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Will Bush survive Iraq?


With American elections approaching, the whole world is waiting. Americans are voting, but every other country knows that its future in one or another way will depend on the outcome of this vote. Because G.W. Bush isn’t a problem for Americans, it is a disaster for most of the world.

It is commonly held in Europe that the ever-worsening situation in Iraq is undermining George W. Bush’s chances of re-election. Indeed, there’s no denying that each new report from Iraq is a blow to Bush’s reputation: No WMD have been found; opposition to U.S. forces is growing; the death toll is rising; stabilization of the country is a long way off; and all the promises and forecasts of the U.S. administration have proven untrue or incorrect.

The doomsayers’ gloomiest predictions of a “new Vietnam” in Iraq are coming true. Critics of U.S. muscle-flexing, shamed into silence last spring, are once more taking heart. And the real war is just getting started. Washington’s main problem has nothing to do with the military, however. When leaders set an unattainable political goal, even the best troops and the most advanced hardware are powerless.

The Iraqi resistance is now strong and effective because it has been prepared and provoked by the Americans themselves. Given that the United States will not alter its policy in the region, this resistance will continue to spread. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime liberated the Iraqis and made spontaneous self-organization possible.

Dissolution of the former army and reorganization of the police created a power vacuum on the ground that was crucial to the formation of armed units by the Iraqi people themselves. As the people became increasingly certain that the Hussein regime was gone for good, they turned their attention to fighting against U.S. troops. The only thing U.S. commanders have done right in this war was allowing Hussein to flee Baghdad last spring.

But when George W. Bush’s poll numbers started to sag, he took the fateful step of ordering Hussein to be taken into custody. By closing one chapter in the history of modern Iraq, the United States opened another. With the Baath Party regime disposed of, the people turned against the U.S. occupying force.

The U.S. attempt to create a puppet administration has had even more dire consequences for its position in Iraq. Washington insists that the insurgents are trying to prevent the transfer of power to an Iraqi government. This is true. But the White House is planning to hand over power to Iraqis of its own choosing — unelected leaders who wield no influence within the country. The creation of an Iraqi administration has not been linked to the withdrawal of U.S. troops or even to a change in their status.

The process of forming an “Iraqi” government, more than anything else, has revealed Bush’s statements about bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East to be empty rhetoric. Most Iraqis now clearly see that an occupying army is creating a new government as a prerequisite to a prolonged stay in the country, not to withdrawal. The Iraqis have been denied their right to democracy.

When the goal is to restore independence, power is handed over only after free elections and only to a legitimate government that enjoys the support of the majority. The U.S. refusal to do so has made abundantly clear that it intends to turn Iraq into a protectorate. In other words, it is trying to colonize Iraq.

Bush had no choice in the matter. Having occupied a foreign country, he is obliged to talk about freedom, all the while doing everything possible to prevent local residents from exercising their democratic rights against the occupying force. The longer the occupation continues, the more likely it becomes that enemies of the United States will set the tone in a fairly elected Iraqi parliament.

The White House faces an insoluble dilemma: It cannot leave Iraq and it cannot stay. In chess this quandary is called “zugzwang,” when it is your turn to move, but all possible moves will weaken your position. U.S. interests would be best served by admitting defeat and getting out now. For Bush and his clan this would be political suicide, however, and they don’t seem like the kind of people who are willing to sacrifice their own ambitions for the common good.

Bush will drag out the war, increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq. This will lead to even greater loss of life on both sides, to animosity and the growth of Muslim radicalism. If Bush wins a second term in November, he will spend the next four years helplessly trying to cope with the problems he has created, and in the end his attempts will lead to catastrophe. But should the Democrat John Kerry prevail, he will face a no-win situation. If he sticks to Bush’s policy in Iraq, he will rouse the ire of many of his core supporters. If he decides to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, he will be blamed for defeat.

Whatever happens, the outcome will have serious domestic political consequences for the United States. As for Iraq, a U.S. withdrawal will quite possibly usher in a period of chaos. This is not an argument in favor of prolonging the occupation, however. The United States must withdraw in any case. The longer the war lasts, the harder it will be for everyone involved to deal with its consequences.

However, will all this help the Democrats in their fight for the White House? When discussing Bush’s falling approval ratings, European commentators tend to ignore the fact that recent events in Iraq also highlight the failure of the Democrats’ electoral strategy.

John Kerry’s victory over Howard Dean in the primaries was a triumph for the conservative party machine, which managed to stamp out a revolt by the party grass-roots activists. The “rebels” tried to base their campaign on antiwar and anti-authoritarian slogans, which for the party mainstream was too risky. Kerry won out as a moderate candidate, who, according to the received wisdom, should be able to consolidate a broad section of the population around himself. Those on the left of the party will have little choice but to support him on the basis that anyone is better than Bush.

Party strategists have worked on the assumption that as fall approaches the Iraq question will fade into the background and problems in the U.S. economy will become the main issue on which the campaign is fought. Debates between U.S. politicians on economic problems can create a strange impression on foreign observers. The opposition candidate paints a colorful picture of economic crisis in the country, blaming it on the incumbent president, but then doesn’t offer anything radically different by way of economic policies.

Nevertheless, this type of campaign has already led the Democrats to victory over Republicans on two occasions: Following the same script, Jimmy Carter got the better of Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton beat George Bush senior. The party machine is ready to follow the same scenario a third time — in the duel between Kerry and Bush junior.

Alas, it is already apparent that everything may happen in reverse this time. The economy has not recovered greatly, but it isn’t so bad as to relegate all other issues to the back burner. On the contrary, the war in Iraq is the hot topic in America at the moment, and it is on this issue that Kerry’s position is weakest.

He is not opposed to the war, is not in favor of withdrawing U.S. forces and his position does not differ significantly from Bush’s. As a result he cannot mount a powerful attack on the president. His speeches on this issue only disappoint his potential voters from the ranks of the left, liberals and pacifists.

Of course, antiwar and human rights activists will in any case get out and vote, if not for Kerry, then against Bush. But will they actively campaign for the Democratic candidate?

From the very outset, it has been clear that the coalition that has united around Kerry will disintegrate the moment Bush is out of office. But as the United States gets increasingly bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the coalition is cracking. It can be patched up cosmetically, but the more effort that is expended on patching things up, the less energy will be left for battling the Republicans.

In any country, the opposition depends on the enthusiasm of its supporters to carry it to victory. But Kerry’s indistinct political stance will hardly galvanize opponents of the war; rather, it will help to consolidate supporters of the war and waverers around Bush. After all, if there is no alternative to a military resolution, then why change the country’s leadership?

Russian statesmen love the proverb “one shouldn’t switch horses midstream.” And that is probably why our country is permanently in passage across a boundless political bog. It is entirely possible that this time the same logic will prevail in the United States. The first signs are already visible. Contrary to expectations in Europe, after the uprising began in Iraq, Bush, who was lagging behind Kerry, retook the lead in the race for the White House.

Bush junior is often compared to his father, but it is possible that their political fates will play out in reverse: Bush senior won his war in the Middle East, but lost the election; Bush junior will undoubtedly lose his war, but he may still win the election.

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