George Bush and Winning by Losing

By Ben Bagdikian

The last individual I would associate as tactical twins would be a merchant I once encountered in Tangier, Morocco years ago and President George W. Bush. Bargaining for an item, the merchant mentioned a ridiculously high price. I suggested half his price. We haggled for an hour and then agreed amiably on what I suspect was a nice profit for the merchant who was a man who knew how to “win by losing.”

I suspect that George Bush has discovered how to win by “losing.” He proposes absurd and calloused social policies and after some noisy protests he gets half or more of what he wants, that half still irrational. In the appearance of a legislative “compromise,” his policies remain destructive for the social and economic health of the country.

George Bush has been winning by “losing” almost from the start. Even though he began his term with halting and inarticulate manner, he has learned to adopt the posture of Stalwart Leader of the Free World. And he has been winning while average Americans have been losing.

When Ariel Sharon ordered the first organized Israeli incursion into Palestinian territory. President Bush publicly demanded that Israel “withdraw immediately.” Israel ignored the President and has been continuing its inroads ever since. Normally it would be humiliating for the most powerful nation in the world to order a small nation, a client state at that($2.8 billion in 2001), to stop what it was doing and be ignored.

It is considered folly, whether in a schoolyard or international confrontation, to issue an ultimatum without an “or else.” If the ultimatum is ignored and nothing happens, you lose. Bush survived with a momentary approval from Muslim countries but by permitting Sharon to increase the incursions and Bush wash his hands of the whole bloody tragedy, yet still seen as a friend of Israel.

By Labor Day, 2002, the mid-term prospects were promising for a definitive Democratic majority in the Senate and only a slender Republican majority the House. The big issues were good for Democrats: rising unemployment, Bush’s refusal to extend unemployment compensation, widespread corporate corruption, personal embarrassments about both the President’s and Vice President Cheney’s stock market actions, and much more.

But in September, after 11 years of quiescence, Bush suddenly discovered that it was critical to take military action against Iraq. The impending war wiped the domestic problems and recession off the front pages and Republicans gained definitive control of both House and Senate.

Bush had used as his reason for immediate war with Iraq the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction including possible nuclear bombs. When the international inspection team found none in its preliminary first sweep but said it needed more time, Bush changed the prime reason for war was not so much Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as the urgent need for “regime change.”

(There was some reason for the United States to believe Iraq at some time had “weapons of mass destruction.” Most of these were sold and approved by the U.S.. Government in the 1980s because our enemy at that moment was Iran and Saddam Hussein was our friend. Neither Bush nor the major media made that clear in the increasing controversy over Bush’s preparation for war. No informed person would deny that Hussein did unspeakable things to his dissidents, though he had no monopoly on that kind of ruthlessness and he was doing those unspeakable thingst when he was our “friend” and we were selling him war goods.)

Before the 2002 mid-term elections, the U.S. flags came out, Democrats permitted themselves to be cornered into accepting the war or be accused of not “supporting our troops.” They should have repeated the large letters on a theater marquee in Piedmont, California— “We Support our Troops—Bring Them Home.” We are now in a messy war that may or may not disclose Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and may or may not create even more global explosions, but with unpredictable loss of life, and though one way or another our military will win command of Iraq, there is an unknown aftermath.

The President’s tax cut plan is another case that he won by losing. On any economic or social grounds, it was a cruel and destructive plan. He had a war to pay for, there were Social Security and Medicare funds to beef up, most of the benefits went to the wealthiest five percent of Americans and did nothing to jump start the deepening recession. It was based on the discredited supply side economics of Ronald Reagan. Those Reaganomics saddled the country with a huge deficit and accelerated what is still going on, sending our wealth flowing upward to the richest corporations and families while providing little for the mass of Americans or the desperate cities in need of their former federal grants.

The Reagan and Bush supply side economics has been discredited for decades. The results are described by what might be called John Kenneth Galbraith’s Horse:

If you stuff a horse with enough oats, sooner or later, the horse will leave something behind for the sparrows.

