05 September 2004
Buoyed by the triumphalist Republican convention that nominated him for re-election last week, President George Bush is looking for the real electoral mandate that eluded him four years ago. Watch out. If he wins legitimately in November, rather than by virtue of dubious Florida ballots and Supreme Court fiat, he and his entourage of businessmen-warrior-politicians will claim public endorsement for invading countries that have not attacked the United States, rescinding treaties that protected the world from nuclear and environmental holocausts, granting billion-dollar government contracts without competitive bidding to firms in which administration officials have vested interests, expanding a global prison system in which detainees are held without trial or access to legal counsel, dismantling the social security pensions system, eroding what few protections workers have from industrial accidents and taking exclusive possession of space for the US military to engage in what the USAF Space Command calls "instant engagement anywhere in the world".
If you thought the past four years were tricky, you ain't seen nothin' yet. With the approval of the nation's voters, George Bush will be free to move to the next phase of the preventive war doctrine that he justified on Thursday in Madison Square Garden: "Do I forget the lessons of September 11th, and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time." Every time? Bush can face that choice every day - or, at least, every day he chooses to. There is almost no country or organisation on Earth that cannot threaten the US. Most states have stores of chemical and biological weapons, and all can pay dedicated fanatics to hand-carry them to New York. Quite a few have nuclear weapons, and more are trying to get them to stave off US threats and attacks. Public backing for Bush gives him licence under his stated doctrine of preventive war, itself a dubious concept condemned in international law and at the Nuremberg trials, to attack anyone he chooses - Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Sierra Leone or France.
Bush is, after all, the self-declared "war president" in a war against terror that he admits may never end and may never be won. It is like the war on drugs and just as useful for locking people up. Perpetual war? With all that that entails for the countries bombed and the people taken from their homes to Guantanamo, Diego Garcia, Bagram air base or any of the hundreds of CIA secret interrogation houses around the world? With all that means for the US economy, which will pay for it by cutting help to the poorest?
In 2000, most of those who voted for George Bush did not do so in order to invade Iraq, to turn the US armed forces into a hated army of occupation, to commit torture and other war crimes, to invite terrorist responses to US violence overseas, to impose a puppet government on Afghanistan and to seek the overthrow of the elected president of Venezuela. They did not know Bush would give them a war to deliver billions to Dick Cheney's Halliburton and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's old firm, CACI, to help out as private contractors torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. They could not have anticipated a return to the evils of the Vietnam years - the assassination programmes, the torture centres, the destruction of homes and villages harbouring suspected "terrorists" - in which many of Bush's colleagues participated while serving President Nixon. Now, they know that America is "imposing democracy" on the Arabs and making America "safer". Americans voting for Bush this time are choosing more war. The media have not exposed the meaning of Bush's policies, preferring to increase public fear to attract viewers and justify the limitation on dissent. With their embedded journalists and tales of military bravado, they encourage America to imagine itself as more noble in battle than in peace. Indeed, for Bush and the media magnates he has enriched there is no peace agenda. There is no programme to relieve poverty, provide medical care and protect the environment. All that is for wimps. We're warriors now.
"The only version of national pride encouraged by American popular culture," the American philosopher Richard Rorty has written, "is simple-minded military chauvinism." Gone are the Walt Whitmans and John Deweys, of whom Rorty says, "They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul." There would be no airtime for Whitman today amid the "experts" pontificating on terror.
If the Democrats offer an alternative vision, they are not making it clear what it is. It was a Democratic secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who told The New Republic in 1998, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation." Kerry voted for Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he has not promised to dismantle Bush's illegal world prisons. Without drawing a clear line between himself and Bush, he is doomed to defeat. Samuel I Rosenman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech writer, recalls in his memoir Working with Roosevelt a declaration Roosevelt wrote himself to deliver to the Democratic Convention in 1940 if its delegates rejected his vice-presidential choice, the progressive agriculture secretary Henry Wallace. "In this century in which we live, the Democratic Party has received the support of the electorate only when the party, with absolute clarity, has been the champion of progressive and liberal principles of government... The party has failed consist ently when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values." The party selected Wallace, and Roosevelt won another landslide as a progressive.
John Kerry offers Americans no reason to choose him instead of Bush. He says he would be a war leader who had fought a war. He does not say he would curb corporate monopolies. He does not say he will interfere with the corporate agribusinesses that are replacing America's farmers. He does not say Americans will no longer go broke paying their doctors' bills. For Kerry, it may be too late to abandon the financiers who have funded his campaign and embrace the people whose hopes their money is destroying.