Bush vs Bush

Published in the Dawn on January 26, 2004

By Touqir Hussain

A top Iranian leader was once informed by his advisers that the economy was not doing well, unemployment was rising and people were getting disaffected with the revolution. His terse but authoritative reply was that the revolution was not about the bread and butter; if it were so there was no reason to overthrow the Shah. The revolution was about Islam.

Historically, leaderships, whether in Iran, United States or any other country, have often been tempted to dictate national priorities, and it is usually those where they can either claim certain moral sanction, or hold out promise to lead the nation effectively, satisfying collective concerns and desires. Sometimes, however, the priorities are thrust on nations by circumstances and the leaderships are forced to deal with them as they come.

Uniquely, there has been a little of each of the above in the Bush leadership which has virtually become a single issue. The issue is no doubt terrorism. Of course, to be fair to him, the challenge was thrust on him. But it fitted the man's ability, political profile and combative personality on whom the formative influences had been very conservative, even hawkish. So when the September 11 tragedy fell, Bush was the man of the hour.

Bush and the conservatives surrounding him, who had been waiting for political power and the right moment for nearly two decades, were tempted by the opportunity offered by September 11 to overreach.

What started as a Bush family vendetta, pre-dating the WTC tragedy, as confirmed by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in a recent book, and by Senator Kennedy in a CNN interview, the regime change in Iraq merged into a larger campaign against terrorism, broadening public endorsement for the effort. Iraq and terrorism were rolled into one, and became the number one national priority. This is what the Bush White House wanted to do, and were capable to do just that. The challenge responded to their aims, and fitted their abilities as much as the limitations.

Bush administration is a matrix of multiple political strands - ideologues, evangelists, special interests, the hold-overs from the Reagan, Bush-1 era with strong and long standing ties to big business, specially oil, and career lobbyists for Israel.

Their interests may diverge but the approach is similar. They believe in the uncompromising use of unchallenged and unrivalled American power in pursuit of maximum national interests, to be defined more by their own personal agenda than by any objective conditions. The campaign against terrorism, of which the Iraq war was made the centre-piece, has provided a useful umbrella covering up this blatant linkage between the personal and the national. It has thus subsumed many agendas into one.

Of course, the President himself has only one personal agenda, that is his re-election, an obsession whose origins go back to his father's failure to win a second term. Incumbents usually stand or fall on their record, which becomes the campaign issue, and will be specially so with Bush who has made the national security the sole national priority.

The issue has released strong emotions in the country. Initially, in the wake of September 11, the emotional outpouring was in support of a strong leader. Of course the Bush Administration took advantage of this "heavy mandate" to fulfil its own agenda, a work already in progress.

Those who argue that Bush was misled by a faulty intelligence are missing the point. The decision to go to war was not based on the intelligence, rather the intelligence was based on the decision to go to war. No leader in a democratic country can take the nation to war without finding a rationale adequate to people's commitment to sacrifice human life and suffer economic loss. War is not a trivial matter specially in societies where public opinion matters.

Since there was no sound rationale for going to war, Bush had to invent one. And its magnitude could not have been any less than the threat of weapons of mass destruction. and terrorism. If this threat may have looked fictional, remote or implausible, it had to be doctored, or created de novo, if the need be. And that is what the Bush-Blair combine proceeded to do - adapt the intelligence to fit the political requirement.

Look at the arguments presented even by as decent and honourable a man as Powell. Skimpy and unverifiable facts were stretched to project a phenomenon as a threat, and then other remotely connected and dimly discernible threats were added, and the cumulate effect went on to create an impressionistic reality of an imminent and magnified danger to national security.

No one bothered about the moral, legal or broader strategic issues involved except some liberals who were put in a tight spot because the war aims were so defined, by giving multiple rationales at various times, as to make the criticism unpatriotic. The ruse worked, till the body bags started coming home and the horrendous financial cost of the war became known, that is.

It is clear that whatever the criticism on the war, for Bush the main national issue remains national security. And he would try to project his leadership role in meeting this challenge. He has confirmed this in his latest State of the Union address whose message was very clear - America is at war ,and he is the best war-time leader.

And he continues to get high marks from the average Americans for the strong leadership provided by him in confronting the terrorist threat. This is how he won the mid-term Congressional elections and this would be his main campaign plank for the Presidential race, specially when the question marks remain over economic recovery rendering its value as a campaign issue dubious both for the President and the Democrats.

The war offers both an opportunity and a risk to the Democrats in their bid for the White House. They have a very impressive array of candidates vying for the nomination reminding the voters that the American idealism is still alive despite the grievous assault by the Bush administration. They too would like the focus to be on the national security because of the economy's uncertain outlook.

If anything, the economy may improve thus robbing them of an issue mid-stream through the campaign. Of course, the Democrats are also trying to play up the social issues such as medicare, medicaid, education, environment, gay marriages, the question of civil union, etc but are finding it hard to strike a right theme and arouse much public excitement.

The real campaign agenda will, therefore, remain narrow. It will be almost like a national referendum on a single issue. What can the Democrats do to win the national debate and thus win the election? I am afraid nothing much on their own. The success of the Democrats' strategy of criticism of the war depends on the failure of the war, and thus of the Bush administration.

The die has been cast and the initiative remains with Bush now to direct the Iraq war, if he can, to make a success or failure of it. And then there is always the outside factor - an unforeseen terrorist attack or any other epochal event, in Iraq perhaps, which Bush will have to deal with, to his advantage or disadvantage. In the final analysis whether the war effort will fail or succeed will be self-evident, there is nothing the Democrats can do to change the public perceptions of it. The strong and powerful media will do it for them. All this will obviously make the election as Bush vs Bush.

America has changed significantly in recent decades. The country has always been politically pluralistic, but is becoming somewhat polarized specially under George Bush whose extremism, the influence of the Christian Right and conservative talk-show hosts, and the avaricious corporate sector are dividing Americans from Americans. But ironically Bush has also united the nation on one issue at least.

Even polls as late as on the eve of Iowa Caucus, on January 19, show that most Americans still consider terrorism as the number one national issue, ahead of economy and jobs. So the only way to defeat Bush is for him to defeat himself.This will be specially so because the Democrats are divided.

Firstly, their committed supporters in the country are declining and their traditional coalitions are unravelling whereas the Republican support is rising. Even the industrial unions, traditionally the Democrats stronghold, do not seem to be as activist as before. Elections in the US have become increasingly a money and media game and a big power play by special interests. And the Republicans are better financed than the Democrats.

The Democrats have another problem. They are divided on the very issues that they need to attack Bush like the war and economy. On war, for instance, one or the other candidate who attacks his rival candidates ends up making arguments that unwittingly support the Bush position. So they end up diluting the argument against Bush. On economy as well they are not coherent, some supporting the tax cuts, some opposing, and some coming on strong on social issues. So they have been beating up on each other. That also erodes the strength of criticism against Bush.

In sum, at this point of time, both the war and the economy, which is always an issue in the election, are in a holding pattern. If one is to hazard a guess, both are likely to evolve in the opposite directions. Economy might improve while the war situation might deteriorate. This will make the race a very tight one. For Bush to win, both the war and the economy have to be looking up. And by the same token for the Democrats to win both should be bad news. The writer is a former ambassador.