“The [political] polls are dropping, the domestic situation has problems…. So all of a sudden we have this war talk, war fervor . . . said Senator Robert C. Byrd last week. “This is the worst kind of election-year politics.”
Byrd is a former Majority Leader of the Senate who is now representing West Virginia for an eighth consecutive term. Is he right? Is President Bush leading us to war in order to divert attention from issues that would damage his presidency, as well as the Republican Party in the November elections?
The evidence is overwhelming that this is indeed true. First, it is clear that the Bush Administration wants a war with Iraq, regardless of events. Administration officials were openly disappointed when Iraq agreed to their demand that UN inspectors be allowed to re-enter the country without conditions. By contrast, the rest of the world was nearly unanimous in welcoming this agreement — which was crafted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan — as a positive step that should be seized upon to try and avoid war.
The timing and timetable of the Administration’s actions are also highly suspicious. Bush Administration officials have presented no evidence that Iraq poses an imminent threat to the security of United States. Yet they have demanded that Congress debate the issue and grant the President unprecedented authority to wage war, before the November elections — less than six weeks away. Similarly, they have pressed very hard for the UN Security Council to authorize military action as soon as possible.
Given the lack of a security threat or even a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the Administration’s relentless and impatient drive toward war is difficult to explain, other than for domestic political reasons. This is especially clear when we consider how extremely cautious the President and his political advisers have been in the past. Like most politicians, they rarely take unnecessary political risks. Even after the massacre of September 11, when polls showed most Americans were willing to accept military casualties, the Administration was very careful about exposing US soldiers to serious combat risks in Afghanistan — for fear of political repercussions.
Yet this war is a very risky political venture for the Bush Administration. Many things could go wrong: US casualties in an invasion to conquer Iraq could be very high. The war will bring rising oil prices and political uncertainty that could push the United States economy back into recession. There is also risk of a wider war, with Israel drawn in, and the fall of governments that are allied with Washington (Egypt, Saudi Arabia).
Why take such a high-stakes gamble? Because the alternative is even riskier, from the Administration’s point of view. As soon as the President’s team stops talking about Iraq, the media will shift back to the growing array of scandals that could easily doom this Administration: Harken Energy Corporation, Halliburton, Enron, and the intelligence failures leading up to 9-11. The first three directly involve high-level Administration officials, including the President and Vice-President, in corporate malfeasance.
These scandals could also cost the Republicans control of Congress in November, as could other domestic issues where Democrats were leading in the polls at the end of August: Social Security, Medicare prescription drugs, the economy and jobs, or corporate accountability. But this Administration has buried these issues under an avalanche of war talk, and looks poised to keep this game going through the election.
One thing is for sure: we don’t need to go halfway across the world to find leaders who would sacrifice their own people, and the security of the world, for ruthless political ambition. We have them right here at home.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C. (www.cepr.net)