by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - November 20, 2006) When you look at the new crop of conservative Emanuel-Democrats in Congress; when you consider the bellicose statements, and avid pro-Israel stances of senators like Biden, Schumer, and Clinton; when you realize that the Democratic Senate majority depends on "independent" Joe Lieberman -- it's tempting to say we're worse off than before.
But that isn't quite true. There are some positives in the recent election.
First, the electorate showed it can tell the difference between rhetoric and reality, given enough time. This also means that eventually the media, too, did its job. Furthermore, we can say that the infamous 2004 claim by a high administration official that "we're an empire now. We make our own reality" was proved to be premature. (1) Possibly even empire itself was premature, but at least empire's power to control our minds has been delayed.
Second, the drive toward a "unitary executive," one-party government, extra-constitutional rule under the rubric of "national security," has been stopped, at least temporarily. With Democrats in control in Congress, checks and balances are restored, accountability is revived, certain ethical standards -- as in awarding of contracts -- will be reinstated, and executive initiatives will necessarily become more cautious and limited in scope.
Third, the election could mean the opening round of a new "Vietnam syndrome," signaling long-term skepticism about military adventures, particularly this style of military adventure. Aside from the objective fact of the real deterioration of the US military as a result of the war, both in material and morale, the twin doctrines of preventive war and expanding democracy by force have been soundly rebutted.
In a philosophical view, we can say that however little of real democracy there is in the current US form of government, the system still requires the consent of the governed. After five years of blatantly flawed policies, both foreign and domestic, the Bush administration had lost the moral and intellectual authority to govern. The voters said "you have forfeited the right to rule absolutely, and now must govern in partnership (and on probation) with the opposing party."
In this sense, the election was like an "intervention" by the children of a dysfunctional family, forcing the alcoholic parent and the abused spouse into therapy together. Therapy is a start, at least.
On the negative side, the real issues of the war -- its legality and morality, the true nature of the terrorist threat, America's real interests in the Middle East, and its proper role in the world -- weren't touched on at all. The only message of the election, and it's not much of a message, was "change the course."
No Democrat dared to say exactly how we should change the course. "Timeline" and "phased withdrawal" are merely euphemisms, like "roadmap for peace" -- designed to suggest progress without providing any way of measuring it. "Deployment over the horizon" is a more candid picture of what the eventual strategy will be: bring about half the troops home, and re-station the rest in existing bases in neighboring countries -- Kuwait, Egypt, Afghanistan -- or remote parts of Iraq, out of the way of conflict.
This is essentially the status quo ante -- US policy before the Iraq invasion -- and it is probably as far as strategic thinkers in either party can think.
Depressingly, it is not that different from the original neocon hopes for the invasion -- minus the talk of democracy: one threat to Israel eliminated; US military forces increased in the region; wavering allies or potential opponents given notice of what we are capable of doing.
But that leaves all the major issues in the region unsettled -- Israel, Iran, and Iraq itself. All three are much graver challenges now than they were six years ago: Israel in the grip of its unique David/Goliath psychopathology; Iran with redoubled prestige for having faced down the imperial giant; and Iraq a cauldron of instability, likely to become a permanent haven for al Qaeda, a further platform for Shia militancy, and an independent Kurdish republic which would provoke both Iran and Turkey. So the status quo ante, though still intact, will be inherently more fragile than it was in the past.
To face these challenges, we have the revived Bush, Sr. team, and the Democrats, whose intellectual development seems to have stopped several years ago.
For a longer term, slightly more optimistic, view, Michael Klare has an interesting article on TomDispatch, which argues that the appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and the presence of the Baker commission in reformulating US policy, signals a shift from empire on offense to empire on defense. (2) He uses the football analogy to argue that every team needs both components. No matter how prolific your offense, there comes a time when you find the opponents deep in your own territory, and have to mount a capable defense.
By "opponents in our own territory" we could refer to several global developments of the last six years, while Bush was focused exclusively on Afghanistan and Iraq: Russian-Chinese energy and military cooperation; Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas; Russian-Iranian cooperation; Chinese investments in Africa and Latin America; rising anti-US sentiment in Latin America; and America's weakened military and national economy. All of these point to the end of the unipolar American empire proclaimed six years ago and the emergence of a multipolar world in which America is one of several competing powers, and in which competition is not merely military and economic, but diplomatic and ideological too. America isn't well prepared for any of these, and a sustained period of self reassessment is implied.
If this reassessment takes twenty or thirty rocky years, we can at least hope that the end result will be a humbler foreign policy.
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