I remember clearly the day just over 12 years ago (Aug. 2, 1990) when Bombay’s Mid-Day newspaper announced that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. I was a FYJC (11th grade) student at St. Xavier’s College in India and my friends and I spent the remainder of the day in the canteen discussing the ramifications of the day’s events (actually we spent every day in the canteen but that’s another story). Against the backdrop of Security Council resolutions and Operation Desert Storm we analyzed and critiqued the actions taken by both sides all year long, debating vociferously India’s decision to allow U.N. airplanes to use Indian air bases and its participation in U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq (which UNICEF now estimates contributed to the deaths of over 5,000 Iraqi children under five years old a month or over half a million children under five since 1991).
The war clouds gather again over Iraq (though the latest news from the United Nations is encouraging) and I am still on a college campus, albeit many miles from the Xavier’s canteen. Things are quite different this time around: while life came to a standstill at St. Xavier’s and debates about the morality of war could be overheard everywhere, student life at the University appears unaffected by the possibility of a second Gulf War. Thinking about these differing reactions led me to reflect on the relationship between education, democracy, and war, and this essay is the result.
Political scientists often argue whether democracies behave differently in matters of international relations. One popular theory is that since elected leaders are accountable to the voting public and since these publics are typically against war (because they are the ones who have to do the fighting) democratic leaders avoid conflict unless provoked. Further democratic states supposedly have free presses that take the political leadership to task by asking difficult questions, the answers to which the electorate considers carefully in giving consent to foreign policy decisions. But a CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that while just 27 percent of 937 respondents nationwide thought the Bush administration had “clearly explained the US position with regard to possibly attacking Iraq,” 68 percent approved of U.S. military action against Iraq (the poll had a 3 percent margin of error). Clearly our theories of democratic consent need serious revision.
I argue this simple example reveals how shallow democracy can be, and that true democratic debate is too often replaced by flag-waving and jingoistic claims of U.S. exceptionalism and supremacy (I offer as local evidence the Daily’s coverage of the Sept 11 anniversary; the national corporate media is no better). Yet democracies are meant to be governments “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” What this means is that we, as citizens in a democracy, are obliged to hold our leaders responsible for their actions rather than blindly acquiescing in whatever they tell us to believe. So, when Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff, defends delaying discussion of the proposed war on Iraq till this month saying, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” we should be outraged and disgusted rather than amused. When the White House insists it will attack Iraq with or without world support (in a recent interview with Newsweek, Nelson Mandela calls the U.S. “a threat to world peace”), we should demand to know why. Why Iraq? Why war? Why now?
Unfortunately, as Frank Rich put it in a New York Times opinion piece last Saturday, “to question the president on Iraq is an invitation to have one’s patriotism besmirched.” To oppose war against Iraq is to attack America, to defend Saddam, and to ignore the realities of evil in a post Sept. 11 world. Is Saddam Hussein evil? Sure. Do the people of Iraq deserve to be free of Saddam’s despotic rule and to govern themselves democratically? Of course they do. But to believe that Bush-Saddam II will bring peace and democracy to that accursed country is na