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government | imperialism & war | legacies selection 2004

Right On!

Some folks say it better
This is a piece written by novelist E.L. Doctorow, appeared in the
September 9th issue of the Easthampton Star, and elsewhere. Such
beautiful writing, reflecting what we all see too and know well. -JK
I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our twenty-one year olds who wanted to be what they could be.
On the eve of D-day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the WMDs he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving,
triumphal, a he-man. He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the thousand dead young men and women who wanted be what they could be. They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance of aborted life.... they come to his desk as a political liability which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of their coffins from Iraq. How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets nothing. He does not regret that his
reason for going to war was, as he knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his bungled plan for the war's aftermath has made of his mission-accomplished a disaster. He does not regret that rather than controlling terrorism his war in Iraq has licensed it. So he never mourns
for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought this war of his choice. He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He
did not understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options but when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because
you have to.

Yet this president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to cheer the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This president and his
supporters would seem to have a mind for only one thing --- to take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for the sake of themselves and their friends. A war will do that as well as anything.
You become a wartime leader. The country gets behind you. Dissent becomes inappropriate. And so he does not drop to his knees, he is not contrite, he does not sit in the church with the grieving parents and
wives and children. He is the President who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the dead, he does not feel for the thirty five million
of us who live in poverty, he does not feel for the forty percent who cannot afford health insurance, he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills --- it is amazing for how many people in this country this President does not feel. But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest one percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the safety regulations for coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a- half benefits for overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them into the professional class. And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the flag and democracy, when
just what he and his party are doing to our democracy is choking the life out of it.

But there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember the millions of people here and around the world who marched against the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneous aroused oversoul of alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it happen? After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen coming. There are little wars all over he world most of the time. But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of people that America was ceding its role
as the last best hope of mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype of democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest
democratic republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who could imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than pre-emptive war.

The president we get is the country we get. With each president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul.
He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his
image. The trouble they get into and get us into, is his characteristic trouble. Finally the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail: How can we sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the stupid and ineffective warmaking, the constitutionally insensitive lawgiving, and the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.

E.L. Doctorow
US election campaign divorced from reality 18.Sep.2004 19:30


THE American presidential election campaign of 2004 is taking place in a parallel universe. President George Bush's Iraq adventure is unravelling by the day and the security situation on the ground is becoming desperate; but he has a healthy lead in the polls and, though the campaign still has a long way to run, must be regarded as being on course for re-election.

The war on terrorism is in danger of being lost and the national finances are drowning in a sea of red ink; yet the campaign has been dominated, so far, by Senator John Kerry's record in Vietnam over 30 years ago and how Bush behaved in the Alabama National Guard, also over three decades ago. For a forward-looking country, this is a very backward-looking election.

Despite periodic nastiness from both sides, it is also surprisingly sedate, given the immensity of the issues at stake, thanks partly to a domestic media which treats both candidates with kid gloves. Instead of incumbent and challenger being grilled mercilessly by robust inquisitors, both criss-cross the country hermetically sealed from all but the party faithful, unquestioned by journalists (who seemed more interested last week in Hurricane Ivan than the election) or even, perish the thought, voters.

This disconnection between the harsh realities facing America at home and abroad and the surreal nature of the campaign is playing into President Bush's hands. Senator Kerry's inability to strike a chord with the concerns of ordinary voters condemns him to remain locked in the campaign's parallel universe, which is to Bush's advantage, because an outbreak of reality would undermine his case for re-election; indeed by constantly harping on about his Vietnam record Kerry has only added to the unreality and let the incumbent off the hook. Kerry now thinks it was a mistake to make so much of Vietnam at the Democrats' Boston convention; but what compelling theme will take its place remains a mystery.

Six months ago the conventional political wisdom was, reasonably enough, that the election would be a referendum on George Bush's first term. Given the sluggish economy and the loss of jobs during his watch, plus the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, it was generally assumed that Bush was vulnerable. The conventional wisdom was wrong.

The Republican attack dogs have turned this into an election about Kerry. Six months ago they hit him with a sledgehammer by mounting a slick and well-financed campaign accusing him of being a serial flip-flopper. The Republican Party website even carried a hilarious cartoon boxing match, Kerry v Kerry, in which the Democratic candidate managed to take both sides of every issue - and knock himself out at the end of every round. At the time some Republican strategists worried it was too early in the election year to dip into the party's war chest. In fact, it was money well spent: the mud has stuck.

Presidential elections are much more about character than parliamentary ones, and Republican propaganda has succeeded in depicting Kerry as a politician who tacks and trims to the prevailing winds, a man "without a centre of gravity", as a leading Republican put it to me, in contrast to Bush who, for all his flaws and mistakes, is seen to be resolute and reliable. The attacks have been all the more effective because there is plenty of ammunition in Kerry's record to give the criticism credence.

