Why Bush Will Lose.
I commented to someone recently that the United States was "poised on
the edge of something". This person then called me a "dreamer" after I
expressed my belief that "something" might be "completely the opposite"
of the "fascism" he had offered as a possibility. This person may well have been right: later that same day, I bet a three-figure sum that President Bush will be defeated in the 2004 elections. It dawned on me later on that these opinions are in need of some explanation. I see no reason you should take me seriously. Beyond the fact that I've spent some time giving these matters a considerable degree of attention, there remain the question of how useful historically grounded speculation about the future really is, and the probability that I'm just rationalizing my natural optimism. You've been warned.
[with apologies for length, and a request for constructive engagement]
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States found itself in a position of strength with no parallels in world history before or since. The country was essentially unscathed and its war economy was booming, whereas all other industrial powers were in shambles. Post-war planners immediately took steps to make this state of affairs a permanent one by creating a world order in which political and economic incentives were aligned with U.S. interests. The Cold War was used to justify a defense-centered domestic agenda, which would allow the U.S. to maintain access for its industries to foreign resources and markets.
The 1989 demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact at once removed a potent U.S. asset and opened up new possibilities. On the one hand,
Soviet aggression could no longer be invoked as a justification for U.S. dominance; but on the other, substantial new resources and markets,
previously trapped behind the iron curtain, became available. In the meantime, powerful economic blocs had developed in Europe and Japan and
had been harnessed in the "trilateral" management the world's economic affairs since the 1970s, with the understanding that important policy
decisions were the prerogative of the United States. In the 1990s, this arrangement became the preferred method of imposing the dominance of U.S.
capital, through what are called "free trade agreements", under which developing countries agree to open their borders to inflows and outflows
of goods and capital, with rhetorical reciprocity from the trilateral areas.
Successful independent development outside of the U.S. framework has always been seen as a threat to be forestalled or reversed, because it
might be emulated. A report to President Kennedy warned him of the danger of "the Castro idea of taking matters into one's own hands", because "the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes" and "the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the
example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living", unacceptably challenging the right to profit. The reasoning had been no different fifteen years earlier: U.S. interests were aligned with those of the "propertied classes". They have remained so to this day.
But the change in method did require an increase in international cooperation: the removal of the Soviet threat placed second-tier powers in direct competition with the United States, and their presence on the international scene could no longer be ignored. The struggles of "the poor and underprivileged" who are "demanding opportunities for a decent living" was now under collective management, again with the understanding that
the U.S. is first among equals. U.S. domination now relied more than ever on Theodore Roosevelt's dictum that one must "Speak softly and carry a big
stick", because too much reliance on the "big stick" at the expense of "speaking softly" might sow discord in the ranks of the managers, and open
up space for the underclasses to press their demands.
This dilution of U.S. power is correctly perceived in establishment circles. For instance, in 2000, the National Intelligence Council released a report called "Global Trends 2015", a "constructive dialogue about the future" between the intelligence community and outside experts. After a lengthy discussion, four "alternative global futures", each "plausible" and "policy-relevant", are proposed. In all of them, "US global influence wanes."
In its 2000 report called "Rebuilding America's Defenses", the Project for a New American Century, locates this challenge to "the exercise of
American leadership around the globe" in "the decline in the strength of America's defenses". The report's authors fondly recall the 1992 Defense
Policy Guidance, a "blueprint for maintaining U.S. preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security
order in line with American principles and interests." Sadly, the document was "Leaked before it had been formally approved", caused an outrage,
and was abandoned by the incoming Clinton Administration. The "basic tenets" of the DPG, however, "remain sound", and the purpose of the report is to reiterate them. The PNAC report, for its part, bears an uncanny resemblance to the National Security Strategy released by the Bush Administration in September 2002. Of note is the fact that the first Bush's Secretary of Defense, who commissioned the DPG, and his Undersecretary of Defense for
Policy, who authored the document, respectively occupy the offices of Vice-President and Deputy Secretary of Defense in the current administration.
It is by now no secret that an attack on Iraq played a pivotal role in the strategy envisioned by the PNAC. A 1998 letter to President Clinton urged him to "enunciate a new strategy that would secure the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world", which strategy "should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power" so that we can "protect our interests in the Gulf". It does not matters if our friends and allies cannot see the wisdom in this course of action: we know where their best interests lie, and "In any case, American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council." The letter is signed by a who's who of current officials and advisors: Elliott Abrams and Zalmay Khalilzad at the National Security Council; Richard Armitage and John Bolton at the Department of State; Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle at the Department of Defense; Robert Zoellick the U.S. Trade Representative; and academics/commentators Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan and William Kristol.
