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by Anatol Lieven
Tuesday, Jul. 18, 2006 at 2:35 AM
The great historical crisis of the 1860s proeduced Abraham Lincoln; the "Great Depression" produced Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We can only hope the political system of the US will produce similar leading figures.
“REALIST” AS SWEARWORD IN BUSH’S IRAQ QUAGMIRE
Who will liberate the United States from Iraq? The Iraq policy of the Bush administration is in a cul-de-sac and no correction is in sight
By Anatol Lieven
[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, June 9, 2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.taz.de/pt/2006/06/09.1/mondeText.artikel,a0069.idx,15]. Anatol Lieven is research director at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.. His latest book is “America Right or Wrong. An Anatomy of American Nationalism,” 2006.]
The percentage of US Americans who are satisfied with President Bush’s administration of office has fallen ceaselessly since his reelection in November 2004 and rests at 33 percent. (1) Bush is more unpopular than president Lyndon B. Johnson after the beginning of the TET-offensive in Vietnam that revealed the defeat of US warfare at that time. Bush finds himself in a similar situation today. The Iraq war has become a hopeless project. The optimistic statements of the government were often rattled off and contradicted by new catastrophe news so that many – patriotic – Americans only see them as satire, like thirty years ago toward the end of the Vietnam War.
Still the opposition has sounded and develops a genuine foreign policy alternative. Its possibilities for formulating new approaches internally are very limited. That both sides of the political spectrum fail today testifies to grave institutional, social and cultural deficits in the political system of the US and to a serious crisis of domestic and foreign policy.
On the international plane, the crisis is concealed by the fact that the US can still inflict massive harm on all its declared enemies. In contrast, its capacity for positive action is extremely restricted. This explains why a series of countries want to develop a counterweight to the US in one way or another. However only a few of them are ready to oppose Washington directly. The number of these countries is clearly increasing in recent times as the examples of Iran, Venezuela and Bolivia show.
On the plane of domestic policy, the system crisis is warded off by the continuing consumer boom fed by cheap Chinese imported goods and Peking’s willingness to cover the indebtedness of the US by buying government bonds. The discontentment of US citizens is cushioned. Nevertheless the state is extraordinarily fragile – and intensely dependent on stable international relations.
The economic boom can in no way stop the trend to falling real wages. The increasing dissatisfaction of the masses even if politically diffuse is expressed exemplarily in the demand for intensified laws against illegal immigration. (2)
The Bush administration survived Hurricane “Katrina” without resignations of high-ranking politicians. However it cannot get rid of the reputation of incapacity and amateurism since then. The latest rise of oil prices makes many furious and confirms the reproaches of democrats that their buddies in the oil industry control the government.
In the Congress, leading republicans are distancing themselves from the Bush administration. For the first time, representatives of both parties – democrats and republicans – are protesting against the president, criticizing him for ignoring the Congress and even claiming extra-constitutional or monarchical power. The program to “reform” social security and health insurance was silently buried in Congress. The revolt against the decision of the government to sell US harbor investments to the foreign corporation Dubai ports makes clear the president’s limited authority in his own party.
Bush’s most important political advisor Karl Rove had to leave his post as a consequence of the indictment against Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff of Vice-president Dick Cheney. The loss of its most important ally in Congress was also a serious blow to the government. Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the republicans in the House of Representatives, had to disgracefully resign after being sentenced by a court on account of corruption.
The discontentment from the ranks of the US armed forces may have the most negative effect for the government. This dissatisfaction was articulated most clearly in the sharp public criticism of Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his warfare by retired generals whose opinions reflect the views of many of their active comrades. Many active military persons want to unconditionally prevent a US attack on Iran that they believe will have horrific consequences for the US and its armed forces. This passion underlies the attacks on Rumsfeld.
This substantive criticism of the generals is not surprising. Former high officials of the secret service and experts in combating terrorism like Richard Clarke and Randy Beers said the same thing long before.
