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The Election and America’s Future

My reasons for thinking the war will end in failure are not complicated either. To me, it seems the inevitable consequence of attacking a country that posed no threat, of trying to create a government of our choosing for people we do not like or understand, of defining those who fight back as terrorists, and of ignoring the elementary fact of war that killing people makes enemies of their relatives, friends, and neighbors. How many Iraqis have we killed so far? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand? Is anyone keeping count?

From the day Saddam Hussein disappeared in Baghdad nothing has gone as the administration expected, and our ability to manage the chaos has grown steadily weaker. In the end the Iraqis will decide what comes next, but not until they have fought it out, and that will be impossible until we quit interfering. When is that likely to happen? Not while Bush remains in office, and I suspect that his successor—Kerry next year or somebody else in 2009—will also find it hard to face up to the failure, but will go on from month to month and year to year hoping that a little more blood and sacrifice will make it all come right. But maybe not. Maybe this time around a quick, harsh dose of pain and failure will be enough to bring a halt.

If President Bush were defensive about his failure in Iraq, American voters might feel safer in calling him to account, but he is not defensive. He is so self-assured, defiant, and determined, and those waging his campaign are so aggressive and insulting in their attacks on Kerry personally, that voters are in danger of being swept away by the drama of the President’s defiance. This High Noon brand of politics is apparently the brainchild of Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove. The idea is to raise the temperature of campaign rhetoric beyond norms of civility, in the hope of driving all the thousand important public issues into the background, and thereby forcing voters to see, and compelling them to accept or reject, only the image of the grinning Texan standing tall in his shirtsleeves, spitting on his hands, and challenging the flip-flopper, as he challenges the world, to step up or run home to mama. Some might describe Rove’s High Noon politics as the gamble of a desperate campaign running on empty, but Rove could quote H.L. Mencken in defense, who said that no man ever lost a nickel by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Victory by such means, on a matter of such consequence, is a troubling prospect. But I do not think that voters on election day will forget everything else—the failure to restore lost jobs, a ballooning of the national debt that threatens Social Security, the watering down or outright repeal of regulations on business and the environment, the failure to fund the No Child Left Behind Act, the spreading loss of health benefits for ordinary Americans, above all the blunder of the unnecessary war. I can’t think of any significant category of voters won over by Bush since he squeaked through in 2000, and I can’t see why the country would vote for more of the same. So I think that Rove’s gamble will flicker briefly in the polls before sputtering out, and that Bush will lose.

That is what I think. But what I fear is that a different dynamic is at work—that voters may share a gut sense that the Iraq adventure will end in failure, but are too angry and distracted to admit it, want to feel good about High Noon America for a few moments longer, and will vote for Bush in order to put off the inevitable bitter day.


Oxford, England

I have read in the British press that George Bush will win the November election because the “soccer moms” who voted for Bill Clinton have turned into “security moms” who will vote for the President. The rest of the world shares these mothers’ anxieties, but draws a diametrically opposed conclusion. The British ambassador to Rome summed up the prevailing sentiment when he observed that President Bush is al-Qaeda’s most successful recruiting sergeant.

The claim that reelecting President Bush will make the world safer—any part of the world, including the United States—would be laughable if the Iraqi civilian death toll was not 15,000 and rising, if peace for Israelis and Palestinians was not further away than ever, and if international cooperation on everything from global warming to fighting AIDS had not been deeply damaged by the last four years of a know-nothing presidency. If it is a joke, it is in the worst possible taste.

From almost anywhere outside the United States, it is impossible to understand how Mr. Bush has even a remote chance of reelection. In most of Europe, two thirds of the population has never weakened in its opposition to the war in Iraq—not out of affection for Saddam Hussein, but out of a well-founded understanding that Iraq was irrelevant to the war on terrorism until President Bush turned the country into a terrorist’s playground.

Even in Britain, it was only in the immediate aftermath of the invasion that a majority was in favor of war; support is now 40 percent. Seventy percent want a date set for the withdrawal of British troops; and 80 percent think the United States has no idea how to bring peace and stability to Iraq. These 80 percent of Britons share the global view that President Bush is a threat to world security. Unsurprisingly, so do Americans’ neighbors—Canadians and Mexicans.

