The Limits of Interpretation. (Letter from Ground Zero)

By Schell, Jonathan | The Nation, April 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Interpretation. (Letter from Ground Zero)


Schell, Jonathan, The Nation


A Vesuvius of violence has erupted from the dead center of American life, the executive branch of the government. No counterbalancing power, whether in the United States, the United Nations or elsewhere, has so far been able to contain it. Right now, it is raining destruction chiefly on one country, Iraq, half a world away from the United States. But others--Iran, Syria, North Korea--have already been named as candidates for attack. The war was launched in the name of a policy that asserts, in unusually explicit and clear language, an American claim of military dominance over all other nations on earth, which, in the words of George W. Bush, should bow to America's unchallengeable military might, give up any "destabilizing" attempt to catch up and restrict any further "rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace." (The prospective world order that military rivalry to the United States would "destabilize" is, clearly, American global hegemony.) The pillars of this new policy of supremacy are too familiar by now to require much elaboration: American unilateralism, the replacement of the cold war policy of containment with "pre-emption" and assertion of a right, at the pleasure of the United States, to overthrow other governments.

The war, indeed, is revolutionary in at least three distinct arenas. It is aimed, of course, at the destruction of the government in Iraq. It is aimed, further, at producing a political revolution in the entire Middle East. Finally, it announces the destruction of the existing world order (such as it is) in favor of one dominated by the United States. Just how radical this latter revolution is is suggested by some recent comments by one of the architects of the new policy, Richard Perle, until recently chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. In a recent article in The Guardian, he wrote of the United Nations: "The chatterbox on the Hudson [sic] will continue to bleat." (How the UN can chatter and bleat at the same time is not explained.) But Perle's target is larger: "What will die is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order. As we sift the debris, it will be important to preserve, the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions."

In addition, a fourth revolution threatens--of the American constitutional order. In a culmination of the long decline of Congress's war power, the Congressional resolution authorizing this long-considered "war of choice" almost formally abdicated that choice and gave it to the executive. All that was missing was a surrender ceremony in which the defeated legislative branch handed over the war sword, placed in its hands more than two centuries ago by the country's founders, to the President.

Around the world, citizens and governments alike have read and absorbed these announcements of America's global ambitions. With near-unanimity, they have reacted with alarm and dismay. Meanwhile, the war itself has aroused widespread revulsion. In the United States, however, where public opinion polls show that seven in ten people have rallied in support of the war, the picture is different. One of the peculiarities of the scene is the refusal of many of those supporters to acknowledge the larger policy in which it is embedded (if I may use that term). …

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