Crisis of the Regime

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

The Editors

“A GOVERNMENT HEADED by right-wing extremists has been returned to power, to preside over a divided country and a potential for real catastrophe in Iraq…” That’s what we wrote a year ago, in the immediate wake of the 2004 election (editorial statement, ATC 113).  In other words, the Republicans were firmly installed as the country’s ruling party, albeit with a razor-thin majority, unless and until they were to screw something up really, really badly—and have they ever, from Baghdad to New Orleans and back!

The Bush gang invaded Iraq—and the whole world now knows this war is lost.  It operates secret prisons, kidnaps people and ships them to be tortured—and the whole world sees through the lying denials.  It left New Orleans to drown, and abandoned the survivors.  It fiddles while the global climate burns, the Arctic ice melts, deadly hurricanes double and the Gulf Stream shuts down—insisting all the while that it’s just a theory.  It stands by as airlines and auto manufacturers use bankruptcy to slash hundreds of thousands of workers’ wages by half or more.

At home, the regime crisis has opened up on all levels: the Republican leadership in both House and Senate, the vice-presidential chief of staff, and the president’s “top advisor” (i.e. director of filthy tricks) all either indicted or under investigation.  Support for “the president’s handling of Iraq” falling to the low thirty-percent level; the administration’s top figures scrambling to shift (hoping no one notices) from “stay the course” to “start withdrawing in 2006” in time for the dreaded November midterm election.  The supposed top domestic priority of the second Bush term, privatizing Social Security in order to destroy it, lying buried in an unmarked political toxic landfill.

The severity of the Bush regime crisis is greater in substance, viewed in recent historical perspective, than that of Reagan’s presidency over the Iran-contra scandal in 1976.  As of mid-November, reported SurveyUSA, Bush’s approval rating was over 50 percent in a total of seven states (Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming).  If this regime isn’t crumbling like Nixon’s during Watergate, that’s not because its conduct is less criminal but rather because this president’s party now controls Congress.  More important than the fate of this presidency, the battle over whether the U.S. Supreme Court is completely turned over to the extreme right wing won’t be decided by Bush’s prestige and clout which are disintegrating by the week, but by the religious right’s authority over, and power to terrorize, the Republican Senate majority.

The Imperial Messianic Presidency When George W. Bush was installed as president by the Rehnquist Supreme Court majority following the stolen election of 2000, he was already the number one serial killer in America, having presided as Texas governor over that state’s death-row assembly line.

Yet despite this and other unattractive features of a rich aristocratic boy who drank and drugged his way through school, evaded fighting in Vietnam even though he supported the war, and achieved mediocrity at best in businesses handed to him via family connections, Bush hardly appeared then as someone aspiring to rule the world.  Perhaps part of Bush’s appeal, especially to his core base in the white South and suburbs, was a certain lack of intellectual arrogance—a contrast with Bill Clinton, who thought he knew everything and ultimately screwed up (pardon the expression) everything from health care to the Middle East.  Bush’s ambitions to conquer Iraq weren’t the focus of attention while his initial agenda, centered on tax cuts to repay his wealthy and corporate donor base, went through Congress.

Already by the summer of 2001, however, the popularity of this program was ebbing—and the Republicans lost the Senate when Jim Jeffords defected.  Then came the godsend of the 9-11 terrorist attack: This gave the Republicans a fresh lease, which Karl Rove sought to fashion into a permanent mandate by way of Bush’s status as commander-in- chief and an eternal open-ended “War on Terror.”  Most important, perhaps, the alliance sometimes called the “cabal” of neoconservatives, religious fundamentalists and oil men around Bush reinvented him as the savior, appointed by history or divine selection or both, of the nation and civilization.  Whether Bush’s personal role in this transformation was passive or active, a somewhat novel institution was crystallized: the imperial messianic U.S. presidency.

The imperial presidency, to be sure, goes back at least to World War II, and its roots reach much deeper into the American expansionist ambitions of the nineteenth century; but the Bush regime has grafted onto it a global messianism.

(During the Cold War, even with its rhetorical “crusade against godless Communism,” an idea as ideologically driven and adventurist as U.S. troops “spreading democracy through the Middle East” wasn’t entertained by even the most aggressive administration—that of John F. Kennedy—especially after the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba.)

End of the Delusion This “War on Terror” entailed the conquest of Afghanistan, then the invasion of Iraq on lying pretexts, accompanied by an assault of unprecedented proportions on basic democratic rights and international law. This is encoded of course in the USA PATRIOT Act, and in an incredible legal doctrine of unlimited presidential power to order open- ended detention at Guantanamo, military tribunals and extraterritorial torture prisons.  Some of these were operated by the U.S. CIA, reportedly in Poland, Romania, Kosova and undisclosed others (now hastily closed and the prisoners secretly transported to somewhere in North Africa).  Other arrested or kidnapped detainees are secretly “rendered” over to torturers in Syria, for example.

Putting over this monstrous program to the U.S. public has depended crucially on two factors.  The first is maintaining a permanent climate of fear, and the president’s image as the leader who keeps us safe.  That’s why the electorate, which did not elect Bush in 2000, barely did so in 2004, despite the decreasing popularity of his domestic program.

