Americans Want a New Direction, but will Democrats Lead?

Mar 06

recent US election was a redemptive election. At a time that many
throughout the world had written off the American electorate as
lifeless putty in the hands of Karl Rove, it woke up to deliver the
Republican Party its worse blow in the last quarter of a century. Not
only independents and centrists voted to repudiate Republican
candidates, but a third of evangelicals-Bush's fundamentalist Christian
base-voted for Democrats.

One of those
pleasantly surprised was this writer, who in the aftermath of the 2004
presidential elections, predicted that the Republicans would rule for
the next quarter century owing to the formidable grassroots machinery
that they had forged-a "juggernaut" that was anchored by a
fundamentalist base in the so-called "red states."

Two Roads

Of course, many of those who voted Democrat did so
because they could no longer take the daily scandals engulfing the
Republicans in Congress. But poll after poll showed that the two key
reasons animating voters were the Iraq War and the strong feeling that
Bush was leading the country down the wrong path. In terms of the
national direction, the choice in the minds of voters on November 7 was
presciently articulated by Jonathan Schell in his 2003 book The
Unconquerable World:

For Americans, the choice is at
once between two Americas, and between two futures for the
international order. In an imperial America, power would be
concentrated in the hands of the president, and checks and balances
would be at an end; civil liberties would be weakened or lost; military
spending would crowd out social spending; the gap between rich and poor
would be likely to increase; electoral politics, to the extent that
they still mattered, would be increasingly dominated by money, above
all corporate money, whose influence would trump the people's interest;
the social, economic, and ecological agenda of the country and the
world would be increasingly rejected.

In contrast to this path of an "Imperial America" was that of "Republican America"

dedicated to the creation of a
cooperative world, [where] the immense concentration of power in the
executive would be broken up; power would be divided again among the
three branches, which would resume their responsibility of checking and
balancing one another as the Constitution provides; civil liberties
would remain intact or be strengthened; money would be driven out of
politics, and the will of the people would be heard again; politics,
and with it the power of the people, would revive; the social,
economic, and ecological agendas of the country and the world would
become the chief concern of government.

On November 7, the American electorate clearly rejected the imperial path.

But one cannot say with confidence that they were
very clear about the signposts of the alternative path that they were
choosing. It is the role of leadership to illuminate signposts, and the
big question at the moment is whether the exultant Democrats can
provide that leadership.

Iraq: Bad Options All

Iraq is the test case. As many have pointed out, the
Democrats have no unified strategy on Iraq. And the reason for this is
that developments around Iraq have deteriorated to the point where
there are only bad choices available.

The current Bush strategy is to shore up the Shiite-dominated government militarily, and that isn't working.

Bringing in more troops temporarily to stabilize the
situation, then leaving–a plan originally endorsed sometime back by
John Kerry–won't work since the civil war has progressed to the point
where even a million troops won't make a difference.

Partitioning Iraq into three entities-the Sunni
center, the Shiite South, and the Kurdish North-will simply be a
prelude to even greater conflict tying down more US troops.

Withdrawing to the bases or to the desert to avoid
casualties will simply raise the question, well why keep troops there
at all?

Getting Iran, Turkey, and Syria to come in to create
a diplomatic solution-one that some expect the bipartisan "Iraq Study
Group" headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton to propose–is not going
to work because no foreign-imposed settlement can counteract the deadly
domestic dynamics of a sectarian conflict that has passed the point of
no return.

Bush, of course, remains the boss when it comes to
Iraq policy, and it is not likely that this stubborn, stupid man has
ceased to believe in victory, which he restated as his goal at the same
press conference where he announced Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. The
more Machiavellian Republican strategists like Karl Rove will probably
want to enmesh the Democrats in a protracted bipartisan exit strategy
that will cost more Iraqi and American lives so that by the time the
2008 presidential elections come around, the mess in Iraq will be as
much their mess as the Republicans.'

As of now, the Democrats have the moral weight of
the country behind them, and they have the opportunity not only to cut
off a foreign policy millstone but to open up the road to a new
relationship between America and the world if they take the least
unviable route out of Iraq-that espoused by Rep. John Murtha, who,
perhaps among the key Democrats, knows the military realities on the
ground: immediate withdrawal. With all their inchoate feelings about
wasted American lives, "our responsibility to Iraqis," or being seen as
"cutting and running," many of those who voted for the Democrats may
have some difficulty accepting the reality that immediate withdrawal is
the least unviable of all the options. But then, that is what leaders
are there for: to articulate the bitter truth when the times demand it.

It is not likely that most Democratic politicians
will embrace immediate withdrawal of their own accord. Without more
sustained pressure, the likely course they will take is to come with a
plan that will compromise with Bush, which means another unworkable
patchwork of a plan.

The US Military: Will it go on Strike?

One source of pressure could be the military. It is
well known that the top brass are in a state of extreme disaffection
with the civilian leadership because they feel that Iraq is destroying
the credibility of US military. When Major General William Caldwell,
the senior US military spokesman in Iraq, pronounced on October 19 that
the results of the Pentagon's strategy of focusing troops in Baghdad to
assist the Iraqi military in containing the runaway violence was
"disheartening," he drove the nail in the coffin of the Republicans'
electoral chances. Most likely, his words were not cleared by the
civilian leadership.

The US military in Iraq may not have yet have
experienced significant cases of mutiny, but the deterioration of
morale is evident in the growing incidents of civilian killings, rape,
and prisoner abuse for which an increasing number of marines and
soldiers are undergoing trial or have been sent to prison. Unlike
during the Vietnam War, the US military is not a conscript military.
But the high command knows that even professional militaries have their
limits and that at some point the rank and file will balk at being sent
to a pointless war. Nobody wants to die for a mistake. Nobody wants to
be in the last bodybag sent from Baghdad. This is what Murtha, a
decorated Vietnam veteran who has been hawkish on most other military
issues, has been telling his Democratic Party colleagues.

Nevertheless, a de facto military mutiny such as
that which swept the US Army in the last years of the Vietnam War is
not likely. What will probably happen though is that Democrats and
Republicans bicker on a plan for an "honorable exit," the brass will
steadily place US units in a de facto defensive posture in order to cut
down on the casualty rate, leaving the mercenary Iraqi security forces
to fend for themselves. The troops might even be ordered to hole up in
the bases, with increasingly infrequent patrols meant not to ensure
security but simply to show the flag. This would be the military
equivalent of going on strike.

The Challenge to the Anti-War Movement

So it comes down to the anti-war movement.

The movement is to be congratulated for its role in
the titanic struggle to turn the tide of American public opinion on
Iraq. Cindy Sheehan's campout at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, the
many other acts of protest and civil disobedience engaged in by so many
others, the big protest rallies and demonstrations-all this made a
difference, a big difference.

But the movement cannot even think about relaxing
for a second. The moment is critical. Now-the immediate post-election
period-is the time to raise the ante. Now is the time for the US
anti-war movement to escalate its efforts– to mount demonstration
after demonstration–to effect immediate withdrawal. Electoral choice
has created the momentum that can be translated into street action that
can in turn translate into strong pressure on the Democrats not to
agree to a protracted exit strategy. The movement cannot afford to
squander this momentum, for the price of stepping back and letting the
Democrats come up with the strategy will be more Iraqis and Americans
dead, sacrificed for a meaningless war with no real end in sight.

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