For at least six months, I have been resisting early pronouncements of Bush’s political death. Most of them seemed to be composed of wishful thinking, extrapolating from simple facts — the disaster of the Iraq occupation, the mostly jobless recovery, the lies about weapons of mass destruction — to that phenomenally elusive quantity that is public opinion.
If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, then until recently Bush seems to have been made of some special plastic developed by an advanced alien civilization. He took some hits in the polls, but given that this administration has lied about virtually every aspect of its policy (WMD, tax cuts, budget, …) and has presided over a series of disasters for the United States from the 9/11 attacks to a failing colonial occupation to economic stagnation to a collapse of the government’s fiscal soundness to a collapse of social services, he hasn’t done so badly. His job approval ratings remained in general well over 50% and as late as October of last year, 59% of Americans characterized Bush as “honest and trustworthy.”
Furthermore, the administration has displayed a consistent pattern: Unlike Bill Clinton, who really was obsessed with the polls, Bush has been willing to let his ratings slide, let criticism and confusion mount to extreme levels, then defuse it all with a well-timed and heavily-hyped intervention.
There are signs, however, that this time is different.
Bush’s latest slide dates from the recent statements of David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group that was tasked with finding Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq not only had no weapons but that they couldn’t find “the people, the documents or the physical plants” that would have been necessary to produce weapons.
The administration tried to defuse the issue with a couple of items from its usual bag of tricks. First, it tried to turn this issue on its head by claiming that the issue was “intelligence failures” rather than administration deception, orchestrating a campaign to get the media to go along with this spin and planning for a whitewash of the issue by creating an independent commission whose purview is restricted to intelligence methods (see the Executive Order creating the commission at <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/02/20040206-10 .html>). Second, it decided to stage a media opportunity by having Bush appear on “Meet the Press.”
This was a bit of a gamble, because most past media interventions involved a prepared script, and the effort required of Bush was simply to keeps his lips pursed very tightly so that he wouldn’t smirk as he read from the Tele-prompter.
Even though Tim Russert was the perfect softball questioner, refusing to press Bush on such elementary points as why he went to war while inspections were actually in progress, it was a disaster. For once, the administration’s mix of warmed-over platitudes and stonewalling didn’t work — not only did Bush have nothing to say, he said it very badly.
And look at the results. Last week, Time magazine’s cover article talks about Bush’s “credibility gap.” A Washington Post poll found 54% of the population believing that Bush had lied or exaggerated about Iraq’s WMD, and 50% approving of his job as president. And, for the first time since the war ended, only 48% of Americans approved of the war.
Next, after being pressed hard over well-documented claims of desertion while in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, the Bush administration actually started releasing some of his records. This is the most secretive administration since Nixon’s. Dick Cheney continues to stonewall on disclosing the details of his meetings in drafting the 2001 Bush-Cheney energy plan, even after a judge found in favor of the suit by the General Accounting Office. It must have been surreal for journalists who are consistently refused access even to documents that the administration is legally required to make public to suddenly be given the chance to peruse Bush’s dental records.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted last Thursday night to expand the independent commission’s purview to include the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (Dick Cheney’s way to get around the CIA) and, in a highly limited way (no subpoena power) to deception by administration officials. It’s much less than half a loaf, but given the recent history of extreme partisanship by Republicans in the legislative branch getting even that much through the Republican-dominated committee is a major change.
And even Alan Greenspan, an extreme Bush partisan for the past three years, has broken with the administration by suggesting mandatory limits on tax cuts because of the unrestrained growth of the deficit.
Add to all this the facts that Bush is even coming under heavy fire from parts of his own party for his budget shenanigans, and the fact that the previously mentioned Washington Post poll shows Kerry beating Bush by 51 to 43 in a head-to-head matchup, and it’s fair to say that this crisis is significantly more severe than any the administration has yet faced.
No one should break out the champagne yet. Bush has not even started spending down his $150 million campaign war chest. Expect him to attack Kerry as an extreme liberal (untrue) and a captive of special interests (true). The recent media attention to Kerry’s alleged philandering will allow Bush to try to suggest that dishonesty about interns is far more important than dishonesty that drags the country into war. Once Bush really starts to fight back, all of his recent losses may well be reversed. And even if Bush loses, nobody should expect Kerry to end the occupation of Iraq.
