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American election campaigns reveal the US’s addiction to imperial wars


At the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last month, US president George W. Bush performed a comedy skit making fun of all three contenders to replace him, blithely ignoring the fact that he himself is the greatest figure of fun of all -- a lame duck president despite having nearly a year of his administration to go, with the lowest approval ratings of any American president ever. The key reason for his precipitous decline from what were once some of the highest poll-ratings ever for an American president can be explained by only thing: his administration’s disastrous involvement in Iraq.

It is no surprise, therefore, that all three of those hoping to succeed Bush -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who are fighting for the Democratic nomination, and John McCain, who has already secured the Republican nomination -- have taken positions as distinct from the Bush/neo-con one as possible. Obama has the unique distinction of having opposed the war from the outset, and promises that the US will lead the world in a new, gentler way; Clinton now says she would not have supported the invasion if she had known in 2002-03 what she knows now, although plenty of others seem to have known it at the time; and McCain is open about having supported the war but has long been a scathing critic of the Bush administration’s execution of it. Obama and Clinton have both pledged to bring the US troops home as soon as possible, while McCain has said that more competent leadership would make it possible for the US to achieve its objectives more quickly, with fewer troops.

Can we then expect any major changes in US policy in Iraq after the elections? Although a great deal can change in the next few months, there is nothing to suggest that we can. Through the confused and contradictory rhetoric of the candidates’ stump speeches, only one thing emerges without doubt. That is that, despite their criticisms of the neo-con era, all three appear committed to America’s broader hegemonic agenda, in particular its right to “lead” the world in pursuit of its own economic and political interests. Once the presentation wrapping is removed from their Iraq policies, one fundamental truth remains the same: US troops are there, and will remain for as long as necessary to secure the US’s objectives, which clearly go far beyond the establishment of peace and stability. Clinton and McCain have said so openly; and if Obama has been less clear cut, it is only because the Obama-mania generated by his slick campaign as a new sort of politician has meant that he has so far had to be less clear on policy specifics than the others. Nearer the elections, and once in office should it come to that, he will inevitably be offered the same policy options by the same policy intellectuals as the other candidates; all the politicians are competing for, after all, is the right to be the point man for economic and political elites whose interests remain unchanged.

The proof, if proof were needed, of the fact that little has really changed in the US can be seen in the candidates’ attitudes to Iran. For nearly three decades, US elites (and their closest allies, the Israelis) have recognised Iran as their real enemy in the Middle East, while it has often been politic to focus on other, less powerful adversaries, such as Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah. The desire to surround Iran, the only independent and non-cooperative state in the region, in order to contain its influence, has been a key element of all US policy, including the invasion of Iraq, although there were also other factors, notably oil. In the years since the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has gradually ratcheted up its demonisation of Iran as a terrorist state that poses a direct threat to the US and its local proxy, Israel, in terms with close parallels with the preparations for the war on Iraq. These plans appear to have been designed to culminate with war on Iran this year, in the run-up to the presidential elections in November, with the neo-cons clearly hoping that a major foreign policy success would secure the elections for a neo-con Republican candidate. That plan has been thwarted by the disaster in Iraq, and the refusal of the intelligence and military professionals to cooperate with it, as confirmed by their leaking of their real opinion of Iran’s nuclear threat last autumn. Instead we now have pressure building on Syria and Hizbullah, which the neo-cons had previously identified as “low-hanging fruit” that they could pick more easily than attacking Iran, although Israel’s experience of attacking Hizbullah in 2006 may cause some hesitation.

Given the fiasco of Iraq, and all that we now know about it, one might assume that the candidates who are so keen to distance themselves from Bush, and promise completely different ways of doing business in the world, would offer radically different alternative strategies on Iran. Perhaps they could take a stand against the neo-con demonisation of Iran, pointing out parallels with the war on Iraq. Perhaps they could demand an investigation into how the intelligence about Iraq was so appallingly misrepresented and promise the American people that they would never be lied to by their leaders again. Perhaps, after the fiasco last year, they could be forthright in their criticism of Bush’s attempt to promote another war, this time on Iran, on the equally baseless grounds of a nuclear threat. Perhaps they could even distance themselves from the zionist lobby that played so central a role in the rise of the neo-cons and the promotion of the Iraq war policy. All right, so maybe the last one is utterly unrealistic; but the problem is that there is little sign of any of the others happening either.

McCain has already made his position clear, with his notorious “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” refrain. No diplomat he, then, even if he is regarded as being as far from Bush as the republicans could find within their own party. Clinton took a similarly hardline stance last month, boasting that the US “would be able to totally obliterate them” if Iran attacked Israel. (A BBC commentator joked that, as evidence of her evenhandedness, she also promised to make Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert stand on the naughty chair if Israel nuked Iran.) And while Obama has pledged to start talks with Iran unconditionally if he is elected, that is not much of a prospect if all he will be doing is making the same baseless demands about nuclear weapons and recognising Israel.

The reality is that the Iraq experience may have burnt America’s hands, but it has done nothing to make it change its hegemonic ambitions or accept a more humble and equal position in the world. One reason for that may be that, despite the problems in Iraq, the US remains perhaps the only major country in the world not to have experienced the real cost of war in its own homeland in modern times. Russia, China and European countries all suffered grievous losses during the twentieth century, as of course did their imperial possessions and victims. The US, by contrast, has suffered only setbacks in distant battlefields, and the odd one-off blow such as 9/11, which cannot compare to the experiences of people in other parts of the world. The result is that the greater part of American society remains largely ignorant of the real meaning and cost of war; the last time that Americans really suffered may have been in the Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century. That may explain why Americans remain so belligerent in their attitudes and so willing to visit war on other peoples; for most of them, despite the hand-wringing about Vietnam and Iraq, war remains a largely positive experience, one in which the losses are suffered by an underclass with whom they cannot begin to relate, or only to a very limited extent.

The fact is that most Americans, and most American politicians, understand that the losses they have suffered in Iraq over the last few years, and the price that they have paid for that war and others in places such as Afghanistan, are a small price to pay for the benefits they enjoy as the world’s dominant nation. Their problem with the Iraq war is not that it was based on lies and intended primarily for the benefit of a tiny elite, but that it was incompetently executed and is failing to achieve the desired results. The benefits of superpower status are not something that Americans will give up easily, and no politician who threatens to dilute them will get anywhere near a shot at the White House. Whoever wins the Democratic caucus that is presently dominating US politics, and whoever wins the presidential election when it takes place in November, America’s addiction to power, and to war to maintain its power, will continue to be a problem for the rest of the world for the foreseeable future.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 3

Rabi' al-Thani 25, 14292008-05-01

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