominated by the fear
of Russian Communism-until it collapsed of its own internal weakness.
As I listen to the grim rhetoric of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, I
wonder if they are leading us into another half-century of cold
war, with terrorism replacing Communism as the second great hobgoblin
of our age.
George McGovern, senator from South Dakota from 1962 to 1980
and Democratic candidate for President in 1972, is the author
of The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time (Simon & Schuster).
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