Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010


My partner recently received a letter from a friend who is working on an AIDS education project in Rwanda. In it, she complained, “If there is a war with Iraq, everyone is going to forget about HIV/AIDS issues.”

For how long now has the news – in North America, Europe, possibly the whole world – been dominated by the question of what to do about Iraq? After that fateful day in September 2001, the question began growing; once the Afghanistan campaign wrapped up the question was asked louder; by last summer the question had already begun to take over as the most important issue of the day.

Now, Western countries have worked themselves into a frenzy, wracked with paroxysms of debate over this question. What are we going to do about Iraq? What are we going to do about Iraq?

The implicit assumption of this question is that there is a terrible problem with Iraq. As any lawyer knows, she who asks the questions has the power. She sets the boundaries for discussion, lays the framework for what is relevant and what is not, and directs the discourse to the desired outcome.

At the moment, the Iraq question has so thoroughly eclipsed public discourse, that its shadow is blotting out everything else. The Iraq question may be important, but is it more important than, “What are we going to do about AIDS?” or, “What are we going to do about poverty? Or malnutrition? Or dysentery? Or illiteracy? Or the environment?”

Remove the restrictive blinders of the “War on Terror”, and one sees the world differently: about two World Trade Centres of people die from AIDS every day in Africa. Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS, predicts that in a few years we will see entire failed states. How many lives are saved by the billions of dollars currently being lavished on the “War on Terror”? How many more could be saved if our priorities were realigned?

 The American agenda, unfortunately, seems difficult to ignore. The rest of the world is compelled, like it or not, to tag along. Even arguing against Bush’s perverse logic saps the time and energy of people who could be concentrating on graver problems – problems that concern the world much more than a few aging stockpiles of weapons in a bankrupt dictatorship. It is an insult to the intelligence of humanity that the world is held hostage to the ridiculous priorities of the Bush administration.   

But perhaps the Iraq question will backfire in the face of the inquisitor. Increasingly, it seems, people are asking different questions, questions aimed at the Bush administration. Why the irrational obsession with Iraq? With national security? With terrorism? What about North Korea? What about your own weapons of mass destruction? What are you going to do, George W. Bush, about poverty, violence, illness, illiteracy, and the economy at home?

Maybe it’s time we started asking the question found on my partner’s T-shirt, “What are we going to do about the United States?”

Copyright Sean Butler 2003

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 10, 2003


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