Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wallerstein on American defeat

Commentary No. 197, Nov. 15, 2006
"Mother of All Defeats"

George W. Bush is a high-stakes gambler. When high-stakes gamblers lose, they lose big. George W. Bush has lost big - in Iraq and in the United States.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it seemed that, despite overwhelming military power, the United States might even lose the war. It didn't take too long to see that the United States actually was losing the war. By now, it is obvious that the United States has lost the war, irremediably. The U.S. objective in Iraq was to put in power a stable, friendly government, and one that would allow U.S. military bases. It is clear now that if it is stable, it won't be friendly. And if it is friendly, it won't be stable.

On November 7, the Republican Party lost the midterm elections. As Bush himself said, in all the close races, the margin was very slight, but overall it was a "thumping." The degree of thumping is underlined by the fact that, after the elections, Bush's poll ratings went down still further.

Reason number one was the fact that most Americans felt that the war was going badly in Iraq and they wanted to get the military home. Even in districts where the Democratic candidate did not make this an issue, it played in the background. There were other reasons to be sure. Many centrist voters voted against the Christian right, and having some Democratic candidates who took a more centrist position on the "social" issues didn't hurt.

The question is what is going to happen now. Bush is not, and has never been, an ideologue. He is a pragmatic rightwing politician, who does what he thinks necessary to win elections. He has been pretty good at this, and he is aware of the mistakes he has made in recent years - not in geopolitics (where he basically understands nothing and cares about very little), but in U.S. politics, where he has gotten a "thumping." He is adjusting. He has fired Rumsfeld, will back seat Cheney, and (no doubt following Karl Rove's advice) has called for help from the old "realist" wing of the Republican party - his father, James Baker, and the incoming Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. He is hoping to co-opt the Democratic leadership into his revived bipartisan veneer.

Can he do this? Specifically, what can he do about Iraq? And what can he do about the Democratic thrust forward? The short answer on Iraq is that it is hard to see any way he can extricate himself and the United States elegantly from the Iraq fiasco. The Baker-Hamilton commission will soon let us know what "new directions" they see, but I doubt that they can come up with anything that can work.

Some people talk about dividing Iraq into three parts. This is a non-starter. Neither Turkey nor Iran can tolerate an independent Kurdistan, and the Kurds will be far better off in their present de facto autonomy than in fighting a war with neighbors. The majority of the Shia do not want a separate state. For one thing, why have Shia-stan when they can more or less dominate a united Iraq? And in any case, what would happen to Baghdad? And of course, the Sunni are dead opposed. So of course are all Iraq's neighbors, without exception. And as we have seen in Yugoslavia, separate states do not end ethnic conflict; they actually enhance it.

Basically, there are only two ways the United States can withdraw from Iraq with minimal further loss of life and minimal political damage. They can ask Iran to be their intermediary to dampen internal conflict in Iraq, which might work. Or, alternatively, the al-Sadr faction of the Shia and the Sunni resistance can join forces on an anti-American platform and ask the United States politely to leave immediately (that is, kick the United States out), which also might work.

Neither alternative is the least bit palatable to Bush or to the U.S. Congress. But these two alternatives represent probably the best deal the United States can get at this stage. Any other road almost surely leads to an ending in which helicopters ferry people out of the Green Zone to Kuwait.

The one thing that is sure is that there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq as we approach the 2008 elections. The voters and the military made that clear in the 2006 election. Of course there will be a massive blame game - among Republicans as to who lost the 2006 elections, and between Democrats and Republicans as to who lost Iraq. But the word on everyone's mind is "lost."We can also be sure that bombing either North Korea or Iran is off the real agenda (including for Israel). The U.S. armed forces and the U.S. electorate will not tolerate it (not to speak of the rest of the world). Where will this leave the United States as a world power? It will probably result in a big push towards drawing inward. Already, in the 2006 elections, many candidates won by opposing "free trade" and Iraq was a dirty word. The political temptation will be to go local in emphasis. One of the major side effects will be a notable reduction in U.S. support for Israeli foreign policy, which will be wrenching for Israel.

The Democrats are united on internal economic legislation - higher minimum wages, better and more affordable health care, financial aid to college students. They are also going to push ecology issues and medical advances (stem cell research, for example). If the Republicans hope to recuperate strength, they will have to move their economic program as well as their program on social issues somewhat in a centrist direction.

The result, as is already obvious, is to create major turmoil in the Republican party, while reducing it in the Democratic party - the exact opposite of what has been the case in the last decade. And in early 2009, George W. Bush will fade into the wilderness, remembered (if we bother) for being the front man for the mother of all defeats - in Iraq, in the world-system, and at home for the Republican party.


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