His inconsistency over Iraq, for example, has been breathtaking, resulting in him having no clear message on the most pressing issue of the day. The senator voted for the war. He then voted against the $87bn the administration requested for post-invasion security and the rebuilding of Iraq. Last week he railed against the war's price tag to date ($200bn and rising), saying it should have been spent on health care and other domestic necessities. Yet a year ago, when asked if too much was being spent in Iraq, he replied: "We should increase funding [for the war in Iraq]... by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win."

The Kerry line on Iraq is that he would woo allies and create a much wider international coalition to rebuild Iraq. But Europe has already rumbled that this amounts to no more than George Bush with a smile rather than a smirk. It is inconceivable, given the bloody quagmire Iraq has become, that the French or Germans (or anybody else for that matter) would now deploy their troops there just because there was a new, friendlier broom in the White House. It also suffers from congenital Kerry inconsistency. There was no wider international coalition in modern history than the one the first President Bush put together to fight the first Gulf War. Kerry voted against it in the Senate.

This is the sort of stuff which makes Democrats despair. "Kerry should be ahead by 10 points at this stage of the campaign," a leading Democratic strategist said to me. "It is a measure of the ineptitude of his campaign that he's almost 10 points behind." It is not the only measure.

While Bush used his father's connections to sit out the Vietnam War in the National Guard, Kerry saw active service in the line of fire; he has the medals to prove it. But the anti-Kerry forces were so emboldened by the success of their "flip-flop" campaign that they even mounted an attack on his Vietnam credentials which succeeded in undermining his reputation as a war hero. It is not easy to be a brave Vietnam veteran who risked his life up against a man who shirked his military duty - and come out the worse for it. Such is the crass incompetence of the Kerry campaign that it has succeeded in doing just that.

The mainstream media is having almost as bad an election as Kerry. The days when the public prints and airwaves were dominated by a few liberal-left voices from the Boston/New York/Washington corridor, mostly all saying the same thing, have come to an end. The loudest voices now come from the right, in the shape of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and a variety of radio 'shock-jocks'; and the newest political force in the campaign are the web bloggers, who now hold the mainstream media to account as never before.

When CBS News, a citadel of the US media establishment, saw the chance to do to Bush's National Guard record what the Swift Boat veterans had done to Mr Kerry's Vietnam record, the documents it produced in support of its story - that today's commander-in-chief had disobeyed orders as a National Guard pilot in 1972 - were subjected to unprecedented scrutiny by web bloggers, who quickly established that the documents were likely forgeries, made on a word processor which had not even been invented 30 years ago.

CBS News's veteran anchorman, Dan Rather, tried at first to disparage the bloggers, then bluster against them when expert testimony largely backed the bloggers. By the end of last week, Rather was looking rattled, his story was crumbling in his hands and the ratings for his nightly newscast were in freefall.

The Rather saga is symbolic of the loss of the mainstream liberal media's power and influence to a myriad of online sources, many of them outside the liberal media establishment and a potent new force in elections. In fact, the US campaign of 2004 is the world's first online election. Bob Shrum, a senior adviser to Kerry, refers to the growing influence of the web on both fundraising and the flow of campaign information in the current New Yorker: "Thirty-five per cent of the money that Kerry raised through July, which was some $220m, was raised online.

"The Bush people say they have six million e-mail addresses of people who signed up at georgewbush.com, and one million web volunteers... with the click of a button, and without it costing them anything, they can send a message to 10% of the 55 million people they need to have in order to win the election, instantly. That's an amazing figure. In this campaign, the web is important."

In upcoming elections in Britain and continental Europe, the web will not be that important because blogging is still in its infancy and broadband penetration is lower. But what is happening in America today is the shape of things to come in democratic elections everywhere. The loss of confidence in the mainstream US media is already palpable: last week they were happier giving wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Ivan - which largely consisted of reporters standing in the wind and rain telling viewers how wet and windy it was in the path of the storm - than covering the election campaign.

So, thanks in part to Kerry and in part to a diminished mainstream media, the Bush campaign is enjoying something of a free ride, allowing their man to pose as an effective "war president" and to whip up his conservative base. In the president's standard stump speech, the war on terrorism is being won and "progress" is being made in Iraq. Events from Beslan to Baghdad suggest otherwise; but Kerry is unable to derail the Bush bandwagon.

When the Beslan atrocity dominated American television screens, Kerry was telling supporters in North Carolina that he would create a new US "Department of Wellness" to deal with pressing domestic problems such as house mould. When last week a classified national intelligence estimate was leaked telling the president that the most favourable outcome in Iraq was at best a "tenuous" security and at worst "civil war", thereby exposing the president's claims of "progress" as baseless, Kerry's response was lame. The best soundbite he could come up with was to label Bush as the "excuse President" - hardly riveting stuff.

The Kerry camp is now pinning its hopes on next month's presidential debates: they want three. The Bush camp is worried: they want two. Vice President Dick Cheney is known to be especially concerned about his man. Teams of debaters have already been assembled to put the president through his paces. Cheney fears that in a straight, old-fashioned debate Kerry could come off best. Those who were at Yale with the challenger remember him as a formidable debater. So the Republican strategy is to argue for a folksy format in which Bush's "good old boy" style would shine.

