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Antiwar advocates: Stifled dissent or beaten in debate?

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 18, 2002

Critics of the war on terrorism have been marginalized for the past six months, but want you to know that it is not because their views are aberrant. It is rather because our recent military actions have been supported by a domestic campaign to suppress dissent.

The latest example that has them worked up into a lather is William J. Bennett's Americans for Victory Over Terrorism. Bennett and Empower America recently founded this organization to counter attacks on the war on terrorism in the academy and elsewhere, or as was said at a gathering of the National Press Club "take to task those groups and individuals who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the war we are facing." After all, David Horowitz can't be everywhere. The group's senior advisors are former CIA Director R. James Woosley, former Reagan Defense Department official Frank Gaffney, former Attorney General William P. Barr and Republican Jewish Coalition chairman Lawrence Kadish.

Bennett emphasizes that AVOT's objective was not to "silence people; we wish to answer people." For his part, Woosley maintained, "We're not here to shut anybody up or impugn their patriotism or anything like that." But critics don't see it this way. "This is a campaign of intimidation," avers David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. In a column for Alternet.org, Jim Lobe darkly warned that Bennett, Woosley and Gaffney "are all veteran members of a neo-conservative network of groups with overlapping boards of directors" that support Israel and a strong national defense. Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham has called the group "a front organization for the hard neo-con right," an unlikely category of political analysis. Are you or have you ever been a reader of Irving Kristol?

Bennet announcing the creation of AVOT on March 12
Bennet announcing the creation of AVOT on March 12

Putting aside the debate over neo-cons' politics, what then is AVOT up to that bothers these liberal writers so? They appear to take rather personally the argument that some of the anti-war criticism being bandied about might "weaken national resolve" in ways detrimental to the war on terror. Isn't this a ridiculous assertion intended to suppress debate?

Corn heaps scorn on the very idea: "I suppose it is possible that Kim Jong-Il, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Saddam Hussein monitor CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN around the clock and step up their nefarious plotting whenever they see someone take issue with a portion of the war." But of course that isn't the point. If our enemies detect indecision among our political leaders or find in public opinion a lack of national will to commit the necessary resources to vigorously contest terrorism, they may rationally feel more secure in the commission of terrorist acts or even conclude that terrorism pays. Alternately, they can be informed of the scenarios they can work toward that will defeat us, such as mounting casualties that might force a US withdrawal from some locale where terrorist cells are being combated.

AVOT is essentially an effort to prevent the antiwar movement from doing in this war what it did during Vietnam. Vietnam was initially a very popular military intervention according to public opinion, but opposition from intellectuals, youth radicals and others did have the effect of undermining support for continuing the conflict in Washington. While this may or may not have been a desirable outcome - Vietnam remains controversial to this day - even the Soviet Union, much less the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong never inflicted the deaths of over 3,000 people on this country in a domestic terrorist attack. The current war is unambiguously in the national interest and the stakes are very high. Singing "Kumbuya" will not make the threat go away. AVOT seeks to engage the still tiny antiwar movement in debate and beat them in the marketplace of ideas before they become chic.

This doesn't mean we should ratify every aspect of the war policy, or even every solution AVOT's heavies have to the terrorist threat. This writer is skeptical about attacking Iraq as part of an anti-terrorist campaign and opposed the "Project for A New American Century" letter to President Bush.

Overzealous interventionists have recently been taken to task not just by liberals, but also by the right. National Review On-Line dropped Ann Coulter's column after her notorious "invade-kill-and-Christianize" column shortly after Sept. 11 (this caused them to miss out on her gem suggesting that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is "burning with hatred for America" and is consequently "subjecting all of America to the Bataan Death March"). Perhaps to demonstrate that he was not the "girly-boy" of Coulter's imaginings, NR editor Rich Lowry entertained - i.e., didn't instantly proclaim to be nuts - the idea of launching a nuclear attack on Mecca suggested to him as a deterrent by a reader in an e-mail. Former Spintech senior editor Jeremy Lott took him to task for this in a piece posted on The American Prospect's website. While The American Prospect may be liberal, Lott - an occasional ESR contributor - most assuredly is not. Peggy Noonan also gently pointed out in her column that "we should probably not be having chatty conversations about whether or not it would be a good idea to take out Mecca."

(To be fair, Lowry has emphasized that he does not advocate nuking Mecca and that at least some portion of his reference to the idea was sarcastic. He also described Noonan's as "a perfectly fair and reasonable point." Nevertheless, when I read his NRO piece about the possibility that North Korea already is a nuclear state, I couldn't help but imagine he was going to propose a first strike against Mecca to deter Pyongang. If I were him, I'd write about the Laffer Curve for a while.)

This also doesn't mean that all criticism of the war should be off-limits simply to avoid weakening national resolve. While most of those criticizing the current interventions as "open-ended" are either motivated by ideology or a partisan dislike of the Bush administration that blinds them to the reality we are fighting an open-ended enemy, insuring that the conflict has clear objectives is important. We must make prudent use of our military abroad and continue to abide by the Constitution at home. There is a lot of ground in the debate over the use of American force between Coulter and Noam Chomsky.

Yes, when important people appear critical of continued military action against the terrorists who stalk our land and the regimes that support them, it can lead to the perception that the United States lacks the will to fight this war to fruition. But the most important argument AVOT must make is not on the basis of national resolve. It is that those who will not respond militarily to terrorists are substantively wrong.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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