at least six months, I have been resisting early pronouncements of
Bush's political death. Most of them seemed to be composed of wishful
thinking, extrapolating from simple facts -- the disaster of the Iraq
occupation, the mostly jobless recovery, the lies about weapons of mass
destruction -- to that phenomenally elusive quantity that is public
If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, then until
recently Bush seems to have been made of some special plastic developed
by an advanced alien civilization. He took some hits in the polls, but
given that this administration has lied about virtually every aspect of
its policy (WMD, tax cuts, budget, .) and has presided over a series of
disasters for the United States from the 9/11 attacks to a failing
colonial occupation to economic stagnation to a collapse of the
government's fiscal soundness to a collapse of social services, he
hasn't done so badly. His job approval ratings remained in general well
over 50% and as late as October of last year, 59% of Americans
characterized Bush as "honest and trustworthy."
Furthermore, the administration has displayed a
consistent pattern: Unlike Bill Clinton, who really was obsessed with
the polls, Bush has been willing to let his ratings slide, let criticism
and confusion mount to extreme levels, then defuse it all with a
well-timed and heavily-hyped intervention.
There are signs, however, that this time is
Bush's latest slide dates from the recent statements
of David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group that was tasked with
finding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq not only
had no weapons but that they couldn't find "the people, the documents or
the physical plants" that would have been necessary to produce weapons.
The administration tried to defuse the issue with a
couple of items from its usual bag of tricks. First, it tried to turn
this issue on its head by claiming that the issue was "intelligence
failures" rather than administration deception, orchestrating a campaign
to get the media to go along with this spin and planning for a whitewash
of the issue by creating an independent commission whose purview is
restricted to intelligence methods (see the Executive Order creating the
Second, it decided to stage a media opportunity by having Bush appear on
"Meet the Press."
This was a bit of a gamble, because most past media
interventions involved a prepared script, and the effort required of
Bush was simply to keeps his lips pursed very tightly so that he
wouldn't smirk as he read from the Tele-prompter.
Even though Tim Russert was the perfect softball
questioner, refusing to press Bush on such elementary points as why he
went to war while inspections were actually in progress, it was a
disaster. For once, the administration's mix of warmed-over platitudes
and stonewalling didn't work -- not only did Bush have nothing to say,
he said it very badly.
And look at the results. Last week, Time magazine's
cover article talks about Bush's "credibility gap." A Washington Post
poll found 54% of the population believing that Bush had lied or
exaggerated about Iraq's WMD, and 50% approving of his job as president.
And, for the first time since the war ended, only 48% of Americans
approved of the war.
Next, after being pressed hard over well-documented
claims of desertion while in the National Guard during the Vietnam War,
the Bush administration actually started releasing some of his records.
This is the most secretive administration since Nixon's. Dick Cheney
continues to stonewall on disclosing the details of his meetings in
drafting the 2001 Bush-Cheney energy plan, even after a judge found in
favor of the suit by the General Accounting Office. It must have been
surreal for journalists who are consistently refused access even to
documents that the administration is legally required to make public to
suddenly be given the chance to peruse Bush's dental records.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted
last Thursday night (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A37872-2004Feb12.html)
to expand the independent commission's purview to include the Pentagon's
Office of Special Plans (Dick Cheney's way to get around the CIA) and,
in a highly limited way (no subpoena power) to deception by
administration officials. It's much less than half a loaf, but given the
recent history of extreme partisanship by Republicans in the legislative
branch getting even that much through the Republican-dominated committee
is a major change.
And even Alan Greenspan, an extreme Bush partisan for
the past three years, has broken with the administration by suggesting
mandatory limits on tax cuts (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A38260-2004Feb12.html)
because of the unrestrained growth of the deficit.
Add to all this the facts that Bush is even coming
under heavy fire from parts of his own party for his budget shenanigans,
and the fact that the previously mentioned Washington Post poll shows
Kerry beating Bush by 51 to 43 in a head-to-head matchup, and it's fair
to say that this crisis is significantly more severe than any the
administration has yet faced.
No one should break out the champagne yet. Bush has
not even started spending down his $150 million campaign war chest.
Expect him to attack Kerry as an extreme liberal (untrue) and a captive
of special interests (true). The recent media attention to Kerry's
alleged philandering will allow Bush to try to suggest that dishonesty
about interns is far more important than dishonesty that drags the
country into war. Once Bush really starts to fight back, all of his
recent losses may well be reversed. And even if Bush loses, nobody
should expect Kerry to end the occupation of Iraq.
