IRAQ: The Triumph of Fear: The U.S. War Against Iraq

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Posted Mar 8, 2003      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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I. The Decline of Hope

How could it have come to this? The fundamentally decent people of the United States destroying the homes and lives of innocent Iraqis, just twenty-eight years after most Americans were so sickened by war-making that they chose to abandon the ill-conceived war in Vietnam! From my analysis of the psychodynamics that make this war possible comes a new strategy for the anti-war movement outlined in the second part of this editorial.

The purported reasons for the war are too transparently vacuous to be given much credibility. Stop the development of weapons of mass destruction? Then why not focus the attention on North Korea, which has admitted trying to develop these weapons, rather than Iraq, which doesn’t have much. Sure, we are convinced that Saddam Hussein is a militarist who would love to join the club of nations like the United States, England, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia, and Ukraine that have nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

As Congressman Dennis Kucinich points out in a conversation with Tikkun in this issue, there are over seventeen nations that have or are in the process of developing nuclear capacities and?in part through the help of Western countries like the United States?already have or are developing long-range delivery weapons. Twenty nations have or are in the process of developing chemical and biological weapons. Yes, this makes the world unsafe?but we have ourselves to blame for it in large part, including for the role we played in training and arming al Qaeda operatives when they were terrorists fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

We are deeply opposed to Saddam Hussein. We are convinced that he has violated the basic human rights of his own citizens (including regularizing the use of torture), that he is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents, and that he should be brought to trial for crimes against humanity. We would love to see Saddam Hussein’s regime replaced by a democratic and human rights-respecting regime in Iraq. But war is not the way to achieve that.

The record of regimes the United States has supported around the world in the past forty years, and the ultra-right wing and human rights-insensitive proclivities of the Bush administration give us little reason to believe that a democratic regime will result from Bush’s war.

Despite Secretary of State Powell’s presentation to the UN about contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda (reminiscent, perhaps, of the long history of United States contact and support for bin Laden in the 1980s), there is no serious evidence that Saddam Hussein has had any interest in supporting Islamic extremists or terrorists?much less giving them weapons of mass destruction?at least, not until this war. In fact, Saddam ran a secular Islamic state which fought a bloody war against Iranian fundamentalists, and Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons were supplied in part by the United States to encourage Saddam in that struggle.

If giving weapons to irresponsible terrorist forces were sufficient reason to overthrow a regime, the U.S. role in spreading these kinds of weapons in the past?for example to the terrorist Contras in Nicaragua, or to the Taliban in its struggle against the Soviet Union, or to terrorist groups seeking to overthrow Castro in Cuba, or to regimes with proven human rights violations?and our failure to participate in serious programs to stop proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to those we consider our allies, would by this logic provide grounds for the people of the world to call for “regime change” in the United States, “by force, if necessary” as Bush says.

Of course, we at Tikkun reject this kind of reasoning?not because what the United States is doing is legitimate, but because in principle we reject the use of force and violence as an appropriate mechanism to stop behavior of states or individuals that we find might possibly endanger the world (except in the case of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or aggression against other states in the current moment without any possible way to save lives or protect the attacked country outside of intervention?an argument that might have been relevant when Iraq was gassing its Kurds, but is not today).

Many of America’s most principled religious leaders have joined in the public appeal against this war. Some have argued that there is no proximate threat beyond that posed by the war the United States is bringing to Iraq. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made this case very effectively on January 29, 2003:

“With overwhelming military strength now deployed against him and with intense monitoring from space surveillance and the UN inspection team on the ground, any belligerent move by Saddam against a neighbor would be suicidal. An effort to produce or deploy chemical or biological weapons or to make the slightest move toward a nuclear explosive would be inconceivable. If Iraq does possess such concealed weapons, as is quite likely, Saddam would use them only in the most extreme circumstances, in the face of an invasion of Iraq, when all hope of avoiding the destruction of his regime is lost.”

Carter might have added that there are no similar constraints on U.S. power, no monitoring of our weapons of mass destruction, no supervision of our chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, no restrictions on the delivery systems we’ve been developing.

If the predictions of U.S. strategy are correct, you may well be reading this after the United States has let loose the most massive bombing of a civilian city (Baghdad) since we nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of people will be killed, most of them having played no role whatsoever in the selection or maintenance of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.