It’s not as though President Bush has done anything to offset the idiocies of the war on terror; Tony Blair is as unpopular as his war, but he survives as prime minister because he has presided over a steadily growing economy, rising employment, improving schools, and an improving health care system. And there has been a small but real redistribution of income toward the poorest fifth of the population.

Under President Bush, the US economy has shed jobs; there are fewer Americans employed today than when he took office; fewer Americans have guaranteed health care than when he took office; his tax cuts amount to the organized looting of the public purse for the benefit of his friends and funders; and his fiscal irresponsibility makes Ronald Reagan look a model of prudence.

President Bush says repeatedly that al-Qaeda and its allies wage war on the United States because they hate American freedom. All the evidence is that this is complete nonsense, and that they wage war on America because the United States props up regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere that they detest. All the same, it is true that American freedom is an issue in the election; and it is true that American freedom is at risk from fundamentalists and from out-of-control nationalists.

The fundamentalists in question are Christian and American nationalists, taking in John Ashcroft and a good many of the members of Congress who voted for the Patriot Act as well as those members of the judiciary who have connived in the denial of the constitutional and human rights of Americans and foreigners detained without trial or counsel.

The President announced immediately after September 11 that “those who are not with us are with the terrorists”; his fans’ habit of treating foreign critics as either idiots or terrorists-in-waiting is one more ugly feature of contemporary politics. But it is the friends of America who most fear what four more years of Mr. Bush will do; if you think the United States is the Great Satan, you are unlikely to regard the separation of church and state and attention to the rights of the accused as matters of the highest importance.

Those of us who think that they are, and who think that getting into misguided wars is invariably bad for civil liberties, think that the election is first about bringing the Iraq folly to an end, second about reversing the erosion of civil liberties, and third about restoring respect for intelligence in the formulation and implementation of policy. Underpinning all this, it would help to have a president who could tell the truth—and who could distinguish it from fantasy.


New York City

The present administration has been astonishingly successful in getting the American public to accept its very idiosyncratic version of events—for example, that while the polar icecap is melting and the snows of Kilimanjaro are vanishing, the threat of global warming is not an immediate concern; that Saddam Hussein assisted Osama bin Laden in the September 11 attacks, so that the invasion of Iraq is part of the war on terrorism; that vast increases in the budget deficit and the national debt are unimportant and can best be solved by tax cuts; or that, regardless of an increasingly violent and spreading insurgency, Iraq is well on the way to reconstruction and democracy. Such fantasies, however successful at home, have had the opposite effect abroad.

Like many people all over the world, I had long taken for granted the unprecedented international position of the United States. History’s most powerful state, lacking conventional imperial ambitions, was widely accepted as leader and mentor, and was respected as a generous source of aid and support in times of trouble. Since World War II, in spite of one or two notable aberrations, the United States has been a source of hope and a vitally important contributor to stability and progress for most of the world.

Guided by Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of a world of collective security, justice, and law, his successors, despite the constraints of the cold war, worked with other governments to build a structure of international agreements and institutions that would eventually make such a world possible. This emerging international structure provided a setting for America’s leadership.

With the end of the cold war it seemed, briefly, that Roosevelt’s dream of a working international community might once again be developed systematically. In the new millennium, however, events moved quickly in a very different direction.

In striking contrast to the pragmatic internationalism of FDR, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and the leaders that followed them, the ideology of the George W. Bush administration is basically unilateralist, exceptionalist, and anti-internationalist. Its worldview first manifested itself in the rejection of important international agreements like the anti-ballistic missile and nuclear test ban treaties, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, proposed conventions on chemical warfare and the limitation of small arms, and the recently established International Criminal Court. A world accustomed to farsighted American leadership was, not surprisingly, distressed by these tendencies.

The Bush administration, apparently as a matter of policy, did not follow up the efforts of its predecessor on several vitally important issues. Of these the most consequential was the Israeli-Palestinian question. Allowing that situation to sink further into violence and despair while publicly favoring one side over the other has made the prospect of peace far more remote for both Israelis and Palestinians. It has also provided a powerful anti-American boost for the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism that are now our most immediate threat.

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