But Bush’s recent implosion does provide a huge opportunity. The administration’s credibility on foreign policy is noticeably lower than it was even in the brief effloration of a mass antiwar movement last February and March. Only 52% of people now think of Bush as “honest and trustworthy.” Now is a time that people might just be receptive to the idea that an administration that would lie to us about everything else may also be lying about what’s happening in Iraq, and may even be lying about why it went to war in the first place.
This is an opportunity that cannot be left to the Democratic candidates. In a New York Times op-ed on January 29, Robert Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, wrote about the need to build a liberal mass movement. He pointed out that the right wing’s recent successes grow very much from its grassroots strength; he also implied that Howard Dean’s supporters provide at least an embryonic core for such a movement.
Reich’s call is right on the money (although his claim that Kerry and his campaign are part of such a movement is not). There is a need for a mass movement that does not restrict itself to support of one candidate or another and does not focus narrowly on “electability” but defines itself around core issues and pushes the public debate (and the position of liberal candidates).
Central to such a movement must be opposition to the new imperialism, to colonial-style occupations, and to the aggressive increase in general militarism. Just as in the Vietnam War, this is once again an issue that everybody knows has an effect on them. Now is the time for a resurgent anti-imperial movement to launch a mass public outreach campaign. The occupation of Iraq, the new American imperialism, and the insane growth of the military budget are in fact issues that you can go door-to-door with. Some essential points for such a movement to address:
1. What the United States is doing in Iraq. Nobody knows that in much of the country, including that capital, Baghdad, people are worse off now than they were under the twin brutalities of Saddam and the sanctions. Since we are not now in the polarizing atmosphere of a push to war, people will be much more open to understanding the human cost of the occupation and the brutality and negligence of U.S. policy. We must also connect the new imperialism, and the specificities of how it is operating in Iraq, to people’s lives here. The deliberate destruction of social services in the United States parallels, in a much less intense fashion, the destruction and collapse of social order that is associated with the “regime change” in Iraq.
2. Terrorism. Forget the lame criticisms of the Democratic candidates, that the war on Iraq is a “diversion” from some legitimate war on terrorism. Rather, we must emphasize that the whole policy since 9/11 has dramatically increased the risk from al-Qaeda and associated groups, something that even FBI and CIA officials admitted before the Iraq war, and something that is made clearer every day in Iraq. The policy of turning Afghanistan and Iraq into “failed states,” which is precisely what the United States has done, is a disaster. An alternative approach to terrorism must be based on disengagement, allowing the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to generate their own politics, funding for genuine reconstruction (overseen by Afghans and Iraqis), cessation of attempts to control Middle Eastern governments, ending aid to Israel, and accepting international law. Certainly, none of these changes will stop bin Laden and his current colleagues, but they are necessary to create the background so that international efforts to bring them to justice don’t backfire and actually worsen the problem by increasing new recruitment of terrorists. People will be willing to hear this now in a way that they weren’t after the seemingly “successful” conclusion of the war on Afghanistan.
3. Linking military spending increases (along with tax cuts) to the decrease in social spending. These spending increases include money for current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, for corporate boondoggles (new submarines, more Stealth bombers), and for possible new wars (“missile defense”). We must simultaneously differentiate between U.S. obligations to pay for reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are a matter of international law and common decency, and continuing military spending in those countries. Once the tax cuts and the military spending increases are taken care of, our nearly $11 trillion economy can easily manage reconstruction payments as well as an increase in social spending here.
There are many other issues for such an anti-imperial movement, of course, but these three strike most easily to the heart of public opinion. This anti-imperial agenda would be part of a broader progressive agenda that focuses also on jobs, health-care, and economic inequality.
Given the current political opening, this can happen. A mass grassroots movement can make a difference, if it gets started early enough, before the massive Bush reelection campaign starts to shut down that gap and mends the current cracks in the ice. Not only can we dramatically advance public consciousness of the key issue for the whole world, the new American empire, an incidental effect will be to make it more likely that Bush is defeated in the November elections. To the more than one million Americans who marched on February 15: It’s time to come out again.
RAHUL MAHAJAN is the publisher of Empire Notes and serves on the Administrative Committee of United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s largest antiwar coalition. His first book, “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,” has been called “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism,” and his most recent book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” has been described as “essential for those who wish to continue to fight against empire.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org