Democratic Underground

Letter to European Friends: America's Weird Election Dance

August 4, 2004
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

Dear Wolfgang & Jaqueline:

You write that you're "confused" about how we American progressives can possibly nominate what you call a "militarist candidate," when the bulk of the Democratic Party - and the population at large - is opposed to the war in Iraq.

What can I say about the current campaign? Politics in the U.S. is a spectator sport, with constant shifting of alliances, positions, leaders, trends. But I will try to help you and your friends abroad make some sense of our current presidential campaign puzzle.

The first thing you have to understand is that the war in Iraq is a "hot potato" game. Nobody wants to have to hold the "hot potato" for very long and get caught with it in their hands. The aim of the game is to force the opponent to hold it and deal with the issue.

The current tactic of Bush/Cheney is to somehow hope that the American-approved "sovereign" interim government in Iraq can stagger through until November 2, Election Day in the U.S. Sure, a thousand or more Iraqis are likely to be killed and maimed between now and then, but, in the Bush Administration's eyes, as long as those dead and wounded are not U.S. soldiers or "contractors" (mercenaries), it's a win-win for the Republicans.

The Bushies' primary problem with this scenario is that, at least at the moment, it's not working. The Iraqi insurgency seems to be gathering momentum, rather than losing it. More innocent Iraqi civilians and those regarded as "collaborators" with the American occupiers are being killed. And, worse for Bush/Cheney, more Americans were killed in July, after the "handover" of that severely limited "sovereignty," than in the month before.

In addition, the ethnic, religious and power blocs in Iraq could blast apart at any moment. Political power-sharing is not easy to come by in that country. Civil war is not out of the question. Note: The U.S. made sure that the Iraqi election will be held after the American presidential election.

A large part of Bush/Cheney's election strategy depends on the Iraq social/political situation somehow not imploding before November 2, in keeping the insurgency relatively "contained" (read: nothing too catastrophic, and mostly Iraqis dying), and in keeping U.S. troops hunkered down with only a "tolerable" number of deaths and injuries until that time.

If the U.S. can make it past November 2, and Bush/Cheney wins, then all bets are off and the Administration can once again do whatever it wants to do in Iraq, including ramping up the war. And starting to move overtly toward similar "regime change" in Iran and Syria.

The neo-cons are in an enforced nap stage right now, but they're still planning their Middle East strategies, and are, if Bush wins, raring to go. And, in our system, when an administration cannot run for another term, there are fewer restraints on its actions, since it doesn't have to worry about electoral punishment for its stupidities and misadventures.

THE KERRY STRATEGY

Kerry/Edwards, who voted (with some conditions) to authorize Bush to go to war, likewise need somehow to slide past November 2 without totally alienating their anti-war Democratic base while talking about how they're going to trample the nationalist insurgency.

In short, Kerry/Edwards must say nothing and say everything - to let all sides on the issue believe the Dem candidates are maybe on their side - thus avoiding having to make clear statements that would place the political "hot potato" in their hands.

So, they mainly criticize Bush's incompetent handling of the war, while throwing only implied jabs at the very decision to go to war - a war (even with their caveats) they helped authorize, let us remember.

So, as you see, the position of Kerry/Edwards is very complicated, a dangerous bit of high-wire walking. One slip and they fall off to one side, angering the other side of their likely voting bloc, and maybe losing the all-important swing voters in swing states that haven't yet made up their minds.

Their tactic at the Democration Convention, which you may have seen on television, was ingenious, if highly risky. They decided to wrap themselves tightly in nationalist, militarist symbols and rhetoric, in an attempt to immunize themselves from charges they are, by their overt and sub-rosa criticism, "unpatriotic," or "soft on (fill in the blank)," common charges by the Republicans in the past few decades. At the convention, to carry out their magical transformation trick, they often attacked Bush's war on Iraq from the right rather than from the left.

Kerry says he'll enlarge the military services by 40,000 troops, will start reducing the military's dependence on National Guard/Reserve troops by rotating them out of Iraq, and will lure old allies - including your homelands of Germany and France - to lend support. (He implies he might be able to do this because Bush&Co.'s arrogant, bullying ways have turned off our former allies, who have no desire to aid Bush in any way; with no such political baggage, Kerry presumably could start fresh, and re-establish normal relations with Europe.)

