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Route-Stepping? Our Way to WWIII

Scare-tactic allusions to war allow Bush to push an extremist agenda.

BY Gregory D. Foster

Proclaiming that we are at war, especially world war, strengthens the president's hand as commander-in-chief and concentrates his power.

“Route-step, march” is a permissive military command that directs a marching formation to continue without a set cadence. So, “route-step” also is a common term of disparagement for sloppiness and indiscipline–an apt characterization, as it happens, for America’s current response to world affairs. We little people, absent more vigilance and skepticism, are in danger of being route-stepped into World War III by our rulers and their ideological acolytes.

If “World War III” sounds hyperbolic and alarmist, that’s because it is. Precisely for that reason, it is the prevailing lingua franca of the Bush administration and those on the right who seek to solidify their hold on power by cowing the public.

President Bush himself, who has unwaveringly stuck to calling the hunt for terrorists the Global War on Terror, has recently taken up the claim that we now face World War III. But the most outspoken proponent of this thesis is former U.S. House Speaker and putative presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich. In public appearances, interviews and newspaper commentaries, he has made the World War III mantra the centerpiece of a Churchillian patois designed to burnish his qualifications as a prospective commander in chief.

Speaking in apocalyptic terms of losing millions of Americans to weapons of mass murder, Gingrich would have us believe that all of the criminality, militarism and terrorism in the world–from North Korean missile firings, to Middle East violence, to Iraq and Afghanistan, to alleged terror plotters in Canada and England–is connected in some unified whole of civilizational conflagration. The only reasonable response is an all-out effort to achieve total victory.

Of course, proclaiming that we are at war, especially world war, strengthens the president’s hand as commander-in-chief and his claims to concentrated power; rationalizes continued gluttonous defense spending and restrictions on civil liberties and dissent; puts Congress, the media and an opposition party devoid of all credibility on national security matters on the permanent defensive; and instills fear in an electorate thereby more willing to forsake popular sovereignty for Big Brother protection.

Moreover, to invoke World War III is to evoke World War II, the last great, nationally unifying, Manichean, total war against regnant evil personified by Hitler. To be able to compare an enemy figurehead like Osama bin Laden to Hitler, characterize one’s adversaries as fascist (Islamo-fascist), and accuse one’s critics of being historically illiterate appeasers (in the manner of Neville Chamberlain), is to create a cosmic symmetry of fearful acquiescence.

As Gingrich has been the White House’s de facto rhetorical proxy at home, Israel has been America’s continuing military proxy in the Middle East–a provocateur extraordinaire whose recent military campaign in Lebanon well served the Bush administration’s hopes for turning the rhetoric of world war into reality. There is a long-held, deeply internalized misconception among much of Washington’s policy elite that Israel is supremely competent at dealing with terrorism. Exploiting this misconception, Israel acted as it invariably does (and as its Washington soulmates invariably do): politically, tactically and militarily, devoid of strategic comprehension, sensitivity or insight. The result was a debacle that multiplied the strategically debilitating effects of America’s Iraq debacle.

Political expediency, not strategic desiderata, clearly motivated both Israel’s actions inside Lebanon and the Bush administration’s countenancing of those actions. Otherwise, both parties would have sought to:

  • Strengthen Lebanon’s government, rather than irreparably weaken it by destroying large segments of the country’s infrastructure.
  • Exploit the inherent disunity of international terrorism rather than give its disparate perpetrators grounds for common cause.
  • Win the hearts and minds of people whose loyalties have now turned to Hezbollah and like-minded groups.
  • Contribute to regional and global demilitarization through a measured, discriminating use of force that assiduously discriminated between combatants and non-combatants.

Clearly, two things characterize the Bush administration’s approach to international affairs. First, the high politics of statecraft have given way to the low politics of partisan jockeying. Second, the strategic exercise of power has been overwhelmed by the tactical use of force–to the extent that our foreign policy has been completely militarized. The inevitable result, absent a countervailing exercise of democratic prerogative by the American people, will be the Third World War those now in power have set us up for.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

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