Bush risks his father’s fate

‘The Regime has gone,” the White House told Americans at the end of last week. Iraqis too heard President George Bush’s voice on the radio and television last week, promising not to stop fighting until the whole “corrupt gang” is gone, promising to keep order, promising freedom.
At a meeting in St Petersburg, the axis of obstructionism – France, Russia and Germany – were sounding defensive. Meanwhile, both the American Treasury Secretary and the Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, called on those same three countries to forget about the debt, perhaps as much as $20 billion, that Iraq owes to them. Peace rallies planned for Washington this weekend were suddenly thrown into disarray. Some protesters cancelled buses; others wanted to shift the focus back to “globalisation”, which has always interested them more any way.
On the face of it, the events of last week do look, in other words, like total vindication for the President. And not just the President: the small band of presidential advisers and supporters who have worked hard, for much of the past decade, to get us to this moment have also finally been proven right. Some, like Wolfowitz and the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, are in the Administration. Others, like Richard Perle, are advisers. Still others have worked out of Washington think-tanks, editors’ offices and corporate boardrooms, tirelessly arguing for “regime change” in Iraq, slowly moving the issue from the fringes to the centre of debate.
It all seems inevitable in retrospect, but it was not always so clear that they would win the argument, or that this war would actually take place. As recently as last June, I sat on somebody’s private jet and watched Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, and Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, make lists of people in Washington who might be favorable to Chalabi’s cause, debating who should and should not be lobbied. Now Chalabi is on the ground in Iraq, and the argument is no longer about who might support him; it is about whether heshould or should not become the next president of Iraq.
For the “hawks”, or the “neo-cons”, or whatever you want to call the group of people in Washington who have long believed in the possibility of democratic transformation of the Middle East, the last 48 hours have brought about as comprehensive a change of fortunes as anyone in politics could want.
No longer eccentrics, they now stand at the heart of a successful (so far) foreign policy: whatever happens next, it cannot be denied that their belief in “pre-emptive strikes”, combined with their faith in America’s military capabilities, brought down an ugly and tyrannical regime. And yet – their success doesn’t necessarily carry with it any clear lessons for the future. For all the threatening language about Syria being thrown around Washington at the moment, and for all of the hand-wringing around the world about the “hyper-power” which the US has now become, it isn’t at all clear that the invasion of Iraq can be repeated – or that the doctrine of “pre-emptive strikes” can be applied elsewhere.
This is the case, first of all, because Iraq was “unique”, as the President’s spokesman himself recently put it. Iraq was politically unique: it was run by a dictator who was immensely unpopular both in his own country and around the Arab world. Iraq was also geographically unique: all of that flat, sandy desert made it easy to plan the kind of attack that the coalition ultimately carried out. Most of all, though, Iraq struck a particular chord in the United States: since the first Gulf War, the sight of Saddam in power has been galling to Americans of all political stripes. Since September 11, his past interest in weapons of mass destruction made him seem intolerably dangerous.
The rest of the axis of evil, by contrast, presents greater challenges. Iran is bigger, richer and, most importantly, is no desert satrapy, but a true nation with a long history. North Korea is (if this is possible) madder, more dangerous and better armed than Iraq. It does not have a few caches of chemical weapons, but rather a whole nuclear industry, not to mention American troops and their families living close to its borders.
Syria, it is true, resembles Iraq in some ways, but its leader, Bashar Assad, isn’t a familiar enemy, whom Americans can easily be rallied to depose. A poll last week showed two-thirds of Americans opposed to taking any further military action anywhere else, at the moment – about the same number who support the war in Iraq. Without a doubt, September 11 made Americans more willing to fight pre-emptive wars, but the case for attacking Assad, or anyone else, would take time to make. And time, at the moment, is the one thing the Bush Administration doesn’t have.
The rest of the world doesn’t usually think in terms of American electoral timetables, but presidents certainly do. And we are now in the second half of this Administration: within six months, the next presidential election campaign will begin in earnest. Yet most American states are living through their worst fiscal crisis ever, as tax revenues plummet well below what they were five years ago. While this isn’t the kind of news that is much listened to abroad, it probably matters more to most Americans than anything being beamed in from the Middle East. Never mind the economy, which continues to slump along: across the country, state and local governments are sacking teachers and police, limiting access to state-funded medical insurance, delaying road repairs.
Foundations and charities, which used to take up some of the slack, cannot do so because the stock market can’t seem to recover. With this crisis in mind, the Republican-dominated Senate has just refused to pass the President’s tax-cutting plan.
With a war going on, with the President’s popularity seemingly high, in other words, a handful of Republican Senators, members of the President’s own party, were so spooked by the spectre of massive budget deficits that they actually refused to go along with their commander-in-chief. When Americans start working out what every million-dollar bomb dropped on Baghdad is costing them in teachers and after-school programmes, and what the price of keeping the peace in Kirkuk will be in coming months and years, they may well decide that even Iraq was more than they bargained for.
None of which is to say that the President will not spent the next year and a half wrapped up in military campaigns, or that someone won’t persuade him to track down Assad’s chemical weapons, or that he won’t be tempted, again, by the strong-willed team that has now won two spectacular wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, against all predictions. If he does, however, he risks meeting the fate of his father, who waged a short and victorious war in Iraq – and then lost the subsequent election. And, lest we forget, there is another Clinton – one Hillary Rodham – waiting in the wings.