Even if the war doesn’t occur, or if it occurs without high levels of civilian casualties (though don’t expect Americans to know much about that since the media’s obsequious subservience to government censorship is likely to continue?we will, no doubt, be flooded with glorifications of how “clean” and “efficient” and “smart” our technologies of war have become rather than stories of the human suffering of ordinary Iraqi people) the question remains: “How could decent Americans have allowed this to get to the place where it could happen?”

The surface answers are relevant but not finally satisfying:

1. Oil. True enough, George Bush represents that section of capital most tied to the oil and gas interests of the Southwest, some of whom could care less about the collapse of Wall Street or the pressures on finance capital that this war engenders. If the American oil industry could exercise direct control over the oil wells of this most productive oil-producing state in the world, their own level of profits would be assured for quite some time and they would not have to yield to the interests of environmentalists who are urging a crash program to develop non-fossil fuels. Still, this seems like a risky path when Saddam Hussein would be happy to raise the level of oil production, flood the market, and push down dramatically the cost of oil for these same oil companies.

2. Bush’s re-election. The economy has been in huge trouble since Bush took office, and it got worse after some of the largest firms revealed criminal behavior and started to collapse. Aided by Bush’s massive tax giveaways to the rich, economic prosperity for all seems increasingly unlikely. Distracting attention from this by a focus on war seemed to work effectively to allow Bush to reverse the historic trend by which the party of the president in power tends to lose seats in the midterm election. Perhaps if the war drags on, and is associated in a clear way with the war on terror, Bush could use this war effectively in his re-election campaign.

3. Global hegemony and protection of the globalization of capital. Many of the old Cold Warriors in the administration believe that in a unipolar world, American political domination is in the best interests of everyone, assuring global order and allowing for the safe development of global capitalism, which, they sincerely believe, will benefit everyone. Thomas Friedman, in his impassioned pleas in the New York Times for war against Iraq, adds to this the belief that democracy would eventually flourish in regimes supported by American power and the globalization of capital.

Yet why would Americans allow this kind of thinking, with the evident consequence of being led back into war again, just twenty-eight years after the end of Vietnam? The human race has already recognized that any line of reasoning which leads to the conclusion that “I must kill some Other who stands in my way or does not act the way I wish” is a fallacious way of thinking.

Tikkun’s answer is that Americans are in a state of fear, and that fear has been manipulated by militarists and political opportunists to lead ordinarily decent people to the conclusion that we can be safe only by wiping out others.

“Ah, the September 11 syndrome again?” you might wonder.

Well, yes, partly. But that fear goes much deeper than September 11. To understand it, we need to consider how it functions in the daily life experience of people. Let’s start by considering the central fallacy that underlies all this fear: the belief that we are separate from each other, and that our individual well-being can be achieved without the well-being of everyone else on the planet.

“Isn’t this just our ontological condition?the basic reality of life that we are thrown into this world on our own, and must face it on our own (to paraphrase the fascist philosopher Heidegger)?” you might ask.


In fact we come into this world and survive through an attachment to a mothering being whose love, constancy, and nurturance are critical to our ability to survive and function. Our first experience of the world is one of love, caring, and selfless giving. It takes a lot of conditioning?living in a social reality that teaches us to see ourselves as counterposed to everyone else, that constructs an economic world in which our interests are set up against the interests of others?to unlearn our basic loving experience.

Yet as society grinds its way into our consciousness, it eventually succeeds in undermining our capacity to recognize the deepest truth of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions (as well as the fundamental teaching of ecological theory): that we are all interconnected and mutually interdependent. In religious language, we are all created in the Image of God and equally deserving of well-being and care.

Once we remember or begin to allow ourseves to truly appreciate the Unity of All Being, we realize that the damage being done to the Iraqi people is being done to everyone on the planet including ourselves. They are us. They are not “Other.”

Their pain and suffering will be ours.

And this is true not only because the devastation we are delivering to Iraq will create new generations of terrorists who may in fact strike at us, or our children, in decades to come.

