|WHAT'S DEMOCRACY GOT TO DO WITH IT?
By Norman Solomon / Creators Syndicate
A few days ago, the president of the United States openly
violated the War Powers Act -- and the national media yawned.
The war powers law, enacted in 1973, requires congressional
approval if the U.S. military is to engage in hostilities for more than
60 days. As that deadline passed on May 25, some members of the
House spoke up. "Today, the president is in violation of the law,"
California Republican Tom Campbell pointed out. "That is clear."
And Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich added: "The war continues
unauthorized, without the consent of the governed."
But sophisticated journalists in the nation's capital just
shrugged. To them -- and to the Clinton administration -- the law is
irrelevant and immaterial, a dead letter undeserving of serious
attention. In this dark time of push-button warfare, when more and
more eyes are getting adjusted to shadowy maneuvers, it's possible
to discern a pattern of contempt for basic democratic principles.
Forget all that high-sounding stuff in the civics textbooks.
Unable to get Congress to vote for the ongoing air war, the
president insists on continuing to bomb Yugoslav cities and towns,
destroying bridges and hospitals, electrical generators and water
systems. Boasting of the Pentagon's might, he pursues a Pax
Technocratica with remote-control assurance.
Attorney Walter J. Rockler, a former prosecutor at the
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials more than half a century ago, is
among the Americans outraged at what is now being done in their
names. On May 23, his essay in the Chicago Tribune denounced
"our murderously destructive bombing campaign in Yugoslavia."
"The notion that humanitarian violations can be redressed with
random destruction and killing by advanced technological means is
inherently suspect," he wrote. "This is mere pretext for our arrogant
assertion of dominance and power in defiance of international law.
We make the non-negotiable demands and rules, and implement
them by military force."
With enormous help from mass media, the White House has
been able to marginalize the public on matters of war and peace.
Reporters and pundits routinely portray top U.S. officials as
beleaguered experts whose jobs are difficult enough without
intrusive pressures from commoners. More than ever, the American
people are serving as spectators while elites make crucial foreign-
When military action is on the agenda in Washington, public
opinion can be troublesome, even obstructionist. That's one of the
hazards of democracy -- or at least it should be. But the Clinton
team has learned to mitigate the danger that the public will intrude
on the process of deciding whether the United States should go to
war. It's a trend that has been accelerating in recent years.
In February 1998, key U.S. officials traveled to Ohio State
University for a "town hall meeting" about a prospective American
missile attack on Iraq. Airing live on CNN, the session went badly
from the vantage point of Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and
Samuel Berger, whose responses to tough questions seemed
inadequate to many viewers. The trio left Columbus with egg on
Evidently, the debacle made a big impression. Since then, leery
of any high-profile forum that could get out of control, the White
House has not even gone through the motions of consulting the
public before launching a military attack -- on Sudan and
Afghanistan last August, on Iraq last December, and on Yugoslavia
this spring. With warfare on the horizon, President Clinton's
attitude toward the American public seems to be: When I want your
opinion, I'll ask for it.
This approach has met with little challenge from news media. In
fact, many journalists in Washington seem to share the view that the
public is inclined to be too meddlesome -- and should not be
allowed to tie the hands of foreign-policy specialists who may
wisely wish to pursue the goals of U.S. diplomacy by military
While the decision to go to war is momentous, the public has
found itself in the role of passive onlooker. Rather than submit to a
process of national debate, the White House prefers to present
Americans with a fait accompli. One of the effects of the missile
attack launched against Yugoslavia on March 24 was to truncate
the public debate before it had even begun.
When U.S. military action is involved, Clinton's policy-makers
seem to regard the public as a sort of unruly -- and perhaps rather
dumb -- animal that must be tamed and herded for its own good.
What we've seen is the implementation of a formula for bypassing
genuine public discourse: Go to war first. The public can raise
questions later, while the war escalates and the propaganda
machinery spins into high gear.
And they call it democracy.
Norman Solomon's most recent book, "The Habits of Highly
Deceptive Media," was published this spring.