The "interests in the Gulf" are hardly new. In 1980, President Carter asserted his "doctrine" that "An attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." In the 1940s, a State Department report famously observed that the Middle East is "A stupendous source of strategic power and the greatest material prize in world history." It just so happens that the European and Northeast Asian (Japanese, Chinese and South Korean) economies are disproportionately dependent on Persian Gulf oil, and that these regions are the ones whose power relative to the U.S. is increasing.
Thus the Bush Administration's doctrine of unilateral "pre-emption" is meant to reassert the nation's unimpeded dominance of world affairs and
sideline the countries that, through the 1990s, were helping to manage the discontent of "the poor and underprivileged". Not surprisingly, discord in
the ranks is exactly what the policies have managed to sow, and the marginalized sectors of the world's societies are beginning to seize the moment. This is most evident in Latin America. The Andean countries have been paralyzed by popular uprisings; Bolivians overthrew their president. In Colombia, President Uribe's U.S.-friendly approach has been rebuked by the electorate, which recently defeated a referendum on fiscal reform, and
elected a leftist as mayor of Bogota. Argentinians have found a president who, so far, seems willing to defy the international financial institutions that savaged the country. The President of Brazil was carried to power by his Workers' Party and a movement of landless peasants. Brazil also led an alliance of developing countries that soundly defeated the "free trade" agenda in Cancun last September. This in a part of the world to which the U.S. has laid claim since President Monroe's 1823 address to Congress.
To compound the problem, the Administration has badly misjudged the consequences of its attack on Iraq. There, the U.S. is lacking in both human and capital resources. Human resources in the form of soldiers from other countries have not been forthcoming: even in the least democratic
countries, popular sentiment has so far been enough to prevent leaders from acquiescing to U.S. demands in significant ways. Far from being
irrelevant, the United Nations remains the only forum within which legitimacy on the international stage is decided, in the eyes of world popular opinion.
Stiff resistance has compelled the activation of tens of thousands of reservists, nearly half of which now plan not to reenlist, if a recent poll by Stars & Stripes, the Army newspaper, is to be believed. Volunteer servicemembers suffer from the same affliction. The occupation of Iraq is draining the military to the point that the U.S. is incapable of meeting any other military challenge without pulling forces away from their current duties in Iraq or on strategically positioned bases around the globe. A recent nuclear inspections deal brokered between the European Union and much-needed boogey-country Iran underscores the unacceptable degree of freedom available to vassals as a result of this impotence. The crisis is grave enough that the Administration recently posted on its defendamerica.mil website a notice requesting applications to local Selective Service System boards, prompting comments that a reinstatement of the draft was being considered. The notice was pulled down on Friday, following White House denials. The imperial project is starved for troops.
The problem of capital is more complicated. Even if other countries decline to fund the occupation of Iraq directly, they will indirectly contribute to it by financing the U.S. deficit. But this source of funds will dry up as the world loses confidence in the U.S.' ability to pay its debts. Domestic funds will then have to be found within the federal budget, in popular but cash-strapped programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and education, and be reapportioned to the occupation. Worse, these increased demands on the U.S. population arise as the campaign of deception waged by the Bush Administration to sell its war is being revealed in the media, agonizingly slowly for those who have been following the matter closely. The magnitude of the deception was such that journalists and editors, whose credibility rests on the quality of the official propaganda they willingly relay and amplify, are finding themselves obligated to point out many of the Administration's grosser distortions and abuses. Bush's shredding of the Bill of Rights and
pandering to corporate interests in both foreign and domestic policy are increasingly finding a home in the major media, who are themselves targeted by a successful popular revolt against ownership concentration. Appeasing the population provides a strong incentive for the media's rediscovery of the public interest they are mandated to serve.
As the President's popularity flags, he finds himself forced to appeal to his natural constituency of corporate interests (by rolling back environmental protections) and religious fundamentalists (by banning late-term abortions), further alienating mainstream opinion.
The Bush Administration's policies have created a global climate that squeezes the country into a shape it will not keep. So the country finds itself poised on the edge of a significant popular counterattack, a democratic pushback of a magnitude perhaps not seen since the Nixon administration, aided by the public interest groups that were created in that era. What must be understood, and is certainly understood in elite sectors, is that the current structure of society and its current distribution of power cannot meet the demands of a roused population: "the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth" are in direct competition with people who are "demanding opportunities for a decent living". Not just in Latin America, about which those remarks were made, but also in the United States.