But Bush's recent implosion does provide a huge
opportunity. The administration's credibility on foreign policy is
noticeably lower than it was even in the brief effloration of a mass
antiwar movement last February and March. Only 52% of people now think
of Bush as "honest and trustworthy." Now is a time that people might
just be receptive to the idea that an administration that would lie to
us about everything else may also be lying about what's happening in
Iraq, and may even be lying about why it went to war in the first place.
This is an opportunity that cannot be left to the
Democratic candidates. In a New York Times op-ed on January 29, Robert
Reich, Clinton's former Secretary of Labor, wrote about the need to
build a liberal mass movement. He pointed out that the right wing's
recent successes grow very much from its grassroots strength; he also
implied that Howard Dean's supporters provide at least an embryonic core
for such a movement.
Reich's call is right on the money (although his
claim that Kerry and his campaign are part of such a movement is not).
There is a need for a mass movement that does not restrict itself to
support of one candidate or another and does not focus narrowly on "electability"
but defines itself around core issues and pushes the public debate (and
the position of liberal candidates).
Central to such a movement must be opposition to the
new imperialism, to colonial-style occupations, and to the aggressive
increase in general militarism. Just as in the Vietnam War, this is once
again an issue that everybody knows has an effect on them. Now is the
time for a resurgent anti-imperial movement to launch a mass public
outreach campaign. The occupation of Iraq, the new American imperialism,
and the insane growth of the military budget are in fact issues that you
can go door-to-door with. Some essential points for such a movement to
1. What the United States is doing in Iraq. Nobody
knows that in much of the country, including that capital, Baghdad,
people are worse off now than they were under the twin brutalities of
Saddam and the sanctions. Since we are not now in the polarizing
atmosphere of a push to war, people will be much more open to
understanding the human cost of the occupation and the brutality and
negligence of U.S. policy. We must also connect the new imperialism, and
the specificities of how it is operating in Iraq, to people's lives
here. The deliberate destruction of social services in the United States
parallels, in a much less intense fashion, the destruction and collapse
of social order that is associated with the "regime change" in Iraq.
2. Terrorism. Forget the lame criticisms of the
Democratic candidates, that the war on Iraq is a "diversion" from some
legitimate war on terrorism. Rather, we must emphasize that the whole
policy since 9/11 has dramatically increased the risk from al-Qaeda and
associated groups, something that even FBI and CIA officials admitted
before the Iraq war, and something that is made clearer every day in
Iraq. The policy of turning Afghanistan and Iraq into "failed states,"
which is precisely what the United States has done, is a disaster. An
alternative approach to terrorism must be based on disengagement,
allowing the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to generate their own
politics, funding for genuine reconstruction (overseen by Afghans and
Iraqis), cessation of attempts to control Middle Eastern governments,
ending aid to Israel, and accepting international law. Certainly, none
of these changes will stop bin Laden and his current colleagues, but
they are necessary to create the background so that international
efforts to bring them to justice don't backfire and actually worsen the
problem by increasing new recruitment of terrorists. People will be
willing to hear this now in a way that they weren't after the seemingly
"successful" conclusion of the war on Afghanistan.
3. Linking military spending increases (along with
tax cuts) to the decrease in social spending. These spending increases
include money for current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, for
corporate boondoggles (new submarines, more Stealth bombers), and for
possible new wars ("missile defense"). We must simultaneously
differentiate between U.S. obligations to pay for reconstruction of
Afghanistan and Iraq, which are a matter of international law and common
decency, and continuing military spending in those countries. Once the
tax cuts and the military spending increases are taken care of, our
nearly $11 trillion economy can easily manage reconstruction payments as
well as an increase in social spending here.
There are many other issues for such an anti-imperial
movement, of course, but these three strike most easily to the heart of
public opinion. This anti-imperial agenda would be part of a broader
progressive agenda that focuses also on jobs, health-care, and economic
Given the current political opening, this can happen.
A mass grassroots movement can make a difference, if it gets started
early enough, before the massive Bush reelection campaign starts to shut
down that gap and mends the current cracks in the ice. Not only can we
dramatically advance public consciousness of the key issue for the whole
world, the new American empire, an incidental effect will be to make it
more likely that Bush is defeated in the November elections. To the more
than one million Americans who marched on February 15: It's time to come
Rahul Mahajan is the author of
Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond (Monthly
Review Press, 2003).
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