These days, presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry have a lot in common, and I don’t mean the fact that both are rich New England preppies and Yale Skull and Bones Club alums. I’m talking about how both are walking a knife’s edge, trying to avoid political disaster.
First look at Bush. Confronted with the very real risk of losing the war in Iraq before the November election, he has in desperation turned for help to a bunch of Saddam Hussein’s own top military brass. The U.S. did the same thing with key Nazi’s from Germany’s secret police and its military scientists, but this was done secretly, only coming to light years later. Bush has had to hire his Baathist villains in public, and now has to hope that the project won’t so poison public attitudes in Iraq towards the occupation that the whole country turns on us and boots us out.
As for Kerry, he and his Clinton/Gore campaign advisers have decided (surprise, surprise!) that the key to victory in November is for him to convince disenchanted Republicans and the uncommitted that he’s no liberal, while still letting the liberal Democratic base feel he is one of them, or at least enough of one of them that they’ll still vote for him, and not Ralph Nader.
Neither job will be easy and both strategies run a good chance of failure.
In Bush’s case, the administration and the Pentagon don’t have much choice. After the collapse of Hussein’s army, and the establishment of the U.S occupation authority, a process of radical de-Baathification was begun. Anybody who had been a member of the ruling Baath Party was tossed out of her or his job, including civil servants who had simply signed on the dotted line in order to be able to hold a job. It’s pretty standard procedure in one-party states—every professor in China, for example, has to be a Party member. L. Paul Bremer’s approach of chucking everyone with a Baath Party card out of his or her job was clumsy and stupid, leaving the country without anybody who knew how to run anything, and creating a whole lot of angry desperate people-especially among the military. It was also cruel, since many decent people were tossed out of work. But at least it had the advantage of making it clear that there was a clean break between the new colonial power and the old regime.
Now, the opposite is happening. Instead of bringing back those decent folk who had been purged, Bremer and the Pentagon are bringing back the top military brass-the very people who really benefited under Hussein’s brutal dictatorship-who, indeed, made it happen and did Hussein’s dirty work, and who rightly were purged from the military.
Bush needs these guys, because the Iraqi colonial army he has been trying to create to take over the dangerous job of being cannon fodder at the front of the U.S. occupation army has shown itself unwilling to line up and be shot by soldiers of the rapidly expanding insurgency. The hope in the Pentagon and the White House is that these bloodstained officers from Hussein’s army will be able to intimidate the new Iraqi army into doing America’s bidding.
Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. If they can’t pull it off, the occupation is in big trouble, because the killing of U.S. troops is going to continue to rise through November. If they do succeed, however, in getting Iraqi soldiers to do most of the dying in the struggle against insurgents, all the U.S. will have done is demonstrated to Iraqis that it has no intention of establishing democracy and freedom in Iraq; just another vicious dictatorship, this time under America’s thumb. That will only feed the insurrection.
Bush’s challenge is to try to tiptoe along this knife-edge through November, tamping down the insurrection with as many of the occupation’s casualties as possible being among the Iraqi troops, not American forces.
Kerry, for his part, appears to have wholeheartedly adopted the losing strategy of Al Gore. Trapped by his unwillingness to condemn the Iraq War as a hopeless disaster, he is finding less and less that he can point to that distinguished his own Iraq policy from Bush’s. That leaves him struggling to find an issue on the domestic side that will fire up the masses. So far, all he’s been able to come up with is a limp call to require companies to announce their plans to outsource jobs in advance, and a call to reduce the deficit by shifting more taxes onto the wealthy. And even that proposal is so Bush-like in its focus on tax cuts that Kerry has been forced to say he will probably not really do many of the progressive things he earlier said he wanted to do, because he won’t have the money to do it-a classic Clinton line.
It’s hard to get very excited about a plan to warn people that they’re losing their jobs in a couple of months, and let’s face it, nobody but a few academics working on tenure or promotion projects gives a rat’s ass about the deficit. Tax reform might make a potent campaign theme, but Kerry is so luke warm on this topic that nobody’s really paying much attention. If he wanted to get people excited, he’d call for a massive cut in the Social Security payroll tax, application of the payroll tax to all income, with no cap, and an increase in the tax on upper incomes to a 50-percent rate. Add to that restoration of the estate tax for inheritances of over $1 million and a tax on stock transactions, and you’d have a bunch of excited Democratic voters-and no budget deficit.
The trouble is, Kerry can’t do this. He’s so in hock to the Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party-what Howard Dean used to refer to quite accurately as the Republican wing of the Democratic Party-that he can’t take such a progressive position.
That means he too has to walk on a knife edge, offering up campaign proposals that are cold oatmeal to an electorate that’s hungry for red meat, and hoping that by running as a smarter, friendlier, less racist Republican he can eke out a victory in the fall.
It might work. Al Gore came close, after all. But what Kerry and his strategists seem to be forgetting is that for all his negatives and all his problems, last time Bush was the governor or Texas. This time he’s the president and the commander in chief. That gives him a lot of votes right off the bat.
Of the two candidates, my guess is Kerry is the one who’s going to get skewered on his blade first. His only hope is to recognize the dead end a centrist Clinton/Gore-inspired campaign is leading him towards, and to come out, and soon, for a radical program of ending the war now, shifting the war budget to domestic human needs, and reforming the tax code to make corporations and the rich pay more.
Don’t hold your breath. The Bush campaign already has Kerry backtracking on his 1971 claim that he and his fellow soldiers in Vietnam committed atrocities. Before long he’ll be claiming the Vietnam War was a noble effort, and the Iraq War too.
DAVE LINDORFF is completing a book of Counterpunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press.