The second necessity was at least the appearance of victory in Iraq.  The shattering of that delusion has thrown this imperial-messianic administration and its project into turmoil.  The election in Iraq gives Bush a temporary handle to once more promise “victory”—as if holding an election justifies an occupation that has destroyed, brutalized and impoverished that country—but this only temporarily hides the realities of the catastrophic outcome of the war.

It’s not simply that Iraq is sapping the Bush gang’s authority both at home and internationally.  Indeed the “War on Terror” has become the only part of the Republicans’ program that is politically viable.  The other components—stacking the Supreme Court with fanatical reactionaries, cutting taxes for the wealthy until all remnants of a social welfare state collapse, turning over every protected acre of forest and wildlife preserve for cutting and oil drilling—are supported only by narrow minorities, and sustainable only as long as the population feels that the regime offers “security” if nothing else.  As that feeling drained away, members of Congress—the institution of which reporter Seymour Hersh says, “on any given day I can’t tell whether they’re supine or prone”—began challenging some of the administration’s budgetary boondoggles and pretenses that the war in Iraq is progressing well.  Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, a conservative congressman well connected to top levels of the U.S. military, gave voice to what they know but can’t tell Bush and his gang: The war is being lost, in fact it’s already lost, and continuing it will wreck the armed forces.

Initially, almost all of Murtha’s fellow Democrats and especially the party leadership ran away from Murtha as fast and far as possible.  That’s to be expected from a crowd of opportunists who mostly celebrated the war when it looked like a winner, and will turn against it only after the polls show at least 80% of the population has done so. Sure enough, once it became clear that Murtha’s call for withdrawal was popular, some leading Democrats (Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean) have signed on to some version of “timed withdrawal.”

Still, the likes of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton won’t even go that far. The general Democratic line begins with “we can’t just get out of Iraq now that we’re there,” and blathers on about some “new strategy to defeat the insurgency.”  In fact, the planned next phase of the war as reported by Seymour Hersh, now that the administration faces the need to reduce troop levels in advance of November 2006, is a massive increase in U.S. bombing to “support Iraqi forces”—with all the horror that will inevitably bring in civilian deaths, general devastation and retribution.  Far from an antiwar party, leading Democrats have positioned themselves to be Bush’s partners in this new crime, and to attempt to derail the antiwar movement at the same time.

The Regime’s Future At the same time, obviously, the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, and the horrifying fate of a Black population abandoned by “federal emergency management” and trapped in the drowning city of New Orleans, emphasized the wreckage created by the Bush regime’s priorities.  Further, it’s becoming clearer all the time to more people that death-to-the-environment, global-warming-denial politics only contribute to the ferocity of natural weather disasters.

Still to be determined is the immediate political future of this regime, and the question of whether the Republican grip on all levels of power will slip next November.  In substantive terms, the failures of the Bush administration might seem so extreme that recovery is impossible.  In terms of “practical politics,” however, the future is murkier.  Many people would share the sentiments of an ATC reader in Jay, NY who writes, “When someone calls for the Impeachment of Bush, I will pay again.  Not before.”  You got it: Impeach Bush Now! The question obviously is who’s going to do this noble deed.  Surely it won’t be his own party while it controls Congress.  In another sense, however, the public itself could “impeach” Bush if the midterm election turned into a referendum on his “War on Terror,” the disaster in Iraq, secret torture prisoners and the vicious domestic agenda—but this is just what the Democrats will not do.

The Democrats expect to make huge gains in 2006 by capitalizing on Bush’s failures and unpopularity, but not by making a principled fight over the criminal war which they mostly voted for, or presenting a concrete alternative to the most anti-worker, anti-poor and racist program in generations.  Naturally they’ll appeal to the working people and communities devastated by Delphi, Northwest Airlines and other corporate pirates, but they won’t be campaigning to outlaw union-busting via corporate bankruptcy.  Their campaign coffers depend as much as the Republicans’ on contributions from that sector.  The declining authority of the Bush regime opens a potential space for the movements to occupy.  Most important now are the kind of mass antiwar mobilization we’ve seen on September 24, and the December 9-10 assembly of Gulf Coast survivors and supporters.  Though not heavily reported, close to 500 people attended the assembly in Jackson, Mississippi and several thousand marched in New Orleans for return and the democratic reconstruction of the city, which has essentially been abandoned by the federal government after all of Bush’s “rebuilding” promises.

Naturally, it’s exciting to imagine the possibility that a crusading prosecutor and collapse of elite confidence might bring down the Bush regime and send its perpetrators to prison where they belong.  But wishful thinking about the potential fate of Lewis Libby, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and other scum isn’t a guide to action; nor does it make sense to place great hopes in a Democratic Party which, unlike its own voting base, doesn’t want to actually stop the Iraq war.

For the movements to influence the political debate and the public mood requires mobilizing massively and independently.  Bring the Troops Home Now, and Katrina Survivors Home to New Orleans! No More PATRIOT Act and No More Corporate Terror Against Working People! Health Care, Not Corporate Welfare! Build Infrastructure, Not More War Toys!—these issues need to be front and center.

The Bush regime is in crisis, but despite its criminality and the debacle of its main imperial venture it would be a terrible mistake to expect it to implode on its own. The gap between the enormity of the real crisis and its reflection in “practical politics” is likely to remain, in the absence of a domestic insurgency from below.

ATC 120, January-February 2006