The Bush camp is always worried when their man is unscripted and has to think on his feet. But there is nothing in the Kerry campaign style to date to suggest he is capable of the killer debating blow. On the stump he is lugubrious and leaden. Last week he tackled the thorny issue of pensions in front of a group of retired folk with the use of cardboard slides to illustrate his points, looking and sounding more like a plodding professor than the next president. Even the Democratic faithful started nodding off.

The campaign would be ignited, of course, if there was another atrocity on American soil before polling day on November 3. It is widely expected in the US intelligence community. "We know al-Qaeda is planning something horrible before the election," an intelligence analyst told me. "But we don't know when, where or how. The co-ordinated bombings in Baghdad last weekend could be a precursor of something much bigger here. It shows how sophisticated and co-ordinated the terrorists have become."

There is speculation that there could be a series of simultaneous bombings across the country. One scenario envisages 10 shopping malls being attacked on the same day; intelligence officers fear al-Qaeda is out to create a terrorist atrocity even more spectacular than 9/11, this time hoping for as many as 50,000 casualties. Of course, nothing might happen; but given the sorry state of US intelligence - the man Bush wants to take over the CIA said this week it would take at least another five years to bring US intelligence capabilities up to speed - it cannot be ruled out.

If there is a terrorist doomsday during the campaign, Bush's claim to be winning the war on terrorism would be in shreds. But America is not Spain: a terrorist attack in the US would likely solidify support around the president, in an outpouring of grief, anger and patriotism. The Kerry camp admits privately that it would not be to their man's advantage.

It is not easy to see what will be to Kerry's advantage over the next six weeks.

Iraq is a cauldron; but the Bush tactic is to keep a lid on it until polling day and to worry about what to do next after that. The war on terror is a shambles; but only about a third of Americans think John Kerry would be any better at fighting it.

The president's big-government conservatism has created a federal deficit this year of over $400bn and he plans to add trillions more to the national debt in his second term; but these are abstract numbers that do not resonate in an election campaign and Kerry would borrow just as much (though for different purposes). The performance of the US economy has hardly been spectacular under Bush but he managed to avoid a prolonged recession and it is now doing well enough for the economy not to be a strong reason to unseat him.

The Kerry camp's strongest card remains the widespread dislike, often bordering on hatred, of George W Bush. This has helped galvanise the core Democratic vote, but Kerry strategists are discovering that strong anti-Bush sentiment is not enough to win an election; they also have to give voters, especially moderate, centrist ones, a reason to vote for somebody; and so far that is something Kerry has failed to do.

Yet the opportunity still exists. There are millions of independents and moderate Republicans tempted not to vote for Bush. The more the president woos the fundamentalist right, the more other Republicans feel disillusioned. These 'Rinos' - Republicans in name only - are fiscal conservatives but social liberals who are against almost everything in the Bush platform, from his penchant for big deficit spending to his opposition to stem cell research, abortion and gay marriages.

If Kerry could prove to them he would govern from the centre then their votes are there for the taking. Last week in the Wall Street Journal he tried to woo them with an article in which he denied he was an old-style protectionist or redistributionist. It was an intelligent contribution to the economic debate. The problem is that his 'flip-flop' reputation and habit of telling particular audiences what they want to hear undermines his credibility. 'Rinos' still see a stilted, patrician Massachusetts left-winger - the pink moon that has always been in orbit round Senator Edward Kennedy's liberal-left star - and remain disinclined to vote for him, however disillusioned they are with Bush.

Back in the real world, beyond the parallel universe of the campaign, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are back in force in Afghanistan, where heroin production has reached record levels, to the financial advantage of the resurgent warlords. The US-backed security forces are capable only of sporadic raids into the hostile countryside and attacks on them are increasing. The country is on the brink of returning to its post-9/11 medievalism.

In Iraq there are now almost 90 terrorist attacks a day on coalition forces and their Iraqi supporters. The insurgents are increasingly well-organised, well-armed and have no shortage of recruits; many towns and huge swathes of the country are no longer under coalition or official Iraqi control. The prospect of Iraq becoming another terrorist-fostering Afghanistan which exports terrorist violence all over the globe is now all too real.

For its part, al-Qaeda and its allies are more widely deployed than ever, under new leadership and with fresh recruits. Terrorist training is now widespread in Pakistan, Syria and, of course, Iraq - and co-ordinated.

These are the fundamental problems that the campaign of 2004 is reluctant to confront but that no president will be able to ignore after the election. Kerry has nothing of significance to say about them and Bush would prefer not to talk about them at all. But they will be top of the Oval Office in-tray for whoever wins. Given the paucity of decent options in Iraq, Afghanistan or the war on terror facing the victor on November 3, this could be a good election to lose.