With a presidential election 13 months away, President George W Bush is facing large difficulties. The problems facing the USA and its citizenry are momentous; taken in their entirety, they suggest that the USA’s power and affluence may well have peaked, crested, in the last decade of the 20th century. And, to a public accustomed to living in a nation which is not only a superpower but also the globe’s most dynamic economic engine, this is unwelcome news.
It is not yet time, of course, to write off the USA as the world’s sole superpower. But then, few could have predicted in, say, 1985 that the Soviet Union would shortly move from superpower status to – to whatever Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, and the other former republics are today.
The example of the USSR is not merely coincidental. There, stress lines revealed by an endless and unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to ultimate fracture. The Soviets thought that Afghanistan was simply a matter of military assertion – and lost not only a war, but also their socialist “union” to fragmented nationhood.
Advanced nations seem particularly vulnerable to wars of attrition. Perhaps the French did not know this when they embarked upon their military adventurism in Vietnam and Algeria, but they learned it soon enough. Americans thought they could do what the French could not, and so intervened in Vietnam and eventually became an occupying force – and lost a war for the first time in their history.
Today, Bush’s invasion of Iraq has led the American nation into what is looking more and more like a quagmire. Already, the count of Americans who have died in Iraq since Bush declared victory while aboard an aircraft carrier (his arms aloft, clad in a military flight suit) is greater than those who died in the war whose conclusion he celebrated. If anything characterizes the difficult situation, it is the daily reports of US, Iraqi, and UN casualties. In economic terms, Bush recently, in a reserved manner pronouncedly different from his normal combative assertiveness, addressed the nation on television to deliver news he could no longer keep secret: The cost of the Iraq adventure, in the coming year alone, would be $87 billion. Most Americans seem aghast at the expense. Seemingly, Iraqis are equally unhappy with a plan which would extend US rule and presence into a distant future. Finally, the cold reception accorded to Bush’s recent speech on Iraq at the United Nations reveals that it may be a long time before he finds major international support for US efforts to resolve the situation. A quagmire, indeed, sapping US finances and the US military, angering not only the Iraqis but many in the family of nations – and with no end in sight.
How did the USA get into this calamitous misadventure? Why did Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice ignore recent history and embark upon a war in Asia?
The answers lie in domestic politics, cowboy diplomacy, and greed. The President “elected” by a decision of the nation’s highest court rather than a mandate from the voters was relatively unpopular until the catastrophe of 11 September, when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York mobilized the American public to support its commander-in-chief. There was widespread US and international support for a military action against Afghanistan, where Al-Qaida, the force behind the 11 September attacks, was based. Bush’s domestic popularity ratings soared toward an unheard-of 90 per cent.
So, a year later, Bush’s political advisors told him that the best way to sustain his popularity – which he used to push through massive cuts in taxes for his wealthy supporters, and to pass legislation seriously curtailing civil liberties – would be to fight and win another war. In victory, there is always a flush of political benefit. The image of a strong president, his advisors believed, would enable him to cruise to reelection in the 2004 presidential contest.
There was also a confluence between these political concerns and a strange, minority view of US international relations. Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz argued that ever since the USA pulled out of Vietnam, America has been afraid to use its troops elsewhere. (With good reason, as history has shown.) What is the sense of having the world’s best-equipped and strongest army, they argued, if you don’t use it? What the world needs, they claimed – it pains me to write this, it sounds so smug and stupid – is a good demonstration that America is the military power in the world. For The Bush administration, continued US dominance would be assured by letting nations everywhere know that US military might would be used to keep them in line. That was the underlying motive behind the NEW US doctrine of preemptive war.
So, ignoring both history and those who pointed out it was easier to invade a country than to withdraw from it, the Bush administration mobilized for war. They convinced the nation – contrary to fact – that Iraq was involved in the events of 11 September. Even today, 60 per cent of Americans believe the canard that Saddam Hussein was linked to Al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center. (Thus the irony so clearly visible to others in the world is lost on most Americans: the single most significant result of the US war to attack the “axis of evil” has been to create, in Iraq, a center for terrorists and a new rallying cry for their cause.)
Contrary to what Messrs Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz expected, the war in Iraq has had several incontrovertible results. Instead of demonstrating the breadth of US military power, the war has shown how US forces can be stretched thin by a single and localized conflict. Instead of showing the strength of the USA’s military, the war has revealed how susceptible a well-equipped army is to urban guerrilla tactics. Instead of uniting the world against terrorism, the war in Iraq has turned a large number of nations against a USA which turned to preemptive war to advance the partisan interests of its chief executive.