The energies unleashed by this war will further destroy the social/psychological/spiritual environment and weaken the bonds of trust among all peoples alive at this moment in history, and will make it more likely for people to come to believe that:

a. The world is a scary place.

b. Our own interests are in conflict with everyone else’s.

c. If we don’t act to protect ourselves from them and to win at their expense, they will hurt us to win at our expense.

d. Getting power over others is the only realistic thing we can do to protect ourselves.

e. If we want to be successful, we need to become good at manipulating others (subtly if possible, overtly if necessary).

f. Even the people closest to us are likely to be motivated by their own self-interest (it’s just “common sense” to believe that that is everyone’s bottom line) so we’d best be sure to watch out for ourselves, because no one else will do that for us, no matter how much they claim to love us.

Taken together, this litany of beliefs is already powerfully present in our society, and the war will only make them appear more self-evident and legitimate. Once you appreciate the logic of this dominant worldview, it is not so far a step to think that under some circumstances we can be societally sanctioned to kill others to get our way.

These same beliefs, increasingly internalized in daily life, have contributed to the widespread breakdown of loving relationships, the dissolution of solidarity in communities, and the instability in family life. Our loneliness and alienation increases as we experience a deeper and deeper “realization” that “this is how life really is.” No wonder then that more and more people turn to drugs and alcohol, or to a life defined around their individual computers, protected from unregulated contact with others, or to communities with high walls, both figuratively and literally, built around them.

You may think that when I talk about the breakdown of love that I’ve gone far afield from talking about war. But no?it’s all directly and immediately connected. How we live our lives is a manifestation of an underlying flow of energy in the world?either the energy of love and caring for others, and trust that there is enough, that you are enough, and that there will be enough for all of us; or the energy of fear that manifests in a certainty that the “Other” will be hurtful, that there is not enough love or recognition or food or material well-being to go around, and that if we don’t take care of ourselves first and foremost?and without regard to what hurt we may have to inflict on others in order to achieve that?then others will hurt us or even kill us, and laugh at our naivet頡nd stupidity.

Every act that we take in our lives, every perception of what is possible with others and for ourselves, is shaped by our larger assessment of the flow of this energy in the world and how it defines what is reality and what is fantasy. These perceptions in turn tell us what to think about how much we can trust others, whether we can pick up a hitchhiker or not, whether we can trust a stranger walking in our neighborhood or not, whether we can as a society “afford” to pay for health care for the uninsured or supply child care or quality education for our children.

The war is an expression in its most acute form of the alienation and “othering” of people that is intensifying in daily life, a manifestation of our isolation and inability to see the Unity of All Being, to recognize our mutual interdependence, and our fear of affirming love and hope.

Every ounce of Being mirrors the totality, and is shaped by the totality, so that our own personal alienation grows deeper through living in a world based on war, and our likelihood of choosing war increases through our own individual and societal alienation, loneliness, fear of love and hope, and cynical realism.

Much of what we’ve done in Tikkun in the past seventeen years has been to chart the movement of social hope and the ways it gets undermined by fear, leading to the dissolution of the bonds of trust between people.

The triumph of the competitive marketplace and its ethos of narcissistic, self-indulgent materialism has been central to this, generating a worldview that everyone is out for themselves and that no one can really count on others. Yet there have been counter-tendencies, because human beings normally gravitate toward caring and concern for each other, and that has at times found expression in large-scale social movements (e.g., in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s) that articulated a vision of hope. Those visions were systematically challenged in the name of cynical realism, and the challengers often won the day because they could always refer back to our “common sense” about how people “really are” based on our daily experience in the competitive marketplace.

It may be most illuminating to think of history through the frame of seeing the ways that people become encouraged to move from moments of hope to what the society teaches is a “more mature” and “realistic” view of a world in which we are alone and at risk.

There have been many political markers along the way: the undermining of the hopes of universal solidarity expressed in the original formation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, undermined in part by a new American nationalism fueled by anti-Communist hysteria in the late 1940s and 1950s; the assassinations of President Kennedy and Senator Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the infiltration and systematic disruption of the anti-war movement in the 1960s by the FBI and CIA; the false promises and raised hopes of the Clinton years which were then dashed against the reality of Clintonian opportunism and slavish desire to serve the interests of global capital (though of course some good things were also accomplished); the failure of Al Gore to provide a vision that could inspire or transcend his wimpiness, to demand real power for the views that actually won majority support in 2000 (rather than abandoning those forces and burying himself in wounded pride); the failure of the Democratic leadership to provide a principled challenge to Bush’s Iraq policy. You could probably add a lot more to this list of ways that hope has been undermined and people have given in to cynicism and despair.