The bitterness of these circles about the Bush administration is also the reason that secret information from the CIA, FBI and US military already reached the public years ago proving the misuse of the secret services before the Iraq war and approval of torture measures by the government. (3) For example, the former CIA agent Paul Pillar, once r3esponsible for the Middle East and the South East recently accused the Bush administration of carrying out an “organized manipulation campaign” to start the Iraq war. (4)
THE MILITARY FEARS A GREAT WAR
The military has long played out its own internal Iran scenarios and knows the most likely effect of a US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will be a chain reaction of intensified US attacks and Iranian retaliatory strikes that presumably will flow into a vast conflict. The US military fears a direct damage to USA power and that the US will have to return to universal conscription in another great war. They assume conscripts will become dissatisfied, rebellious and demoralized. The fear that a domestic protest movement against foreign policy adventures could signify an early end for the US Empire in the Middle East is also important for them. (5)
In the meantime, the demoralization and opposition to the government in the CIA led to the forced departure of CIA head Porter Goss. During his two-year time in office (since the resignation of George Tenet who had harnessed the agency to justify the Iraq war), dozens of officeholders and analysts of the secret service have resigned, particularly in the area of secret operations. Goss was appointed to raise the efficiency of the CIA and carried out a strict political control that was necessary from the view of the government because of the many resignations. However George W. Bush and his milieu underrate the potential of institutions like the military and the secret service to undermine a government through constant embarrassing resignations and indiscretions, not open revolts. The efforts of the failed CIA chief to severely “discipline” his agency have only multiplied embarrassment.
In the past, these institutions acted again and again against progressive and leftist governments of other states. Therefore it is a heart-warming irony that these weapons are now turned against a US government that regularly congratulates itself on its engagement for “security.” Protests from former generals are especially dangerous today because the Bush administration has promoted the public adulation of the US army in such a forced way. Stifling these protests through a public slander- and intimidation campaign becomes harder for the government.
On principle, elements of the military and the secret service taking this political role is a development endangering democracy. Congress has failed in its constitutional function as an organ of oversight and control. The Democratic Party has not really fulfilled the role of opposition in the area of foreign and security-policy. This is why the military and secret service are the most effective oppositional forces against the Bush administration.
The extent of the collapse of the Bush administration is partly explained in that the democrats have not made great efforts to exploit this collapse for themselves. The leadership of the democrats justifies their own deficient engagement. The Bush administration, they argue, disqualifies itself with the voters. Given this fact, it is more sensible for democrats to present themselves as a levelheaded and patriotic power and not to start political party attacks against Bush that could discredit them in the eyes of the voters.
Democratic spokespersons say things will be considerably different if the November 2006 “midterm-elections” give their party the majority in at least one of the two chambers of Congress. Then democrats will be able to charge the Bush administration with responsibility for the catastrophes of the last five years. Investigating committees could be established in the Congress with the power to subpoena official witnesses, have them testify under oath and condemn or at least force the retirement of a whole series of high-ranking members of the government. In this way, the democrats could keep alive in public consciousness the failure of the republican administration up to the next presidential election in November 2008. They may not be able to remove the president from office but will do everything short of removal.
Given the structural peculiarities of the elections in the Senate and the House of Representatives, gaining more seats in both chambers of Congress will be hard for the democrats. At least more radical democrats emphasizing alternative concepts will have a hard time prevailing in these elections. The conservative and conformist forces in the party have the advantage from the start. This is very clear in their foreign policy concepts. Little may change in the appearance of the US on the world stage even if the democrats put pressure on the republican Bush in the two years between the congressional elections in November 2006 and the presidential election of 2008.
Leading democrats want a more pragmatic and more reserved foreign policy than the Bush administration. But like the republicans they are not able to reassess the relation of the US to the outside world. Ultimately the top democrats – like the republicans – belong to the traditional elite of US security politicians that arose under the democratic presidents Roosevelt and Truman.
DEMOCRATS OFFER NO FOREIGN POLICY ALTERNATIVE
The idea of global hegemony cultivated by the Clinton government was obviously more moderate than the idea of republicans. Clinton relied more on leadership within the alliance structures and less on unilateral decisions or “dictates.” Still the world political ambition was in no way less under Clinton.