And instead of securing new business for US corporations (consider Iraq’s vast oil reserves, consider the selection of Halliburton – the corporation formerly headed by Vice-President Cheney – as the lead contractor in “rebuilding” Iraq), the war in Iraq has highlighted the USA’s economic difficulties. Especially because that $87 billion to defend and rebuild Iraq has to come from somewhere.
It won’t come from American taxpayers. Bush has pushed through Congress not one but two of the largest tax cuts in US history, with the result that even without its Iraq expenses the government faces the largest deficits in its history. And Bush can’t rescind the tax cuts – to be scrupulous, he could but he won’t – because the bulk of those cuts went to the wealthiest Americans, the people who funded George Bush’s last campaign and will fund his next. This is a president who would never ask, could never ask, his wealthy friends to share in any financial burden.
So the $87 billion will enlarge the deficit even after it is partly offset by cuts in domestic social spending. Therein lies a huge problem for Bush.
Most Americans cannot understand why the USA should rebuild Iraq when the US economy itself needs rebuilding. In the past three years, the USA has lost over 3 million decently paying manufacturing jobs, a staggering number when one considers that it amounts to well over 15 per cent of the manufacturing jobs in the nation. Unemployment is rising, and underemployment is rising as well.
The great British economist John Maynard Keynes transformed government policies everywhere by showing how government spending creates jobs. When those who get jobs because of this spending in turn use their wages to buy food and clothes and cars, their purchase of goods and services stimulates further job creation, and further spending. This phenomenon is known as the multiplier effect, and impels governments everywhere – from capitalist to socialist – to justify deficit spending even when, especially when, economic times are difficult.
The loss of manufacturing jobs creates a reverse multiplier effect: when workers no longer receive wages for making steel or textiles or automobile parts, there will be workers in other sectors whose jobs become more precarious precisely because there are now fewer people with the money to spend on computers, clothes and cars.
Yet, in the face of this massive job loss and its reverse multiplier effect, the Bush administration is committed to creating new jobs not in the USA, but in Iraq. With breathtaking simplicity, it is to be new sewers for Baghdad, but not for Chicago. The administration plans to provide health care for Iraqis, but not for the one out of three Americans who either has no health insurance or has inadequate insurance. Likewise, and in apparent disregard of the larger interests of a majority of US voters, the current administration in Washington is proposing no programs to employ the unemployed, upgrade the education of the underclass, or renew infrastructure. This willful disregard of domestic reconstruction is not just because of the $87 billion to be committed to Iraq: there is a huge reduction of government revenue in place – largely those tax cuts to the President’s wealthy supporters – which will create a budgetary shortfall, according to the government’s Congressional Budget Office, of $6 trillion over the next 10 years.
The twin problems of the war and the economy signal many difficulties for Bush. He will deal with them differently as President and as candidate.
As President, he will deal with the twin difficulties through an ostrich-like strategy of hiding his head in the sand: he will ignore the problems and change the subject. He will tell the nation its greatest danger is not economic disintegration, but that some people want to allow homosexuals to marry. He may find a new small war – President Reagan once invaded that military power, Grenada, and later, finding the strategy successful, the first President Bush, the current incumbent’s father, invaded that other armed giant, Panama – which can be quickly and easily won, with lots of television coverage to celebrate missiles exploding and soldiers marching victoriously into small cities. He may even suggest that a minority – blacks or people of color, Jews, Muslims, immigrants – is responsible for the American nation’s problems, although his method for doing so would probably come in veiled form as, for instance, in a proposal to eliminate affirmative action hiring, or a dire warning about the need for protection against the terrorists in the USA’s midst.
As candidate President Bush will, of course, avail himself of this same diversionary strategy. But his main bulwark will be money. Bush will raise more campaign funding than any candidate in US history, far more than his opponent. (Campaign financing is the dark basement of the US political system. Americans legalize bribes by calling them “campaign contributions”, arguing that such contributions are merely an extension of free speech. But large contributions are not free speech: they are merely a legal way to buy access and influence.) Unpleasant as it is to report, the candidate with the most money can buy elections, especially because money allows candidates to saturate television with feel-good advertisements touting the candidate and also attack ads that tear down his opponent.
There is a growing feeling in the American nation that not all is going well, either in the international-military arena or in the US economy. Will that translate into votes against Bush, or will his deep pockets, filled with checks from campaign contributors, enable him to shift focus from that malaise and thereby win re-election? A Riveting drama has begun whose resolution is not clear.
Huck Gutman is Professor of English at the University of Vermont. He is former Fulbright Visiting Professor of English at Calcutta University.
Copyright 2003 The Statesman