Fernand Braudel Center,
Commentary No. 117, July 15, 2003
"When Will Bush Fall?"
Bush's days are numbered. He is in serious trouble, and the trouble will not go away. The tissue of justifications for the Iraq invasion is fraying bit by bit. Both he and Blair have had to retreat on some of the more egregious statements. The famous weapons of mass destruction are nowhere to be found. And if some turn out, deeply buried somewhere, all that will prove is that the weapons were not readily usable in a war - certainly not in the famous 45-minute interval of Tony Blair. The aluminum tubes seem to be exactly what Saddam Hussein said they were, material for rockets.
The asserted ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were always improbable and no evidence has been adduced to confirm them. Bush has now laid the blame on the CIA, while the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee is accusing the CIA of leaking material to embarrass President Bush. The thieves are falling out. The U.S. lived through this scenario once before, and not too long ago. The Watergate coverup of President Nixon worked at first, with only partisan sniping for a long while. But when Nixon tried to point the finger at fall guys (remember John Dean), they started to reveal the truth. Nixon did win his reelection. He held out that long. But in the end, he had to resign the presidency when a successful impeachment was imminent. Of course, the two situations are quite different in their details. But there are certain striking similarities.
They both took place within the context of the ambivalence of U.S. public opinion about a war. They both involved presidents who were willing to use all the instruments at their command to ram through policies and intimidate opponents. They both had persons around them who were masters at stonewalling. Vice-President Cheney must have taken lessons at the feet of Nixon's Attorney-General John Mitchell. In politics - world politics, national politics, local politics - you can get a lot of support if you're winning. But the support often flies away as soon as you start to be losing.
Bush promised the U.S. and the world a transformation of Iraq, indeed of the Middle East, if only Saddam Hussein could be ousted. At this point, about three months after the military collapse of the Iraqi regime, what is the situation in Iraq? Every day, American soldiers are being killed by what is clearly a guerilla action of some consequence. Iraqi policemen, newly-appointed by the U.S. occupiers, threatened to resign if U.S. soldiers did not quit their police station, feeling their lives were in danger for too close association with the U.S. army. Apparently, U.S. soldiers are not seen as protectors of those who cooperate with them but as a force association with which endangers one's lives.
The U.S. occupiers have been unable to restore even a minimum of electricity in the urban centers of Iraq. Frankly, I am amazed by this. One would think that the U.S. government could assemble the necessary engineers, fly in the necessary equipment, and supply the necessary protection to the engineers so that electricity could be restored in a week or two. Is it too expensive? Are there other priorities? Does the U.S. not think this is important? Ordinary Iraqis think it's the number one priority and are getting very angry. Soon, the country may be awash with nostalgia for the regime the U.S. ousted.
Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the heroic ally of the U.S., Tony Blair, is in increasing deep trouble. The Conservatives have decided there is no profit in supporting him. The Liberals never did. And the number of Labor M.P.'s who are restive are growing. At just this moment, the U.S. has announced that it is going to try six persons at Guantanamo Bay, of whom two are British citizens. There is a storm brewing in Great Britain among very respectable jurists who object to what they see as dubious, even illegal, procedures. They are calling for Blair to get the U.S. to turn these men over to British justice. But Blair can't promise the U.S. that confessions extracted in the absence of legal counsel will stand up in British courts. There is no easy way that the U.S. could help Blair in this difficulty without jeopardizing the entire structure of the Guantanamo nightmare. At the same time, the U.S. government is having a very hard time convincing any U.S. attorneys to be defense attorneys because they assert that the rules are rigged aggainst them illegitimately.
The U.S. victory in Iraq was supposed to have the effect of getting recalcitrant allies - France, Germany, Russia - to reverse their positions. There is no sign of this whatsoever. Why should they? When Time Magazine conducted a poll in Europe in March, asking which of three - North Korea, Iraq, or the United States - was the biggest threat to world peace, a whopping 86.9% answered the United States. And the U.S. and Europe are on a collision course about mundane trade matters. In this, the U.S. has clearly been in the weak position.
The World Trade Organization is ruling against the U.S. on these matters. Lots of little countries are quietly, and some not so quietly, refusing to bend to the U.S. insistence on being the only country above international law. And last but not least, the U.S. economy is not doing well at all. In addition, there are conservatives yelling that the Bush regime is not really conservative, because it is increasing, not reducing, the role of the state. Howard Dean is taking off as a potential Democratic candidate. And even if he doesn't get the nomination, which he in fact may, he has already forced the other Democratic candidates to "move to the left" to try to capture a little of the support Dean seems to be getting.
Can Bush turn all this around? In the short run, maybe. If he can capture Saddam Hussein, that would help Bush. Here again, I am amazed that the U.S. has not been able to do this. But perhaps I should not be so amazed. Osama bin Laden has not been captured, dead or alive, in the almost two years Bush has been chasing him. Mullah Omar is still at large, and it seems he has been reorganizing the Taliban. As for the hawks who surround Bush, the day after the fall of Baghdad, they started clamoring to invade Syria. But all that's quiet now. Neither Iran nor North Korea have slowed down their drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Quite the contrary. They are virtually flaunting it.
And the U.S. is being very prudent. The U.S. does not seem to have even the troops available to do what is urgently needed, reinforcing their position in Iraq. They seem scarcely in a position to take on Iran or North Korea seriously. Nor are the diplomatic initiatives achieving much of anything - in Israel/Palestine, in Northeast Asia, or even in Latin America. If I were George W. Bush, I'd be very worried. Perhaps he's not. Pride goeth before the fall. But I bet some of his clever political advisors are chewing their nails. They were feeling very sure of themselves not so long ago. But the ship of state has hit rough water. It may not sink immediately. But will it reach shore safely? The odds are not high enough for them to be smiling complacently.
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