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International Socialist Review Issue 30, July–August 2003

Without the war, he’d be Gingrich

President Bush wasted no time in pressing his advantage from the war in Iraq on to the war at home. Only weeks after his "Top Gun" charade on the USS Lincoln, he pushed through and signed his latest giveaway to the rich. The $350 billion tax cut–aimed primarily at the richest 1 percent of the population–advanced the Republican Right’s long-term agenda of starving the government of funds needed to pay for essential government programs. And just to remind everyone who is really getting the goodies, Congress made sure that 6.5 million low-income families didn’t receive the bill’s $400 per child tax credit.

Since September 11, Bush’s domestic strategy has been fairly transparent. Assume the mantel of "wartime" leader and use it to place beyond criticism any policy he wants to push through. This has worked especially well for his right-wing domestic agenda, which is not popular. If he had to win support for his tax cuts for the rich and sops to the Christian Right on the merits of the proposals, he couldn’t. But using the excuse of "national security" or his "wartime" popularity to ram through otherwise unpopular plans has further intimidated an already timid Democratic opposition.

For Bush, September 11 was a godsend. If he didn’t have the "war on terrorism" to prop him up, he’d be about as popular as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was before being forced out of Congress in 1998. Bush’s economic record is a disaster. At this stage in his presidency, he is only one of two presidents in the last century that has presided over a net loss of jobs. In this distinction, Bush joins Depression-era President Herbert Hoover, who lost his reelection bid in a landslide.

His tax-cut driven economic policies have pumped billions into the pockets of people who don’t need it. Bush’s policies may have reflated the stock market, but they have done nothing to create jobs. As if to underscore the point, one month after passage of his $350 billion tax cut (which Bush had the audacity to call a "jobs package"), the June jobless rate jumped to 6.4 percent–the highest level in nine years. Meanwhile, Bush refuses to take any action to help hard-pressed state governments facing their greatest fiscal crisis in 50 years. Except for the richest few, just about everyone in the U.S. has felt the effects of the state-level crisis in cuts to schools, increases in property taxes and tuition or cuts in health care programs.

Lack of a competent opposition

Even with Bush’s inflated "wartime" popularity, it shouldn’t be that difficult for a minimally competent opposition to make gains against an administration whose policies hurt more people than they help. Good thing for Bush that he doesn’t have a face a minimally competent opposition.

Take the example of a bill providing a Medicare prescription drug benefit now making its way through Congress. Leading Democrats, including the "liberal lion" Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) have decided to sign on to a bill so fraudulent that it could leave millions of seniors worse off. The plan leaves huge gaps in coverage that seniors would be expected to pay for. It does nothing to control prices the pharmaceutical giants charge. And it sets incentives for the dismantling and privatization of sections of Medicare. "It’s a shameful and tragic scam," said Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Plan. "Seniors will spend $1.8 trillion on prescriptions drugs over the next 10 years." A real opposition would refuse to go along with this sellout. Instead, people like Kennedy–worried that Bush will bash them for "obstructing" a Medicare benefit–have meekly gone along.

"My feeling is that this is the central copout of liberal leadership," said Young. "Ted Kennedy was the author of an excellent single-payer bill in 1971. But now, since it’s not considered feasible, they don’t even push for it."

As happened in the other post-September 11 instances where Bush’s popularity began to ebb, events in the outside world–rather than any opposition from the Democrats–have been most responsible for the decline. In the summer of 2002, corporate scandals, revelations about pre-September 11 incompetence and the stock market decline cut into Bush’s aura of invincibility. In the leadup to the war in Iraq, huge opposition to an unprovoked war brought Bush’s popularity down.

Even without a real opposition and with a cheerleading media, Bush can’t hide from the consequences of his policies. And as the successful war in Iraq turns into a messy and long occupation, and as Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" appear to be just one more lie in an administration built on them, more ordinary Americans are beginning to question the "commander-in-thief."

Bush’s popularity has now returned to pre-Iraq war levels, with his ratings on "honesty" and caring "about the needs of people like you" plunging almost 10 percentage points each in two months, according to a Gallup Poll. Only 53 percent of Americans surveyed said the situation in Iraq was "worth going to war for," a staggering 20-percentage point drop since mid-April, at the height of the war.

In the earlier instances when Bush’s popularity ebbed, war in Iraq silenced Bush’s critics. As the November 2004 election approaches, Bush and his cronies hold the war card in their hands, ready to play it if it will boost their fortunes. But whether the "war on terrorism" and real shooting wars Bush plans will continue to be Bush’s high card is an open question. The Republican Party shamelessly set its 2004 coronation of Bush for September, 2004 in New York so that Bush could boost himself on the wreckage of the World Trade Center. But if the U.S. is embedded in a quagmire in Iraq in a year’s time, the "war on terrorism" may not have the selling power it has today.

Any chink in Bush’s armor could provide an opening for the Democrats. And tens of millions of people, already hearing the liberal mantra that any Democrat would be better than Bush, are ready to give the Democrats a chance. Whether the Democrats deserve that chance is another question. Should the Democrats who have rolled over for Bush on the Iraq war, on the Patriot Act, on the tax cuts and now on their signature issue–a Medicare presciption drug benefit–really get the benefit of the doubt?

Perhaps peoples’ expectations have been so lowered in an era when Supreme Court decisions overturning a medieval ban on sodomy and preserving affirmative action by a thread can be considered great victories. Many liberals believe that we can’t aspire to anything more than slowing the Bush advance. But after 30 years of relentless attacks on working people, we deserve better than this. Only a movement from below–in our unions, our schools, our communities–can decisively defeat Bush and Bush-lite Democrats. How to face this challenge will be a central debate on the left over the next year.


