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William Pitt: Politics in the Service of War

Politics in the Service of War

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Friday 12 January 2007

It was the famous Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, in his analysis of the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, who wrote that war is "a continuation of politics by other means." This is a line that many have heard, and have mistakenly used as a justification for militarism in all its forms. Those who use this line, however, almost always fail to use the line that follows: "The political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes."

The essence of Clausewitz's thinking is straightforward. The object of war is to secure the safety and health of the state, and is therefore an arm of the politics of that state. When war is an extension of politics, it necessarily follows that there are limitations placed upon war, because the politics using war exist first and foremost to defend and enhance the state. Permanent war in the service of itself will ultimately destroy any state. If the rationale became reversed, therefore, war would become the end rather than the means, and the state would be placed in mortal peril.

One wonders what Clausewitz would have made of the speech delivered Wednesday evening by George W. Bush. War, for Clausewitz, was a necessary evil whose ultimate goal was to serve the politics of the state. Bush's speech on Wednesday reversed the polarity of this axiom. Now, in Iraq, war is no longer in the service of politics. Now, in Iraq, politics are in the service of war.

In a sense, there was a time when the war in Iraq seemed to serve American politics, albeit in a gross and cynical manner. The war served the politics of those who knew that fear, uncertainty and rampant nationalism would help them win elections. The war served the politics of those who knew their radical policy ideas would never see the light of day without that fear and uncertainty. The war served to distract the populace from a series of mistakes and deliberate misdirections, thus defending the political standing of the perpetrators.

It worked, for a time, until the inherent flaws within the DNA of these cynical abuses of power overwhelmed the whole. Some say Iraq is a mess because we went in "light," without enough troops. Some say Iraq is a disaster because we essentially invaded that country alone, buttressed only by a small cluster of allies that became known as the "Coalition of the Willing." In truth, the invasion of Iraq was doomed to disaster the moment American soldiers stepped into the sands of that nation. It was doomed because, though the war appeared to serve politics, the reverse was in fact true. Politics, in Iraq, was in the service of war, and has been since the beginning.

Politics, now, is helpless before the tide that was unleashed. All the dire warnings of catastrophe should we "lose," all the gruesome and ever-present connections made to 9/11, all the talk of "insurgents" and "terrorists," cannot obscure the fact that we have given birth to a religious civil war motivated by the inescapable momentum of retribution and revenge. We have installed a toothless government that cannot govern anything beyond the reach of its arm, a government riven with the same sectarian loyalties that flood the streets with blood. We have placed tens of thousands of American soldiers - and will soon send more - in the middle of a fight they cannot win, cannot even hope to change. The avalanche has already begun, goes the old saying, and it is too late for the pebbles to vote.

"The changes I have outlined tonight," said Bush on Wednesday night, "are aimed at ensuring the survival of a young democracy that is fighting for its life in a part of the world of enormous importance to American security. Let me be clear: The terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are without conscience, and they will make the year ahead bloody and violent. Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties. The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will."

So we will send more troops into Baghdad and some of the more dangerous Iraqi provinces - around five battalions or so - along with billions more dollars, and the success or failure of this plan will depend upon the Shia-dominated government's ability to actually govern. Versions of this plan have come and go over the last years, each failing more spectacularly that the other.

This "new" plan will meet with the same fate, because we are no longer living in a world whose rules were outlined by Clausewitz. If this war were in the service of politics, this war would be stopped. It would be stopped because the war itself has become caustically dangerous to our politics, to those whose power depends on those politics, and to the state as a whole. As our politics are now in the service of war, however, politics have become irrelevant. Politics no longer hold sway, and cannot do anything other than whitewash the gore off the walls.

War is the continuation of politics by other means, said Clausewitz. Bush's speech Wednesday night was the most dramatic example to date of the reversal of this concept. Politics have become the continuation of war by other means, and in fact, by any means. What is deadliest of all for us, and for Iraq, is the inability of politics to do more than simply provide cover for itself while the war serves itself.

There are those in Congress working to derail this phenomenon, and they may succeed in time, for they have the support of a vast majority of the people. So long as the ones who allowed this reversal to take place remain in power, however, the war will continue to serve itself, and their politics will continue to be little more than a cheap vaudeville show run by carnival barkers trying to pass poison off as a panacea.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. His newest book, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation, will be available this winter from PoliPointPress.

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