But just as every moment that we choose despair we deepen the likelihood of a world of war, so every moment where we choose to affirm love and generosity and our mutual interconnectedness we increase the likelihood of a world of peace and justice.

II. The Anti-War Movement

Instead of letting the cynical realists define reality for us, let us define it for them.

Rational arguments against the war-apologists have their place, and we should continue to refine them and do our best to communicate them. And if the bombs are falling, and Iraqis are being massacred, Americans with a moral conscience should also be willing to act in powerful and non-violently disruptive ways to challenge this war. Civil disobedience is on the agenda.

Yet if you have followed our argument up till here, you will understand that the most important task for the anti-war movement is to project a new vision of how to create safety. We must talk directly and clearly about fear and about safety. The most effective thing we can do it to get every American to grapple with the following question: will we be safer through more war and domination or more love and generosity?

Let our message be clear. There is only one way for America to be safe: let it be perceived as the leading force in the world for ending poverty and hunger and disease and the vast global inequalities of wealth; as the world’s leading force for ecological sanity and repairing the damage done to our biosphere by the past 150 years of industrialization; and as the force that embodies a new bottom line of generosity and caring for others. If that is our message, we actually have a chance to turn this disastrous situation to something of long-term benefit to humanity.

We could start by talking about rejuvenating the United Nations, and re-imagining how it could be restructured to once again become the repository of the world’s hopes. It would, of course, have to transcend the narrow individual rights focus of each particular nation protecting its own turf. It would need Nelson Mandela-type energy, Gorbachev energy, prophetic and utopian energy that it would proudly proclaim as central to its mission. Why not insist that the UN become the place to dream not merely of a world at peace, but a world of love, generosity, and caring for each other?

And while we are at it, why not also propose a way to lovingly embrace the trouble spots of the world instead of surrounding them with guns and threats and starving the populations of countries like Iraq with the fantasy that it will dislodge their powerful leaders? What if we were to surround them with love, generosity, and reassurances that the world really cares about them?

We’ve tried to coerce people into being good, being peaceful, and going along with our agendas. It hasn’t worked. The realists brought us the war in Vietnam, and now they are bringing us the war in Iraq. So forget that realism. It doesn’t work.

Instead, let us proclaim that this is the time when the world needs utopian realism?a strategy of insisting that this is now the moment to rebuild the world upon a new bottom line of love and caring, ethical, spiritual, and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. From this perspective, let us build a foreign policy aimed at showing how we can redistribute love, how the richest country in the history of the world can share its wealth and end global hunger and poverty, and can model a spirit of generosity and open-heartedness and genuine recognition of the Unity of All Being. For starters, let every citizen of the United States spend two years of their life in service to humanity, in a massive effort to rebuild the educational, informational, and economic infrastructure of the world?and let this service to humanity become the necessary requirement for entrance into any job or profession. And let the United States take the $1.5 trillion in taxes President Bush is attempting to give back to the rich and use it instead to help develop the economic infrastructure of the third world.

The key to ending these kinds of wars (there will be more, even if Iraq is already fully demolished by the time you read this) is to build a vision of hope, such as I’ve described in the last few paragraphs. And that is already happening on the streets, though not yet in the ideologies and the conscious self-understanding of those who are publicly saying “no” to war.

We are so glad to have seen the positive energies of the hundreds of thousands of people who have assembled in the streets of this country to challenge the war-makers. Their energy often embodies an infectious hopefulness that could change the dynamics and stop this and future wars.

If you haven’t yet participated in one of these demonstrations, you owe it to yourself to become part of one. Many of them have been so life-affirming and hope-regenerating to the participants that they could play a serious role in helping us remember that “reality” as portrayed by the media and by the government is only “their reality,” and that there are millions of people determined to shape another reality.

Unfortunately, the creative and lovingly anarchic energies brought by the demonstrators has not been matched by those who have rushed to position themselves as our leaders and spokespeople. They are often liberal or left-wing ideologues whose categories of understanding do not include love and generosity, or the flow of social energies from fear to hope. Too often, their language is only the flip side of the economic-reductionism and power orientation of those in the administration that they seek to challenge. No wonder, then, that they rarely are able to articulate a positive vision that can elevate and inspire those who are not already part of the anti-war movement (and that means most of the American people).

