History Professor William Rorabaugh is a social historian and author of four books about American history, including Berkeley in the Sixties about the anti-war movement during Vietnam.
As a social historian, you are used to making parallels between events in U.S. history. Supporters of the Iraq War liken it to a war of liberation, such as the invasion of France during World War II, while critics compare it to a war of occupation, such as what happened in the Philippines after the Spanish American War. How do you see this war in the context of American history?
To make such comparisons in this case is not terribly useful. The United States has never invaded and occupied a Middle Eastern country. That part of the world has not been secularized and modernized. You have a part of the world that is intensely Islamic.
But could this become a successful occupation such as what happened in Japan and Germany after World War II or less successful like the guerrilla war in the Philippines?
It could become one or the other, depending on how events play out. If we take a longer time and larger role in the occupation, we have the risk of being hated. We could see suicide bombers and sniper attacks on American troops. It could become unhappy and unpleasant.
After World War II you had a real occupation. No one doubted who ran Japan and Germany. We redid the school systems, we redid the banking systems, we rewrote the Japanese constitution. … But we have a different situation here. Have you noticed, there was no surrender? Maybe there never will be. It makes things much more difficult. In these other cases, there was a recognition that a new start was needed. Where is this recognition here?
Some critics say the war is "Un-American," that the United States has never made a pre-emptive strike on its potential enemies before. It's counter to American tradition.
I just don't buy that it's Un-American. This is a direct response to 9-11. September 11th is the attack, the Pearl Harbor, that started this war. There are terrorists in this world and they are out to get us. The only chance we have to avoid a truly spectacular disaster is to track down and obliterate the terrorist networks. There are fairly massive terrorist networks with access to modern equipment run by smart people with lots of money. If you do nothing, sooner or later they will get weapons of mass destruction. You cannot afford to wait until 30 million Americans are killed in an attack.
You studied Vietnam War protests and wrote a book about Berkeley in the 1960s. What is your view about recent protests against the war in Iraq?
Well, it seems to me that an awful lot of people in the anti-war marches were gray-haired 50-year-olds. I was also surprised by so much organized opposition to the war before there even was a war. It was rather curious. It seems to me that the WTO protests were the beginning of a new cycle. In this case, the war wasn't the real issue. The resentments go deeper. They are protesting the whole rotten society. It's a generalized anger and the economy and Enron scandal feed into that mentality.
There seems to be a lot of post-war euphoria right now, with President Bush high in the opinion polls. Do you think this will carry over to the 2004 elections?
First of all, you can't have euphoria after a three-week war. It just isn't long enough. George W. has serious problems. If the elections were being held this fall, it would be different. In a year's time he can't take the credit for the war anymore. It could become a burdensome thing by then.
Cartoon by Scott Stantis, © 2003 Birmingham News, Copley News Service.
People are much more interested in their paycheck, and on that score, he doesn't seem to do very well. He's just too conservative for the country. He is way over to the right. A Democrat could beat him, but the Democrats don't have any candidates. Bush could end up being re-elected because of his opponent.
Could this war be a tipping point in American politics, where the electorate moves firmly into one party's camp, in this case the Republicans, the way it moved into the Democrat's camp during the Depression?
I doubt it, but it is too fluid to say. If things play out in Iraq positively and the economy does better, I suppose it's possible. The American mood is ambiguous. Even if the economy is doing better in November 2004 than it is doing today, it still won't be doing as well as it was during the bubble in 1999. People could feel the let down from the bubble for the next 10 years.