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John McCain beams. When he was defeated by George W. Bush in the Republican primaries in 2000, McCain’s hopes for the White House seemed dashed. Seven years later, as he began his campaign for the same address, the media scoffed. He could neither raise the money nor garner enough support from the conservative base of the Republican Party. McCain fashions himself as a maverick in a party that has become increasingly doctrinaire on three issues: Christian fundamentalism, tax cuts and an aggressive foreign policy. McCain’s good fortune is that even as he could not unite the three sections of the Republican Party, his rivals did worse. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani carried far too many personal failures for a largely evangelical party (the one a Mormon and the other a twice-divorced Roman Catholic).
McCain’s almost certain victory in the Republican race has raised a potential problem for him. Many conservatives have vowed to opt out of the election although this might be bluster more than anything else. Bush hastened to give one of his rare one-on-one interviews, once again on the loyal Fox News, where he embraced John McCain as a "true conservative". Bush’s father, the former President and the pater familias of the Republican Party, endorsed McCain, as did Romney and Giuliani. The wagons have begun to circle. But the more McCain is painted as a conservative, the harder it will be for him to appeal to the narrow slice of "independents", those people who are not partisan Democrats or Republicans and who end up with the votes that count. (Recent elections have been won by as narrow a victory as 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Although Al Gore got more of the popular vote than Bush, he lost in the archaic electoral college vote once the United States Supreme Court intervened on Bush’s behalf.)
What is so peculiar about the rise of McCain is not whether he is a real conservative or a real maverick. On Iraq, nobody is as close to Bush as McCain. In 2002, on CNN, McCain took up the cudgels against Iraq, saying that victory against the Saddam Hussein regime would be "overwhelming in a very short period of time". In the same interview, McCain drew upon his own military experience to suggest, "We’re not going to get into house-to-house fighting in Baghdad." Just as the cruise missiles crushed Baghdad and the U.S. armed forces began their dusty drive north from Kuwait, McCain told the media: "There’s no doubt in my mind that once these people are gone [the Hussein regime] that we will be welcomed as liberators."
The error of his judgment did not sober him. Instead, he went further, drunk on the adrenalin of combat. He demanded more troops rather than drawdown and victory rather than withdrawal. His criticism of Bush was not that he took the U.S. into a war of choice but that he sent insufficient numbers of troops in and he did not properly prepare the American people for the combat. "We had not told the American people how tough and difficult this could be. It has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach." Indeed, McCain himself contributed to this view, but in retrospect, did not take personal responsibility for that failure. Rather, the failure has made him more bellicose, more adventurous.
With Bush’s war universally unpopular, it is a wonder that McCain sailed to victory. Even anti-war Republicans lined up to vote for him. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, someone asked him what he thought of Bush’s idea that the U.S. would be in Iraq for 50 years. "Make it a hundred," McCain responded. "That would be fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you." When a journalist pushed him on this, McCain, who has a legendary temper, snapped, "How long are we going to be in Korea?"
McCain claims to be one of the architects of the surge, the strategy that sent in 30,000 additional U.S. troops to suffocate the insurgency in Iraq. It is true that casualty figures are lower, or at least the rates reported are lower, but people are still dying, and Iraqis either continue to flee or have not returned from Syria and Jordan (where 3.2 million Iraqis languish).
U.S. officials on the ground try to remain as sober about the prospects as possible although the White House and the Republican Party require some measure of success to bolster the chances of the party remaining in power. This is why Ahmed Chalabi, a veteran Iraqi politician, told journalist Patrick Cockburn: "The problem in Iraq is that the agenda is driven not by what is really happening but by the perception in America of what is happening."
On March 19, the U.S. will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the invasion. Whether the relative peace will hold even until then remains to be seen as some people expect Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi army to re-emerge from its hibernation.
McCain has thrown down his marker: "If Americans aren’t dying", then the occupation should continue. The problem is not the occupation but U.S. casualties. Once those figures rise, McCain will no doubt reinvent himself as the only one who can protect America from the rise of what he now obsessively calls the "Islamo-fascists". McCain, the Vietnam veteran, rises as the savior of a trapped America. As Democrats bicker over plans for withdrawal and extend their own commitment to this occupation, McCain seems steadfast, ready to lead the U.S. to victory.
