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Reconsidering Desert Fox

What distinguished this attack on Iraq from previous attacks is that the American government's propaganda apparatus drummed up very little political sympathy for the operation among American citizens.

Joel Schalit

Monday, January 25 1999, 5:19 PM

On December 17th 1998, American and British warplanes began their biggest attack on Iraq since the 1990 Persian Gulf War. For nearly five days allied fighter bombers rained heavy munitions on the heart of the fertile crescent, launching over four hundred cruise missiles at military targets ostensibly dedicated to manufacturing weapons of mass destruction in defiance of the 1991 cease-fire accords. On the evening of December 21st, the allied bombing campaign ended, supposedly out of respect for the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

What distinguished this attack on Iraq from previous attacks is that the American government's propaganda apparatus drummed up very little political sympathy for the operation among American citizens. In fact, as opinion polls from around the world showed, no one really took American and British military justification for the attacks seriously. Nearly everyone surveyed in various news reports agreed that the timing of Desert Fox was related to deliberation over Clinton's impeachment, which not so coincidentally was taking place simultaneously in the House of Representatives.

The impeachment debate and the bombing of Iraq both commenced on the same day. The day American and British planes ended their mission, the House voted to impeach America's president. The bombing was a stereotypically transparent diversion manoeuver, and no one on any side of the world political spectrum thought otherwise. If the entire nation knew why we were bombing Iraq, why then did Americans let the President get away with it? Because the bombing campaign allowed our country to experience a ritualized violent catharsis through the destruction our airforce wreaked on Iraq, a catharsis that America desperately needed in order to deal with the economic irrationality and cultural meaning of Clinton's impeachment process.

The Republican attempt to remove President Clinton comes at a time when the economy is performing better than it has in over thirty years. We have a federal budget surplus of over seventy billion dollars. Welfare rolls, regardless of how they were diminished, are lower than ever. According to recent labor statistics, unemployment now stands at less than five per cent. The problem is that not everyone feels victorious. The Religious Right, with its political presence damaged during the November elections, is fighting to preserve its influence and power in American politics. What better opportunity to regain some of this influence could present itself, at a time of decreasing cultural relevance, than the President's marital infidelities? All you have to do is subject it to a litmus test devised with extra-judicial standards, like Protestant sexual morality, and the presidency is effectively besieged.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's evangelical focus on Clinton's sexual improprieties serves as the perfect cultural foil by which to destroy the President's success, which he attained by restructuring America's economy after the Cold War. The success of Starr's investigation represents the triumph of conservative cultural initiatives in using religious standards of moral conduct as a means by which to successfully de-legitimate secular political authority. This is no small achievement, particularly when the economic and cultural grounds upon which the Religious Right nourished itself over the past twenty-five years has radically shifted.

American society is far more conservative now than it was at the time of the first Gulf War, in no small part because of the activist efforts of fiscal and religious conservatives. The problem for conservatives is that a Democratic administration has taken credit for this transformation by taking over conservative political ideology and making it palatable to the old liberal center. This fact has not been lost on conservatives, particularly when they look at the overwhelming approval rating continually granted to Clinton's presidency. This approval inspires the desire for revenge that underlies the impeachment process.

One way to read both the timing and the ferocity of America's attack on Iraq is that it is a reflection of the government's fury at its own destabilization by forces covetous of Clinton's neo-conservative political and economic achievements. What better place is there for Americans to act out such rage than the Middle East, a foreign space reserved by the American political unconscious for ritualistic throat slitting behavior that we'd rather not assume we were capable of engaging in within our own country. No wonder we blow other nations to smithereens. Wars such as the Gulf War are all about geographically displacing the latest fashion in moral regression currently taking place at home.

That's why it's important to read the attack on Iraq differently than the way Republicans criticize it. When conservatives are able to come up with the same kind of suspicious accounts of political activities that liberals are usually responsible for, analytical vacancy is created. Leftists need to provide an explanation for a significant event like Operation Desert Fox that side steps traditional liberal arguments about how foreign military expeditions either represent a desire for global dominance or are simply spectacles designed to divert our attention from domestic problems. Particularly when, given certain radical exceptions, right-wing critics of the bombing would have performed the same kinds of pathologically disturbed, violent deeds as those that Clinton has performed, were they forced into the same kind of political crisis.

Joel Schalit is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 1999 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.