Cracking “The Bush Agenda”

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

The Editors

THE AGENDA OF the Bush administration is showing cracks on both foreign and domestic fronts. The open question right now is what kind of alternative agenda will be available.

An important beginning in reviving the movement that filled the streets around the world earlier this year will be the mass mobilization called for October 25 by a wide coalition of peace and social justice groups. It is crucial to sustain unified mass action against this continuing war, even while important debates open up on strategies for antiwar and global justice politics in 2004.

It’s hard to say for sure, but more and more of this hard-right administration’s behavior is beginning to look like a slow slide, from grand plans for world domination to keeping up appearances for the 2004 election.

The appearance of recovery: The administration hopes to keep the stock market afloat with rock-bottom interest rates, a weaker dollar and tax cuts. Try to hide rising unemployment behind empty blather about the President’s growth and jobs plan. Let the mini-bubble burst, if it must, after November 2004.

The appearance of security: The trick is to deploy the imagery of 9/11 in a dual sense, both to play on people’s deep-seated fears and to make them feel that the leadership of George W. Bush brings more safety. It must be admitted that this image manipulation is what this right-wing administration, enabled by an amazingly compliant mass media, does best.

Still, the Bush administration at home and abroad is running up against painful realities. That’s the good news; the bad news is the horrible pain falling on the heads of real people, from the Middle East to the U.S. heartland.

An Occupation in Crisis

Even before the horrific bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, opening a new stage in the chaos of Iraq under U.S. and British occupation, it wasn’t a comfortable summer for the Bush gang after the triumphant spring war. Publishing the gory photos of Saddam Hussein’s dead sons didn’t seem to end the daily attacks which the new supreme military commander, General Abizaid, described as–classic guerilla warfare. Whether the potential killing or capture of Saddam himself might do so was an open question.

The most important development was the emergence of open dissent among U.S. troops who have learned, the hard way, what it means to police an empire on the ground. Wearing body armor in 120-degree heat, against attacks that might come from any of 360 degrees around you, while gunning down journalists and the civilian Iraqis you were told you fought to liberate, is an experience different from that of the civilian strategists in an air-conditioned Pentagon office planning the “reorganizing of the Middle East.”

In military terms, obviously, the losses inflicted on the U.S. occupation forces are insignificant. Any strictly military objective–including mass arrests of suspected Baath loyalists and capture of their weapons stocks–is attainable. But the fact of soldiers dying, or finding that they are not coming home as scheduled, exacts a growing political toll as months pass after George W. Bush proclaimed the “end of major hostilities.”

Iraq’s Shia majority, who have not engaged in military resistance, are increasingly resentful of the occupation–and will feel even more empowered to express their views if they are convinced that Saddam and the hated Baathists are truly gone.

The U.S. troops’ other assigned role, beside policing an ungovernable country, is to serve as props for Bush’s triumphant display. They are free to applaud as the president’s plane lands on an aircraft carrier in a superfluous publicity stunt–but not to criticize the false promises that Bush and Rumsfeld made to them. Those who speak out have their careers ruined. What about elementary democratic rights for the troops, and their families, who’ve been told they were fighting for democracy?

A stunning report in The Observer (Britain) on Sunday, August 10 reveals the growth of anger among the troops and the emergence of Military Families Speak Out and Veterans for Common Sense among other initiatives. (See for updates.) Those troops, like others who have fought in some earlier imperialist ventures, have learned some facts about empire that are also slowly but surely penetrating the broader U.S. public. The mess in “postwar” Iraq is pretty close to what knowledgeable observers expected–but very different from what Bush & Co. promised.

Lies on Lies

First, the expedient pretexts for this war–the Iraqi regime’s stockpiled Weapons of Mass Destruction, and its ties to the terrorist al-Qaeda network–were inventions. (It has become clear that the al-Qaeda threat internationally is greater now than before the conquest of Iraq.) Bush and Blair lied directly to their populations–and the whistle has been blown by intelligence professionals who resent  the  politics-and-propaganda-driven misrepresentation of their work.

econd, there are the lies about costs. As much as the Lyndon Johnson administration (1963-68) lied during its escalation of the Vietnam War, it did not try to pretend that the war didn’t have to be paid for. The current ruling regime, slashing taxes for the rich while pouring money into the machinery of death, has taken mass deception to another level.

Federal, state and local budgets are now suffering deficits that threaten to swallow the weak economic recovery. As it is, economic growth is too weak to prevent growing unemployment–and African-American unemployment figures, following strong improvement in the 1990s, are returning to their historic trend of doubling the national average.

Third, the costs of “reconstructing” Iraq itself are emerging. They far outstrip what that country’s oil exports could finance, even at peak production–far beyond what the industry can produce in its current cannibalized condition. While war contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel will reap big profits, they will be paid for the foreseeable future by the United States Treasury (i.e. us).