Bad news from Iraq and from the U.S. economy has, for the moment, been overshadowed by the excitement of the primary elections. The enthusiasm during the campaigns has relegated these facts to the margins of popular conversation. The tight race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side has galvanized very large numbers of voters to the polls, most of whom come because they are as much inspired by these two leaders as fed up with the Bush regime. What they want above all is change.
The word "change", in fact, has become the mantra of this election. All the contenders, including the Republicans, have adopted the word in their stump speeches. The Democrats raise a verbal effigy of Bush to inflame their supporters. Republicans take refuge in the memory of Ronald Reagan and keep as much distance as they can from their current leader in the White House. Even McCain is not keen to associate himself too directly with Bush. The population wants change, but will it be possible as Bush continues to make military spending, tax breaks and consumer profligacy the basis of U.S. society?
Undaunted by his declining popularity across the U.S., Bush continues to govern from his principles. He does not deign to reach out to the majority that disagrees with him. Nor does Bush retreat into a lame-duck posture, waiting for his final flight from the White House lawn in the presidential helicopter. "You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more," said that other deeply unpopular Republican, whose resignation in 1974 foreshadowed the hasty departure of U.S. officials from the roof of their embassy in Saigon the following year. Bush’s obduracy might be a sign that the U.S. military will as stubbornly hold its post as the fires around it thicken in Baghdad. Recruitment to the military is down, but Bush wants to boost morale through the infusion of massive funds to the generals. Perhaps they can use this money to come up with the warm bodies needed to go to the frontlines.
As the mortgage crisis unfolded and as Bush inked a recovery package worth $150 billion, his $3.1 trillion federal budget landed on the doorstep of Congress. In this budget, Bush proposes to spend $541 billion on the U.S. military, a 5 per cent increase from the previous year’s figure. This is by far an amount greater than what the rest of the planet combined spends on the military. The budget request for the military does not account for costs to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (or to secret disbursements to the military and to intelligence services).
The National Priorities Project estimates that the total bill for the Iraq war will soon be $600 billion, which is almost as much as what the entire Vietnam war cost the U.S. exchequer although the South-East Asian war ran from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, whereas this war has only run for five years. This enthuses McCain, who ratified the increase saying that the U.S. needs "a larger and more capable military", all this justified under the claim that the military needs to be "modernized". He gets no debate on this from Hillary Clinton (who earned the name "Mama Warbucks" from The Village Voice).
The U.S. economy is in free fall. The sub-prime fiasco has dampened the confidence of the population, who cannot turn to the government for comfort. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s pessimism is stark: "In terms of sub-prime [mortgages], the worst isn’t over. The worst is just beginning." Instead of doing anything substantial, Paulson’s office simply offered a few public relations maneuvers, such as a telephone hotline for the public to report delinquent homeowners. From this shaky foundation, the U.S. government hopes to derive this historically significant sum for its military project. To balance the budget, the Bush regime has requested deep cuts in social spending, from fewer children being able to get childcare assistance to less funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and for the Environmental Protection Agency.’
According to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, one million families will also lose access to the Home Energy Assistance Program. Meanwhile, the Bush government pushes to cut taxes for the very rich. The tax breaks for those who earn more than $1 million would, according to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, "exceed the entire amount that the federal government spends on elementary and secondary education, as well as the entire amount that it devotes to medical care for the nation’s veterans". The social side of the state is being whittled down. McCain’s plan to pay for the massive military increase is to "stop the out-of-control spending", which refers directly to these social programs.
When asked how he would deal with the recession and the mortgage crisis, McCain flatly told the press: "The issue of economics is something I’ve never really understood as well as I should. As long as Alan Greenspan is around, I would certainly use him for advice and counsel." Perhaps McCain failed to read Greenspan’s book The Age of Turbulence (2007) in which the acolyte of Ayn Rand took on the Bush administration’s reckless funding, "They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither."
McCain likes the name maverick. Others find Dr. Strangelove more appropriate. Never has there been a leader who has loved every war with so much relish. His doubts on Iraq are jejune. Now he has already shifted his glee to Iran, singing, "Bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys’ "Barbara Ann". A John McCain presidency should be cause for alarm. McCain is no maverick but a more credible military face for the Bush doctrine than Bush himself.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article originally ran in India’s Frontline.