Giddy Minds and Foreign QuarrelsBy Joseph Sobran, February 17, 1998
An observer of ordinary Americans going about their business could easily get the impression that the villainy of Saddam Hussein is the last thing on their minds. How curious that their government is on the verge of bombing Iraq in their name.
Over the past few days the talking heads have been arguing about the proposed "military action." The hawks take the puzzling position that the polls tell us Americans "support" bombing Iraq, but that the Clinton administration hasn't "made the case" for it. If the people already support it, why does a case have to be made for it?
Many people "support" the bombing in a passive way: It doesn't really interest them, and they don't feel strongly about it one way or the other -- yet. But if something goes awry, they may demand: "What the hell are we doing over there, anyway?"
"We" aren't over there; the U.S. government is. If that government represented the people in general, its plans for war would depend on what the people wanted -- not on winning the people's approval for what the government itself wants to do for its own reasons.
Countries are nearly always ruled by a tiny fraction of the population with interests of their own. These ruling elites usually give eloquent lip-service to "democracy" to keep the acquiescence of the ordinary passive people; the elites may also provide "programs" to buy the votes they need at certain intervals.
The people are the sea on which the politicians sail. Now and then the sea may get choppy. It may rock the ship of state, but it never directs it. When it turns violent, it merely imposes certain limits on the ambitions of the crew.
Democracy, or rule by the people, is impossible, but in practice the people can force a certain turnover among the rulers. But the two-party system limits the amount of change the people can force; they are allowed only a shifting preference between two permanent factions. This is why so many people sensibly ignore politics.
Because the majority doesn't rule actively, the government has to explain itself once in a while. This would be unnecessary if the rulers had the same purposes as the ruled. You don't have to persuade people who already share your desires; it's when your desires differ that you have to convince them that your desires somehow harmonize with theirs.
Right now we have a very odd situation. The big adolescent in the White House is in huge trouble not because he is immoral or criminal, though he is both, but because he is amazingly reckless. In order to sate his grubby lust, he has gambled with the fates of his political allies and dependents.
And yet, when it comes to war, Bill Clinton has been remarkably prudent -- much more so than most of the ruling elite. He has seemed to understand that war is rarely popular and always unpredictable.
The people may support war, but they seldom demand it, and they are never grateful for it. The bitterness of Korea and Vietnam drove Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson into retirement. Even successful war leaders -- Winston Churchill and George Bush, for example -- are often voted out of office.
Bill Clinton can't explain to us why he wants war with Iraq for the simple reason that he doesn't want it. It's not in his interest any more than it's in the interest of ordinary Americans. But he also can't come right out and say that he doesn't want war, because he would enrage much of the ruling elite by saying so.
Until now, Clinton has been conducting a covertly popular policy of avoiding war without announcing his intentions. But the recent scandals have made it hard for him to resist the pressure for war, and may even have changed his mind: Judging by his Tuesday speech, he sees Saddam Hussein as offering him a chance to strike "presidential" poses -- making war, not love.
Shakespeare's Henry IV counsels his son to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" -- always useful advice for those who are simultaneously in power and in trouble.
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