Bush has won the battle, but not yet the war
Having a majority in congress is not the same thing as having a clear and shared national vision.
It now seems as if King George bestrides the world. The Republican Party’s success in America’s mid-term elections, and the United Nations Security Council’s acceptance of the US resolution on Iraq, have been hailed as twin triumphs for US President George W Bush, which will enable him to push through his agenda at home and sort out Saddam Hussein.
Let’s be clear: these developments do represent significant advances for the American president. They will strengthen Bush’s hand considerably. But they are unlikely to resolve the underlying political and cultural problems facing the American elite on the domestic and international fronts.
The Republicans’ mid-term election victories have been widely attributed to the President’s personal intervention in the campaign. This will give an important boost to Bush’s political authority. For two years, since the presidential election ended in the Florida voting fiasco, he has been labelled as the first modern president to win the White House despite losing the popular vote. Now he can at last claim to have been endorsed by American voters.
That will also have a knock-on effect in international politics. Since he became president, most of Bush’s liberal critics around the world have contented themselves with making jibes about his electoral ‘coup’ rather than advancing a serious critique. We are all familiar with the tired gags about Afghanistan sending observers to monitor US elections, or about Saddam not being the only unelected dictator with weapons of mass destruction, etc. Those rather infantile attacks will not have the same impact now. Nor will the sneers about Bush being a peculiarly hickish idiot seem so funny, now that he has run rings around his supposedly superior Democratic Party opponents.
The election results will also give the president more scope to try to impose an agenda on American politics. He has made it clear that his administration’s priority now is creating a huge new Homeland Security department at the heart of government. This could be the focus around which Bush seeks to reorganise American politics, to create a Cold War-style atmosphere at home in which anything can be justified in the name of defending America.
Meanwhile, there seems to be more good news for Bush at the UN, with the Security Council finally reaching a compromise on a resolution about disarming Iraq. This is a welcome breakthrough for Washington after almost two months of diplomatic wrangling between the USA and UK on one side, and fellow permanent security council members France and Russia on the other. It has enabled President Bush to announce that the civilised world is now united behind his campaign against Saddam.
These developments will be viewed with dread by many in America, and especially in Europe, worried about the advance of ‘trigger-happy’ Bush and his cowboy policies. The first thing they might ask themselves is whether victory for the Democrats in those congressional elections would really have been any better. The spineless defensiveness that characterised the Democrat campaign does not suggest that they would have put up much resistance to the president.
And some of us do not see much to choose between, say, the conservative authoritarianism of the sort of judges Bush is now likely to appoint to the Supreme Court, and the politically correct authoritarianism of the kind of candidates that the Democrats might prefer.
More fundamentally, it would be a mistake to assume that President Bush will now be able to bulldoze through at will a far-reaching agenda. A few marginal victories in elections to congress, and a fudged deal at the UN, are not going to resolve the over-arching problems facing the US elite at home and abroad. Those problems did not originate in the electoral or diplomatic spheres, and so ultimately will not be solved there.
In short, the president has won an election, but has not yet reversed the US establishment’s defeat in the Culture Wars. Having a majority in congress is not the same thing as having a clear and shared national vision of what America stands for, that can be projected into the global arena.
(The latest episode in the new series of The Sopranos, in which America’s national celebration of Columbus Day degenerates into an ethnic spat between the competing historical claims of the Native American and Italian American communities, gave a flavour of the divisions and confusions that dog the USA’s self-image as the Culture Wars continue in the wake of 9/11.)
Many critics will warn against reading too much into the recent Republican victories, since the elections in the low turnout culture of US politics are decided by small minorities of individuals. That is undoubtedly true. But what happens in the Culture Wars is decided by even smaller minorities, within the US elite itself. It is here that the White House’s fundamental problems in projecting American power are rooted, and they will not be resolved at the polls.
The incoherence and lack of certainty about what America stands for and will fight for today goes right to the heart of the American elite and is helping to shape the Bush administration’s own worldview. As Brendan O’Neill reports elsewhere on spiked, the obsession with American ‘vulnerability’ is at the heart of the Homeland Defence policy, while the US strategy in the war on terror is driven by fear (see America the vulnerable and Paranoia Americana by Joe Kaplinsky). These do not look like the preoccupations of a self-confident global superpower.
Similarly, while Bush can be pleased that he has finally got the UN Security Council to endorse a US motion on Iraq, it is telling that his administration has been prepared to spend two months bartering with its allies over the exact terms. In the process the Americans have made many concessions that may yet come back to haunt them.
Behind all the talk of Bush’s gung-ho unilateralism, the reality is that even America lacks the will to act alone in international affairs today. Bush needs the cover of the UN to legitimise any action against Iraq in an age when foreign policy must be justified by invoking the name of the ‘international community’ rather than asserting old notions of the national interest.
So where do Bush’s significant but limited successes leave the prospect of a major war with Iraq? The only certainty seems to be that, eventually somewhere down the line, something is going to happen. But whatever that something turns out to be, America is in no position to carry off sending the sort of 200,000-strong invasion and occupation force that was being confidently predicted just a few weeks ago.
If you want a glimpse of the future of US military intervention, don’t look back to the last Gulf War. Look instead at the targeted assassination of alleged al-Qaeda suspects by an unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft in Yemen: a low risk, long distance operation that plays well in the media.
Recent events have strengthened Bush’s hand, but they have not made him any more likely to exercise a close grip over events.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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