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November 11, 2006

Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword


by Leon Hadar

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, US President George W Bush has campaigned in one presidential contest (2004) and two Congressional races (2002 and 2004) as a victorious "War President."

Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress chalked up one electoral victory after another by comparing the White House occupant to Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mr. Bush was cast as a leader who was supposedly leading America – and the Free World – in a global struggle against the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden and (allegedly) Saddam Hussein. Thrown in for good measure were the Axis of Evil nations (Iraq, Iran, North Korea) attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to attack America and the West.

The rising nationalism that had swept America after 9/11 helped Mr. Bush and the Republican Party rally voters round the President, the Flag and the Judeo-Christian Civilization. Mr. Bush was proclaimed to be standing up against Islamo-Fascism, wimpy Europeans, and the weak, spineless and godless Democrats.

The initial military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq helped to mobilize electoral support for Mr. Bush and the Republicans, especially in the Red States in the Midwest and the South and even to advance into Democratic territories in the Blue States on the East and West Coast.

With Karl ("Boy Genius") Rove – Mr. Bush's "brain" and top political aide – drawing the outline of an ambitious electoral strategy, the Republicans seemed to be on their way to produce a major political realignment and to becoming the permanent Majority Party. There were even some indications that traditional Democratic demographic groups – women, African-Americans, Hispanic and Jews – were drifting towards the Republicans.

Indeed, for the last five years it seemed as though Mr. Bush and the Republicans had found that formula that would have allowed them to achieve an era of one-party Republican rule in Washington – in the White House, Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) and the Supreme Court.

The political pendulum in American politics has been swinging towards the political right for 12 years after the Republican Revolution of 1994 cemented Republican control over Capitol Hill.

Political analysts suggested that 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism helped Mr. Bush accelerate that process and that the White House and Republican policies – nationalism, unilateralism and militarism in foreign policy; and the growing influence of the Christian Right – would dominate American politics in the coming years.

According to the then prevailing conventional wisdom, the Democrats were in retreat and have become the permanent Minority Party.

The Republicans certainly helped to strengthen their hold over the House of Representatives by gerrymandering Congressional districts which seemed to ensure that Republican incumbents would be able to get reelected again, and again, and again . . .

. . . Until, that is, on Tuesday when the Republicans in Congress came crushing down as an anti-Bush and antiwar sentiment helped to produce a Democratic wave that brought a swift end to the Republican Era and eroded the power of the War President.

In fact, it was the growing opposition of the American people to the war in Iraq and to the way that it has been managed by the White House and the Pentagon coupled with general voter disaffection over Mr. Bush's performance in office and corruption in Congressional Republican ranks that seemed to be responsible for the electoral upheaval.

The War President had failed to deliver a victory in Iraq and the Middle East. He had failed to meet expectations that had been raised to the stratosphere – about finding WMDs in Iraq, uncovering ties between Osama and Saddam, establishing a stable democracy in Iraq, spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East. And if you live by the sword, if you try to stoke up militant nationalism as a way of winning an election, you shouldn't be surprised when a perception of defeat on the battlefield in Iraq is translated into an electoral defeat at home.

Indeed, as most opinion polls have indicated, the Republicans lost the support of the majority of independent and centrist-moderate voters. These voters' anger at the war in Iraq led to the Republican loss of Senate seats in two critical electoral states of Ohio and Pennsylvania and have also helped defeat middle-of-the-road Republicans in the Northeast who have been punished for their ties to President Bush whose approval ratings sank to the low thirties.

Many of these Republican candidates had tried to distance themselves from Mr. Bush by refusing to campaign with him and even criticized his Iraq policy.

But sometimes even that didn't help: Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island lost his seat despite the fact he had called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

There is also no doubt that much of the anti-Republican mood has to do with voter irritation with a political party that has been in power for such a long time and the recognition that the Republican power in the White House needs to be checked and balanced by the Democrat Congress.

While the new House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is a leading member of the liberal wing of the party, and "Clintonism," the enthusiasm for globalization led by an American light touch continues to dominate Democratic ideology, one of the interesting developments this year has been the election of conservative and populist Democrats like Jim Webb in Virginia who is opposed to the war in Iraq as well as to free trade policies.

Some analysts speculate that the elections could mark the start of the return of conservatives, including Evangelical Christians, to the Democratic Party.

This antiwar, protectionist and populist mood among Democrats could clearly weaken the chances of Senator Hillary Clinton – who had supported the decision to go to war in Iraq – in winning her party's presidential nomination and plays into the hands of other possible challengers.

Most important, the results of the elections are going to force the president to "change the course" in Iraq.

On the one hand, Bush is facing the antiwar populist mood, a mini revolution, represented by the Democratic electoral wave. On the other hand, the White House occupant is being confronted by a rebellion by the foreign policy establishment against his policy in Iraq.

Responding to pressure from the people and the elites, Bush has fired Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and replaced him with a respected member of the establishment, Robert Gates.

The firing is probably the first step in a series of changes in personnel and policy that are going to move the Bush Administration in the direction of the more realist and internationalist approach to global affairs, including Iraq, that was pursued by his father when he served in the White House.

The post-9/11 nationalism has given way to a growing recognition by the American elites and public of the limits of US global and economic power. The War President is going to become less of a warrior.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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