Perhaps most importantly both parties cultivate a kind of nationalism that starts from the premise that the US must have and utilize a special world political position. Democrats and Republicans agree in the inviolable principle of faith that the power of the US on principle is benign and good-natured and that legitimation for using this power is beyond doubt.
This similarity between the two parties is greatest where it is most momentous, namely in Middle East policy. As Clinton demonstrated, both insist on a US hegemony in the region. This means more wars are likely. Both oppose any restriction of this hegemony and any compromise with states defined by the security policy elite of the US as “rogues.”
The Bush administration was rightly criticized for rejecting two Iranian offers for comprehensive negotiations in 2001 and 2002. (6) The Clinton administration did not use its chance for direct negotiations with Iran after the 1997 election of the reformist president Mohammed Chatami. Clinton also failed to press for a peace treaty between Israel and Syria. The speeches given today by top democratic figures like Hilary Clinton and Evan Bayh are not different in any important aspect from the positions of the Bush administration. (7)
Both parties are intensely influenced by the Israeli lobby. Both have shown they are unwilling to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Leading democrats including Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are not urging Bush to be strongly engaged for peace. On the contrary, they attempt to trump Bush by siding unconditionally with Israel.
In its Middle East policy, the Clinton administration frittered away seven years and lost the fruits of the Oslo process. Clinton first developed a serious engagement at the end of his second term in office when it was useless. Today after the official visit of the Israeli head of state Olmert in Washington, it seems that Bush at the end will swallow a “solution” carried out unilaterally by Israel. But that will be completely unacceptable for the Palestinians, the whole Moslem world and the majority of Europeans. (8)
Among normal citizens outside Washington in “Middle America,” there is still a deeply rooted isolationism that dominates particularly in conservative working classes. When they do not feel threatened by attacks like those of September 11, they are focused more strongly on the interests of their own country and are much more skeptical toward politicians who tell them their land can or must change the world. This is only because they believe “the world does not deserve this.” The country singer Merle Haggard may best express the feeling of this silent majority. His song “Okie From Muskogie” summarized the aversion of the patriotic, religious middle class against the diverse revolutions of the 1960s. In his latest song “America First,” he asks programmatically: “Why don’t we liberate the United States?” He urges withdrawal from Iraq and a real concentration on his own land that urgently needs rebuilding. (9)
AMERICA COMES FIRST AND THEN THE REST OF THE WORLD
The democrats try to exploit these feelings and urge more frequently an early withdrawal from Iraq. However their calls are unconvincing. Not one of the top democratic figures proposes an alternative strategy for the whole Middle East so US troops would not leave Iraq in a state of total civil war. As in other world regions, the goals of democrats are just as ambitious as those of the Bush administration, particularly in driving back Russia’s influence in the states of the former Soviet Union. Should the Bush administration actually resolve to attack Iran, it can be sure that many normal US citizens who hear Merle Haggard and many leading democrats will instinctively support that kind of aggressive policy while other democrats will murmur or be silent so that the party altogether will have an inconsistent, opportunist and wretched stance. An attack on Iran would violate the interests of the US in a monstrous way. However it could prove a very clever move for the republicans in domestic policy.
Nevertheless opposition against such an attack as announced by active military persons, security policy experts and representatives of the State Department shows the US political elite still has many intelligent, informed, levelheaded and patriotic persons. However they have no political vehicle like the patriotic isolationists of Merle Haggard’s flock. Neither of the two parties can offer them a vehicle. Many respectable figures, academics or elder statesmen in retirement, people like Brent Scowcraft, Gary Hart or Zbigniew Brzezinski belong to this “realistic” camp. A strong fraction pursuing a realistic foreign policy does not exist among democrats or republicans. In both parties, the word “realist” is often used as an insult.
Several things suggest that a new power can form in US politics when the two-party system existing from the American civil war (1861-1867) is destroyed. However this is only conceivable as a result of a real far-reaching national crisis that will actually occur if current political developments continue.
The great historical crisis of the 1860s produced Abraham Lincoln; the “Great Depression” of the 1930s produced Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We can only hope the political system of the US will produce similar leading figures. Given the current state of political culture, such a crisis could breed even more extreme varieties of an irrational chauvinism.
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