The fourth lie has been cooked up before our eyes: The war in Iraq, we are now told by Wolfowitz and Cheney, is the very “center of the War on Terror.” At a time when the first target of that war, Afghanistan, is dying of neglect and experiencing a Taliban comeback, this spectacular invention looks more like an improvisation than a policy.

Something is needed to justify an occupation whose costs, financial and human, stretch beyond the horizon. The traumatic memories that still reverberate from the mass murders of September 11, 2001 can be appealed to once more, as other pretexts evaporate.

End of the Road Map

To all the above appearances we must add the appearance of Middle East peace: The road map for the Israel-Palestine peace process, promoted to solidify British support for Bush’s Iraq war, may also have been intended as the next stage of a larger scheme to isolate Syria and soften Arab opposition to the next U.S. exercise in “regime change.”

At this point it looks like much less. With no U.S. pressure on the Israeli state to halt assassinations, settlements and continued land grabs–the minimum necessary conditions for even approaching a viable Palestinian state–Bush has simply adopted Ariel Sharon’s goal of imposing total surrender on the Palestinian Authority and forcing an intra-Palestinian civil war.

Whatever small chance may have existed to create a viable two-state solution by way of the road map is shrinking every day, as the Israeli government constructs the “apartheid wall” through the West Bank. This barrier is going up with the greatest possible brutality, separating Palestinian villages from their lands, destroying agriculture and commerce, trapping 200,000 Palestinians on the “wrong side” as it cuts right through more than fifty villages.

Everyone in the Middle East knows that the Bush administration’s passive acceptance of this new crime against humanity makes all its talk of “peace” worthless rhetoric. The question is how long the pretense can be maintained for domestic political purposes.

A Necessary Debate

How then to defeat the right-wing momentum in American politics–that sickening combination of U.S. unilateral military adventurism, torching of civil rights, death-to-the-environment policies and candy-store tax giveaways for affluent and corporate America known for short as “the Bush agenda”?

A prominent line of thinking in the peace and justice movement holds that “the Bush agenda” poses such a profound threat to the world that all progressive energies must be focused on removing this administration.

But if what we have argued here is roughly correct, then the runamok right-wing agenda will be defeated<197>indeed, is already beginning to be defeated–not by the Democrats and certainly not by social justice activists working for the Democrats, but by its own failures.

In that case, then the leading questions for the antiwar and global justice struggles become: As the failure of the right wing begins to provoke anger, what options will be available? Will there be only the alternative corporate agenda, represented by the Democrats–or will there also be some independent political expression of an agenda that challenges corporate power?

That set of questions should frame an absolutely necessary debate over how the activist left positions and organizes itself for the 2004 elections.

We have noted in previous editorial statements that on a “normal” relationship of political fortunes to economic issues, this administration would already have been in crisis. The realities both of the economy, and of the impossibility of running the world on U.S. military power, should become apparent to more and more ordinary people.

We should also expect, based on consistent past practice, the Democratic Party to run the most ineffective, cowardly and empty campaign possible. Whatever Democratic presidential candidate may emerge from the present fundraising scramble will most certainly support the occupation of Iraq (probably arguing for United Nations cover); global corporate power in the guise of “free trade” (sugarcoated no doubt with “a seat at the table” for unions and NGOs); and the “war on terrorism” including the indefinite-detention camp at Guantanamo, intervention in Colombia and the Philippines and (perhaps with a cosmetic facelift) the USA Patriot Act.

The central question for the activist antiwar and global justice movements should not be whether this kind of mess is “better than Bush.” So what if it is? The big question is whether a choice can be offered that breaks the cycle of alternating power between the center-right, which effectively controls the Democratic Party via the Democratic Leadership Council, and the hard-right factions in control of the Republican Party.

The differences between these centers of power are significant. It is understandable that those under attack from the right, African Americans and labor especially, vote Democratic by massive majorities–so long as those are the only choices. But the social justice movement, in our view, should offer the hope of a cure rather than palliative care.

We do not yet know the potential form of a Green or other global justice/antiwar campaign–for example, whether Ralph Nader will run for President again, or what other options exist.

But remember this: If those who agreed with Nader’s message in 2000 had voted for him, the Green Party would have been well over the five percent threshold for national party status.

It was those folks–the millions who failed to vote their own convictions, who should have voted for Nader but voted “against Bush” instead–who truly threw away their votes. We are living with that political tragedy today, with the Democrats under no pressure “from the left” and the Greens under intense pressure, from progressive types who ought to know better, to sit out 2004 and become irrelevant on the national scene.

The time to argue against a repeat of the tragedy of 2000 is now.

ATC 106, September-October 2003