The anti-U.S. insurgency grows

Shortly after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, we argued that though the U.S. might achieve quick military successes, it would encounter increasing difficulties as more and more Iraqis rejected the occupation.

This has been borne out by events quicker than anyone could have predicted. Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1. As of the writing of this editorial (July 6), 68 U.S. servicemen–about one per day–have died in numerous ambushes, sniper-attacks and accidents. And the attacks are getting bolder and more organizated. For example, as many as 50 resistance fighters ambushed a U.S. military patrol, and another group wounded at least 17 soldiers in a mortar strike on an American base on July 4.

The Bush administration is trying to deny the scale of the guerrilla resistance, arguing that it consists of isolated remnants of Saddam "loyalists," and that a series of "mopping up" operations will take care of the problem. "The reason I don’t use the phrase ‘guerrilla war,’ Rumsfeld explained, "is because there isn’t one, and it would be a misunderstanding and a miscommunication."

When asked if the U.S. was getting mired in a Vietnam-style "quagmire," Rusmfeld shot back: "There are so many cartoons where people, press people, are saying, ‘Is it Vietnam yet?’ hoping it is and wondering if it is. And it isn’t. It’s a different time. It’s a different era. It’s a different place."

The truth is that the guerrilla actions are not only increasing in intensity, but they appear to have widespread support. And no wonder. Mass unemployment is growing as Iraqi industry collapses under the weight of cheaper imports, hundreds of thousands of state employees, from soldiers to civil servants, also remain jobless and haven’t been paid for months. Electricity is still, at best, sporadic, as summer temperatures soar. Clean water and decent food remain scarce commodities. American and British troops go house to house, kicking down doors and routinely humiliating, roughing up, arresting and shooting at Iraqis. The American intruders have the final say on every policy question, from who gets released from jail to who gets appointed mayor of a town, to who controls Iraq’s most important industries. To add insult to injury, the occupiers are increasingly turning to former Baathist policemen and bureaucrats to reestablish order in the country.

The reaction to this situation is best understood quoting a description of a scene in Basra–a Shia enclave, where it is impossible to blame resistance on Saddam loyalists–by a London Mirror reporter:

Former Iraqi soldier Najab fingered his pistol and glared at two British soldiers trying to calm an angry crowd protesting at crippling shortages.

Speaking outside one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces just 50 yards from the British HQ in Basra, he said: "Our patience has run out. We’ve no money to feed ourselves, we haven’t been paid for six months and we’re fed up with broken promises.

"We’ve told the British today that if we’re not paid by Friday, we’ll arm ourselves with guns again and start killing every foreigner we see in Iraq."

While Bush administration officials play down the level of resistance in Iraq, others have a different take. Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies and a former British Army major, is calling Iraq "the beginning of a classic counterinsurgency campaign." And Kenneth Allard, senior associate at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies asks, "Are we facing the prospect of a guerrilla war? The answer to the question is yes."

Heyman concedes that "there is quite obviously a large groundswell of support among ordinary people for operations against the coalition.… Mao Tse-Tung said the guerrilla is the fish that swims in the sea of the people, and you have got to have a sea of people for the guerrilla to swim in."

Ironically, Heyman’s solution to this growing insurgency–"there aren’t enough troops on the ground"–sounds a lot like the solution to the intractable guerrilla war against U.S. military presence in Vietnam. Simply send in more firepower until the movement is obliterated. That will mean an increasingly more violent and brutal occupation, which in turn will fuel higher levels of anger and willingness on the part of the Iraqi people to join the resistance. The U.S. could find itself pouring more troops in, only to find itself "stalemated" at higher and higher levels of commitment.

U.S. soldiers’ morale has begun to slip in the face of this mounting popular rejection of their presence. An officer from the the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq told the Christian Science Monitor that "the level of morale for most soldiers that I’ve seen has hit rock bottom." There is open grumbling among the troops and a number have written letters to Congress requesting they be sent home. The Monitor continues:

Security threats, heat, harsh living conditions and, for some soldiers, waiting and boredom have gradually eroded spirits…

In one Army unit, an officer described the mentality of troops. "They vent to anyone who will listen. They write letters, they cry, they yell. Many of them walk around looking visibly tired and depressed.... We feel like pawns in a game that we have no voice [in]."

The frustration is also affecting the spouses of troops. An Army colonel recently had to be escorted from a session in Fort Stewart, Ga. with 800 angry army spouses who were demanding their husbands be sent home. According to a witness, the women "were crying, cussing, yelling and screaming for their men to come back."

A July 4 New York Times article reports that the "signs of discomfort seem to be growing beyond the military bases.… [T]he number of respondents who think the war is going well has dropped, from 86 percent in May to 70 percent a month ago to 56 percent."

Bush’s cakewalk has turned into a protracted war that is sapping the morale of U.S. troops and raising serious questions at home. The doubts are fuelled by the fact that the excuses offered for the war (liberation and stopping Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction) now seem completely hollow. The more the occupation of Iraq unravels, the more difficulty the Bush Administration will have at home, and the more difficult it will be for the U.S. to pursue its imperial plans abroad. That is why we must welcome the strengthening of the resistance in Iraq until it becomes strong enough to compel the U.S. to get out of Iraq.

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