The irrationality of the Bush tax cut has been proven but it is still a win for the rich and a loss for the general good. The original Bush tax cut would be $1.6 trillion over 10 years. In the end, there was a compromise and Bush ended with $1.35 trillion over 11 years. The “compromise” hinted that Bush had lost something, but in reality he had gained what was still an accelerated march toward plutocracy.

In another act of bravado, Bush reacted to word that the North Koreans were working hard to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea was part of Bush’s “evil empire.” But he was belatedly sending troops to Iraq, the Afghanistan victory was turning nasty with fragmentation and lawlessness beyond Kabul, and a thousand miles to the south there were escalating explosive battles in the Phillippines involving American troops. But once more, Bush declared an implied ultimatum, saying he would not even talk to North Korea until it got rid of its weapons of mass destruction. North Korea responded by “test firing” a missile into the Sea of Japan.

Presumably, someone must have reminded the President that there are 37,000 U.S. troops guarding the demilitarized zone between North and South of Korea. What if the unpredictable North Korean leader decided to follow up Bush’s refusal to talk by lobbing some missiles on or near the American troops? It would endanger American troops and South Korea at a time when the country was already split and fearful about consequences of the war in Iraq. The earlier declaration against even talking to North Korea, had been spoken with a firm hauteur. But not long afterward the White House discovered diplomacy: “Of course we’re going to have direct talks with the North Koreans,” Deputy Secretary States Richard Armitage told a hearing of the Senate Foreign relations Committee..

Bush entered office by withdrawal from international treaties and denigration of the United Nations as “a debating society,” his Secretary of Defense dismissed “old Europe” as no longer significant in the world, and Bush issued sneering words toward the United Nations. When Germany and France opposed Bush’s war, that was no loss, it was suggested, because we had more than 13 allies in the Iraqi war. Forget Germany and France. After all, we had Slovakia on our side.

When in Iraqi battles, some American troops were captured, Bush declared firmly that Iraq was obligated to treat American POW’s by rules of the Geneva Convention. When asked about suspected Al Qaida prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay under conditions violating the Geneva Convention, Bush said they were not subject to international laws.

Professional soldiers do not see the Geneva Convention as a pie-in-the-sky exercise in liberal fantasy. The military know that in any war both sides will have some of their troops held prisoners and the Geneva Convention, spotty as it is in its application during bitter battles, is protective for all military people who wish some rules of treatment for their own captured troops.

The President looking toward an end of the fighting in Iraq and at least two years of occupation and reorganizing the politics of Iraq on a democratic model, now says this is a job for the United Nations. He had given joy to the conservative troglodytes who had never accepted the legitimacy of the United Nations, so Bush won that also because the anti-UN crowd among Bush followers can laugh up their sleeves if they think they will unload the clean-up after the war onto the United Nations.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has been losing by losing. If it had found its tongue earlier, it would have created a real choice for the electorate. In the years of absence of such clear choices, the percentage of eligible voters actually going to the polls has been dropping for years. It is not too late for the Democratic Party, which has access to the major media, to revive itself by making clear and bold statements for the 2004 elections, of endorsing necessary national policies like universal health care, a tax plan that reintroduces more rather than less progressivity in the income tax, large-scale building of low-cost affordable homes for low- and -middle-income Americans, and attack the cruel joke of the present minimum wage that requires a working couple with two children to work 132 hours a week to stay out of poverty. Go for it all in unapologetic declarations.

(Let conservatives in the Democratic Party look at the growing fragmentation of political movements in the country and read the history of growth and death of political parties.)

The Democrats would not win every one of those proposals in full. But it would put these urgent needs back into the national discourse. No matter who wins in 2004, those issues would be in the minds of the general public and the major news media. Even if the proposals were only partially successful in Congress, the public will start winning by “losing.” Given the present unpredictability of national and international affairs, those issues, sooner or later, might even win by winning, as will their sponsors.

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