Now, as with Bush, these Kerry tactics may have no grounding in reality - why would the European allies want to send troops or money for a policy they thought wrong to begin with, and has little chance of success now? - but the Kerry campaign figures the verbal ju-jitsu merely has to work for the next 90 days, until November 2. In the meantime, they can count on the stressed-out Bush&Co. forces to make more big mistakes domestically and abroad, alienating voters even more, and that many of the most damaging Bush/Cheney scandals will explode in their faces: Plamegate, Halliburton, unconstitutional torture memos, Bush's AWOL status, 9/11 pre-knowledge, etc.

(Danger: Cornered beasts are the most dangerous. Bush/Cheney/Rove, aware that their own polls are showing them sliding badly, are capable of doing anything to pull out a victory, ranging from fraud on Election Day to dirty tricks on the campaign trail to almost welcoming a major terrorist attack.)

If Kerry/Edwards win, their real Iraq policy will be worked out between Election Day and Inauguration Day in January. I couldn't tell you with any precision what that policy will be. They may not even know themselves what it is.

My guess is that while still talking the Bush-like military talk, they will begin walking in another direction, moving toward closing down the U.S. adventure in Iraq as quickly as possible. But, the point is that none of us progressives is sure what Kerry has in mind; it's possible that he really believes all the gung-ho rhetoric he and his running mate have been spouting, or that by constant repetition, they may paint themselves into a war corner that will be difficult to get out of after Election Day.

THE ELECTORAL TWO-STEP

In short, though it might not make much sense to you in Europe, what you're witnessing in both parties is a kind of political dance through the electoral minefields. The race is so close that neither side wants to make the slightest mistakes, giving their opposition opportunities to pick up the few votes, or few states, that might make the difference.

So the Bushies hope their sleight-of-hand in Iraq - installing a friendly interim government, hoping to keep the death/maiming toll of U.S. troops way down - will convince American voters that Bush has "turned the corner" in Iraq, and so no need to change electoral horses in the middle of a war. (The same with the sputtering domestic economy.)

The Democrats hope that their vagueness and their rhetorical flourishes to both the anti-war and more hawkish elements in the party will work to bring both forces together, each side believing that their point of view will emerge as official Kerry policy once the election is over.

The main emphasis of the Democrats is on getting Bush&Co. out of the White House, and the ruinous, dangerous polices that go with them - their penchant for police-state approaches to domestic dissent, and their predilection for invading and bombing countries that stand in their way abroad. The American Constitution and the lives of thousands of our young men and women in the military, and countless thousands of innocent civilians abroad, are at grave risk.

So we progressives bite our tongues in public and work our asses off to get Kerry elected, knowing he'll be a fine president on domestic issues, and maybe can be leaned on in private to change his foreign-policy positions on Iraq, the use of military force, and Israel-Palestine.

Rest assured that if Kerry wins and doesn't change his foreign/military attitudes as expressed in the campaign, he is going to face a population deep in disappointment, angry and ready to rise to express its wrath, and an activist base that will make his life miserable until he alters his ways.

But, deep in my heart, I think John Kerry, if and when he wins - and the momentum is going his way, with more and more defections by Republicans appalled at the incompetent, reckless crew that hijacked their party - may well turn out to be a solid, positive force on the world stage, as well as good for America on the domestic issues of health care, education, the environment, judicial appointments, tax policy, jobs-development, the economy, and the like.

Jaqueline and Wolfgang, I hope this letter helps explain our current, ever-strange political situation in America. I know it's confusing - it's confusing to us, too, and we live here - but it's just part of the weird every-four-year dance we do in the hope, which seldom materializes, that a president will emerge who will grow into greatness and guide us through the dark times with the light of his intelligence, moral strength, wit and determination to get good things done.

Kerry could well turn out to be that man.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and co-edits The Crisis Papers. He is a contributing author to Big Bush Lies, available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and local bookstores.

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