An assessment
Michael Neumann's
"Left Behind: Victory and Recruitment"



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Writing at CounterPunch (June 24), Michael Neumann offers a program for the Left to bring about an end to America's war on Iraq. In so doing, he makes some poignant and also trenchant points, though I take exception to some of his analysis.

Bush's war now enjoys less than 50 percent support among those polled. But Neumann reminds us that the war's sinking popularity hasn't had much effect so far:

A fabulously expensive and pointless war that is going badly, to no one's benefit, with weak popular support, virtually without even ostensible justification, does pretty well on the home front. Leftist "actions" against that war attract less attention than the umpteenth "Survivor" clone. As for Bush's approval ratings, these can plummet without having the slightest effect on the war effort.

Worst of all, the very concept of political action has been attenuated to the vanishing point. By now, many leftists have only the faintest idea of what it is to do something.

Neumann sees military recruiting as a weak spot that the antiwar Left can exploit, noting that "recruitment is essential: no troops, no war. Recruitment happens, and has to happen, all over the country." And he points out that "every high school, every university, every place where recruiters go, is an ideal battleground, because the antiwar forces, far more than the recruiters, are on home ground."

He emphasizes that, to succeed in discouraging recruitment, the Left must alter its message to appeal to conservative nationalistic Americans, who are the cohort most likely to join the military. At present, he observes, the message is

oriented more towards protest than political action, is moralistic to the point of irrelevance. Recruiters are most successful, of course, in the "red" states, and among patriotic (or "patriotic") Americans — people who are for America as it is today, not for some left-wing ideal of what America ought to be. These people are not going to burst into tears when they hear that the war is terribly wrong — if they were open to such appeals, the U.S. wouldn't have gone into Iraq to start with.

For as long as the Left sticks with its present line, Neumann writes, it will have

no plausible way to address these patriots: in fact the left's message gives them reason to support the war effort. If the war is being fought for oil, for example, so much the better: America needs oil. If the war benefits some rich clique, well good: it probably benefits big business (and most leftists agree), so it means jobs and prosperity — any discussion of these motives will at best fritter away into an unresolvable dispute about trickle-down economics.

Neumann offers a more truthful message  that he expects would also be more effective: "the war is not in U.S. interests." Bush's war doesn't just contradict the interests of the Left's notional constituencies — poor folk, proles in the factories and in the military, or hard-pressed middle-class people. It also contradicts the interests of "U.S. imperialism, or big oil, or big business. That the left opposes these forces shouldn't blind it to the necessity of pointing this out, because otherwise anti-recruitment efforts won't be successful enough to have real impact on the war effort."

Neumann rightly points out that the oil interests did not favor the Iraq war, noting that the Left, "for all [its] addiction to 'research,'" has failed to identify particular Big Oil outfits, or other major corporations or executives, as warmongers. "Invading Iraq," he emphasizes, "offers no net economic benefits."

"The way to control oil," Neumann writes, "is not to p*ss off virtually every oil producing country in the world, which is what the invasion of Iraq did." Quite the contrary. Military occupation of the oil-producing regions isn't necessary; the United States has available "many other, cheaper and more effective means," such as "all forms of economic pressure," as well as "limited military actions."

And it's "simply idiotic," Neumann writes, to attack an entire country when all you need is control of its oilfields. "In fact," he continues, "occupying the whole country, as the invasion of Iraq makes clear, is a terrible way to secure oil supplies, because it incites people to attack their own pipelines and other oil installations."

What Big Oil wants, Neumann writes, is "long-term political stability in oil-rich regions.... Typical of big-oil tactics is not warfare, but almost infinite patience, and tolerance of oil-rich regimes."

So if the motive wasn't oil, why did the United States attack Iraq? Here Neumann falls short: "To my mind it was because the U.S. had to show the world that it was powerful after the humiliation of 9-11, and especially after the equally great humiliation of failing to capture or kill Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar. But it really doesn't matter why the U.S. went in." In Neumann's opinion, investigating the motives for American intervention is just "a distraction from the only important thing — getting out."

I too have critiqued the oil argument; but I have also identified the real engine of war, Israel: see my "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel." I hardly consider that identification to be a "distraction."

However, before we look at the big picture,  let us evaluate the more tactical aspects of Neumann's program. Attacking the recruitment effort has much merit, but it is not a sure means of stopping the war. That, I think, requires a broader political offensive, driven by enough popular antiwar sentiment to overawe members of Congress.

A major leftist effort against recruitment would demand a level of disciplined organization resembling that of the Communists circa 1935. When an order arrived from Stalin for the comrades around the world to make like liberal bourgeois, they obeyed it, and the scheme was quite successful. Communists promptly dropped their revolutionary slogans and joined "progressive" causes — especially "anti-fascism." However, the Left today is not so organized, nor is it strictly focused on political-economics; it is much concerned with culture and lifestyle. Thus, many leftists view the poorer "rednecks," who are apt to volunteer for the military, as the enemy. Today's "progressive" comrades are not about to try to blend in with "redneck" culture, which they detest. Even if sophisticated urban "progressives" could hold their gorge, they'd have a hard time getting the "rednecks" to hold theirs: that is, they'd have a hard time effectively marketing the antiwar position among the people who are predisposed to enter the military.

It's an open question whether recruitment could be effectively stopped in any case. The Pentagon could probably keep lowering the standards for its recruits while offering higher bonuses and pay. In an economy where earnings for the unskilled are declining, it's likely that the military will always find enough recruits. Illegal immigrants could be a source of manpower if the government gave them the choice of joining up or being deported.

In any case it is far from certain that efforts to stop recruitment would really stop the American military machine, even in the absence of a draft. In a Los Angeles Times piece, "Defend America, Become American," neocon Max Boot proposes outsourcing recruitment by bringing in foreigners. Nothing new there: the Roman legions relied on that policy for many years after the core Roman population lost interest in enforcing the Empire's will.

If Americans became unwilling to volunteer for military service, the result would be a more-expensive, probably less-efficient military. It might even be the kind of military that Americans couldn't accept. On the other hand, if the military were completely divorced from regular Americans, voters might become totally indifferent about what happened to its members — that is, casualties wouldn't matter.

As I indicate above, I disagree with Neumann's contention that it is unnecessary to understand the real reasons for the war and that efforts to do so distract "from the only important thing — getting out."

There's little chance that the United States will be "getting out" any time soon unless Americans come to grasp the Israeli connection that caused the war on Iraq. The antiwar folk who confine themselves to bashing Bush and Cheney might indeed provide enough propaganda to fundamentally discredit the Bush administration — but only to see it replaced with a pro-war regime headed by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or some other John Kerry clone.

Since the Zionist lobby is closely tied to all, or almost all, leading political candidates, it is necessary to point out the connection between Israel and American policy in the Middle East. If we brush aside that connection as a mere distraction, we may expect to see — in the most optimistic scenario — the United States pull out of Iraq only to turn up the pressure on other Israeli targets: Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. It would be unprofitable, to say the least, to merely trade one quagmire for another. Or several others.

June 27, 2005

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