That elite circles understand this fact can be seen in their reaction to the democratic upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1975, the
Trilateral Commission released a report on the "governability of democracies" in the United States, Europe and Japan. Regarding the U.S., the report established that Presidential candidates must form an "electoral coalition" of "key categorical groups" of various "economic, regional, ethnic, racial and religious" backgrounds. (p.96) But this coalition "need have little relation" to the elected President's "governing coalition", (p.97) which "during the decades after World War II", was made up of "key individuals and groups in the Executive Office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media". (p.92) Not surprisingly, these individuals and groups are extremely well represented in the Commission's membership. The problem in that period was that a fit of "creedal passion" among the population led to "the challenging of established authority and to major efforts to change governmental structure to accord more fully" with the "liberal, democratic, egalitarian values" on which "American society" shares a "broad consensus". (p.112) This constituted an "excess of democracy", whereas what is needed is "a greater degree of moderation in democracy",(p.113) because "the arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are [...] limited", and "the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of individuals and groups." (p.114) In other words, the "governing coalition" is the appropriate repository of democracy, while everyone else can return to their "middle-class values, attitudes, and consumption patterns." (p.157) This was the "Crisis of Democracy" after which the report is named.
My argument is that the Bush Administration is governing in a way that threatens to bring about another such crisis, and the "governing coalition" is split on what to do about it. Some sectors, among which those that have benefited substantially from the largesse of the Administration, line up behind Bush, and seem to believe that the coming crisis can be managed by vesting more power in the hands of the executive, altering "governmental structure" but in the right direction. I suppose this would be the "fascism" that one of my interlocutors foresaw, although a (small-r) republican facade would in all likelihood be maintained. Other sectors believe that the crisis must be avoided, which means that Bush must be sent packing, and something resembling the prior status quo restored. This includes restoring cooperation among the economic powers to manage global discontent and relieve domestic pressure in the U.S. The schism in the "governing coalition" accounts for the relatively broad range of opinion that we find these days in the media, throughout which two assumptions are invariably shared: elites must control the democratic process in the U.S., and U.S. global hegemony (called "American exceptionalism" in the current Economist, with unintended humorous effect) is desirable. Both factions agree on the ends to be achieved, but the means are being debated.
My personal feeling is that the pro-Bush path has consequences that are unpalatable except among the most reactionary, who may feel that the most
totalitarian institutions in society, corporations, are a proper model for society as a whole. The greater the intensity of popular discontent, the more unpalatable this path becomes, because of the brutality that would have to be used to repress the "liberal, democratic, egalitarian" tendencies of the population. After all, "democratic procedures are appropriate" in at least some "arenas". What this means is that the elites can be made to line up against Bush if the stakes of a second Bush term are raised by the continuation of current trends in foreign and domestic popular resistance to the Bush agenda. If elite pressure is sufficient, the 2004 election will be carried by the Democrat.
The worst thing we can do is wallow in "apathy and noninvolvment"; this is true in general, but especially now. If elites are confident that there is no crisis in the offing, or a minor one, they will conclude that they might as well stick with Bush and get showered with the wealth that others are generating. The good news is that much is already being done, thanks to tireless work by millions of people around the world, often in life-threatening conditions. Our part is to assume the responsibility that accrues with our considerable privileges, like freedom and security from harm. We have to make sure that the elites are scared their power will be diluted or taken away. Each of us has to decide how to contribute to this effort, but it's worth hijacking something Thomas Friedman said (according to his colleague Paul Krugman) to remind ourselves that the Bush Administration, as well as the current situation, provides a "target-rich environment".
Beyond that we have to recognize that Bush's defeat is not a victory. Supposing I'm right about anything, the game the elites are playing will in fact result in a significant disinvolvment on the part of the population. The real challenge lies in sustaining mobilization, and preferably increasing it. Cultivating the awareness that the present structure of governance is incompatible with a "decent living" for all is probably a large part of the solution, as is building the confidence that alternative institutions can be created.
I should perhaps conclude by saying that the Bush Administration is aware of all of this, and is not idle. Right now a large share of attention is given to recent reports of economic growth (shared in the usual proportions) and job creation (still below anticipated levels). These short-term political gains, generated by tax cuts that are disastrous in every respect, are sure to be exploited to their fullest. Lastly we should not discount the possibility that some manufactured national security crisis will make it past the Administration's damaged credibility. I suppose I have a three-figure sum riding in that saddle.
Anyway, if thinking along these lines makes me a "dreamer", I sure hope I'm not the only one.
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