The demonstrations themselves should mirror the kind of world we hope to build. The organizers should encourage longer and more serious discussions that present a variety of different analyses and strategies (with conflicting perspectives, because we learn from that kind of open discussion). Rallies and demonstrations could be a real opportunity for all of us to discuss strategy together. It is possible?in the 1960s there were actually open mikes at some of our most effective demonstrations, where ordinary participants could get up and share their thinking with others. Of course, that sometimes opened the stage up to crackpots and police infiltrators who tried to incite us to violence, and to leftist “radicals” who would try to make us feel bad for being white or male or middle-class or otherwise privileged and therefore not suffering the way we ought to have been (in “real” solidarity with the wretched of the earth). We could also create small group discussions both at these events and at follow-up teach-ins in the churches, synagogues, mosques, and community centers nearby.

One of the most distressing elements of these demonstrations has been the presence of Israel-bashing and the suggestion that the war itself is being fought to protect Israeli interests. The coalition called A.N.S.W.E.R., though filled with decent and morally sensitive people, has been largely guided by a virulently anti-Israel group which uses its control over the selection of speakers to ensure that these sentiments are woven into the fabric of their events in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. When I pointed out the difference between this and the kind of balanced critique that we at Tikkun have been articulating, a critique that condemns Palestinian acts of terror against Israeli civilians, I was barred by A.N.S.W.E.R. from speaking at any of the large anti-war rallies in which they are part of the organizing coalition. I’ve been around long enough to not be surprised to find lefties mirroring the rigidity and fearfulness of the right-wingers?many of them have the same authoritarian personalities that can be found as well among the liberal centrists who fight wars of aggression in the name of tolerance and democracy. In a world filled with distortions, we can be sure to find some of those distortions in ourselves as well! So I’ve encouraged the Tikkun Community and my own synagogue, Beyt Tikkun, to participate actively in these demonstrations?because stopping the war is the number one moral priority?but at the same time to speak out against the Israel-bashing and the suppression of dissent within the movement itself.

How ironic, though, that this should happen to the very Tikkun voices who are attacked by many sectors of the organized Jewish community because we are supposedly anti-Israel!

Tikkun Magazine is doing what we can to keep alive the voice of Jewish liberalism at a time when it is almost impossible to get any other major Jewish organization to publicly challenge the war-makers. Too many Jews have mistakenly bought the view that this war is good for Israel. But it is never good for the Jews, or anyone else, to be identified with repressive and immoral policies, no matter how much short term benefits might accrue.

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We hope you’ll become active with us, and come to the Tikkun Community Conference, June 1?4, where these ideas and strategies will be further developed?and where we will use the backdrop of a “Teach-In to Congress” to get our message of a progressive middle path, both on Israel/Palestine and on Iraq, to the American people. Please act now to register for the conference with us, and to get your room at the Hyatt Capitol Hill where the conference will take place (the Teach-In which will be in the Capitol itself). But till then, our hope is that you will help us create a local Tikkun community, and through that help us reshape the current discourse in America in ways I’ve described above. To do so, contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) And, yes, we need plenty of volunteers and other kinds of help?at our office in Berkeley (we’ve just moved from San Francisco), at our conference in Washington, D.C., and in your home town. If you want to get active at this critical moment in our country’s history, contact us now!

Addendum: Strategy During the War

If the war starts, Muslims, Jews and Christians can work together. The anti-war movement will give people plenty of opportunity to express their anger at the war and the massive killings likely to be part of it. What they won’t do is give space for people to express grief and hope. So, we are inviting our Muslim friends to join The Tikkun Community and together help us to create a weekly Memorial Service in every town and city in the world. That memorial service will be dedicated first and foremost to grieving the lives lost, and those wounded or maimed, by this terrible war—both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers. This weekly event should not be only about sadness, but also about hope. So after the Memorial for those dead and wounded in the past week, the event should then turn into a Speak Out About the War.  Here the goal is to allow anyone who wishes to participate in an open-microphone in which they can share their feelings and thoughts about the war—including feelings and thoughts that may not agree with our own persepctive. The goal is to create a safe space so that ordinary citizens can speak out. But this should also include some speakers whom we plan beforehand to be able to present our strategic vision of how to build hope.  If you are willing to help create something like this in your area, please contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)