Plenty of people who opposed the war in Iraq and question the advisability of an imperial role for the United States are in something resembling despair following Tuesday’s election results – probably more so than would have been the case had not those pesky early exit polls offered a few hours of belief that John Kerry just might pull it out against the odds. Without denying the all-too-likely probability that a second term with at least a majority is likely to be interpreted in administration circles as a mandate for more aggressive implementation of his vision of using military attacks on disfavored countries as a surrogate for a real effort to root out specific terrorists who have attacked or endangered the United States, I would like to suggest that the earlier we curb our despondency the better off we will be.
It is a time for determination, not despair.
The big picture, of course, is that a relatively free country, which the United States still is to some extent, is bigger than its political leaders. Political leaders didn’t bring us the computer revolution or cell phones. They tried to jump on to the tail end of the civil rights movement once it was powerful enough to achieve most of its goals without them, and they missed the extent of opposition to the Vietnam war until it was powerful enough to displace a sitting president. They had little or nothing to do with the cultural upheavals of the 1960s or the various revolutions in fashion and preferences that have shaken American culture since.
Putting too much hope – or despair – into political leaders is almost certain to take our eyes off the real objectives. Insofar as our real objectives involve reducing the willingness of a significant portion of the broad American public to support war and building support for non-imperial and post-imperial foreign policies, the identity of the current inhabitant of the Oval Office is significant but not necessarily all-important. Our job is to operate on a broader scale than simply opposing current administration policies or trying to alter them slightly, and it is likely to go on as long as any of us draw breath.
Some will argue otherwise – and a case can be made that a Bush administration will be more aggressive overseas during a second term – but it might be helpful to remember that for now we are at least no worse off than we were before the election. A president who operates more on will and faith than on calculation, in-depth knowledge, or strategic thinking has been in charge since 9/11 – when he may have had his epiphany – and he is in charge still. What he will do in the future is still not determined.
Winding Down the War?
There is even a possibility, now that the election is over and the need to appear infallible is less apparently pressing, that the administration will assess Iraq more objectively, begin to understand how badly things are going and how difficult it will be to establish a viable democracy in Iraq, and decide to cut their losses.
They would be unlikely to put it that way, of course. They would say that our invasion has removed a brutal dictator and cleared the path for a decent government to do the hard work on its own (with oil revenues, of course) of charting a better path for Iraq and the entire Middle East. Having accomplished so much, and having no imperial ambitions, as we have said all along, we are handing off the job to the viable Iraqi government and the grateful Iraqi people. Our policy has been a rip-roaring success, and all those wimpy naysayers have been proven wrong.
If we get even a hint that this is the way the administration is leaning, we should be encouraging. There is just a chance that the Iraqi invasion will turn out to be the high-water mark of the American imperial enterprise. The American people can certainly be worked up into pugnaciousness, and by and large they are not burdened with an excess of historical knowledge or concern for possible unpleasant long-term ramifications of current policies. But they still don’t have the temperament needed to support a long-term imperial policy.
Few Americans see spending most of their lives in imperial outposts as preferable to making careers here at home. For the most part, Americans want quick solutions to problems, and if they don’t get them, they lose interest quickly. About half of Americans already think the Iraq was a mistake – although it isn’t the issue highest on their personal agendas – and the number is likely to grow as things get bloodier, which is likely even in the next few days, if an attack on Fallujah is really in the offing. If there’s anything the Bush White House knows how to do, it’s interpret polls and public opinion and use them to its political advantage. There have long been rumors that Karl Rove was advising the president that winding down the war was the best political move. Perhaps they will begin to do so.
A Bang or a Whimper?
Of course, I would prefer the U.S. empire to end with something of a bang – a conscious and conscientious decision, following a full public debate and discussion, to try to preserve the long-term viability of the United States and its historic experiment in liberty, by ending the ill-advised venture into neo-imperialism that has characterized the last 10 years (and to some extent the last 50). In my perfervid dreams, I see a U.S. president making a series of speeches explaining this new policy, in conjunction with withdrawals of U.S. troops from country after country and perhaps a series of goodwill tours to explain in detail to world leaders in different regions the implications of a new policy of a defense that defends rather than one based on forward bases, endless meddling and lecturing, and offensive preemption.
In fact, empires seldom end this way. They fall apart, with little or no acknowledgment of the fact that they are falling apart by the political leaders who preside over them (often enough, as in the case of Winston Churchill, leaders who have vowed that they would not preside over the disassembling of the Empire). Unless there are barbarian invasions or military defeat – which tend to put a capstone on decline rather than cause it – the slow fall of empires is usually explained as a series of shrewd strategic moves to bolster and strengthen imperial power rather than outright acknowledgment that imperial power is overstretched.
I am unlikely to mind it too much, then, if the process of dissolving an empire is accompanied by constant denials that that is what is going on – or even denials that we ever had an empire in the first place.
Therefore, it’s not inconceivable that the administration itself could decide that their best bet could be to wind down the war in Iraq with as little embarrassment as possible. There are those who say the real purpose of the war was to establish permanent U.S. military bases to give the country the ability to project power in the region while avoiding the unpleasant political ramifications of having them in Saudi Arabia. Even if that was part of the initial impetus, however, some forces in the administration might well be coming to believe that permanent bases in Iraq will bring on the same kind of unpleasant instability that bases in Saudi Arabia have.
Winding Down Iraq
A best-case scenario: pulling off reasonably credible elections in January, having the security situation stabilize as potential insurgents see a possible alternative future, drawing down U.S. troop levels gradually until full control is turned over to a broadly supported new government in late 2005 or early 2006. That would give the U.S. more flexibility and options for dealing with stateless terrorism and emerging challenges from Iran and North Korea.
It would take luck as well as skill and determination to pull of that timetable. It’s more likely the U.S. will have troops in Iraq for years to come. That could provide an impetus for the best long-term approach to jihadist terrorism: changing our foreign policy so we have less direct political and military involvement in the Middle East. Let’s face it: Middle Eastern countries sitting on huge pools of oil get no benefit from that oil unless they sell it. We don’t need troops over there to ensure that they do.
Another possibility for jujitsuing current trends to our advantage? President Bush has begun the process of reorienting the U.S. troop presence around the globe by talking about moving troops from Germany, South Korea, and even Japan. The all-too-gradual administration plan is to move some to Don Rumsfeld’s "New Europe" or to bolster force levels in Iraq.
Perhaps we can help here by applauding the move – as far as it goes – while suggesting that a better course would be to consider a more extensive redeployment, mainly to the United States.
The threats of the near future, we can point out, are more likely to come from terrorist cells and guerrilla forces than from nation-states seeking to challenge U.S. dominance. The best way to deal with them is through agile, mobile, high-tech special forces able to move quickly and lethally and improvise in the field – Secretary Rumsfeld’s "lean and mean" military vision in spades. Stationing large numbers of conventional troops in Germany, Okinawa, Korea, and Central Asia – let alone the volatile Middle East – is more likely to stir resentment than to improve national security. It’s long past time to move beyond Cold War deployments and prepare a more effective and appropriate deployment plan for the threats of the near future.
One final note to those in despair. American presidents who win second terms always go into them with the idea that they now have a mandate, along with the means and the experience, to put their agenda truly in place. I remember some dear Republican friends who really thought, back in 1972, that once reelected, Nixon would really get on with the job of reducing the size and scope of government. Other presidents and their supporters have had similar hopes.
In fact, however, second terms in American politics tend to be marked by ineffectualness and scandal. Think of Nixon and Watergate. Think of Reagan and Iran-Contra. Think Clinton and Monica.
Such a pattern might not be inevitable. But it might not be entirely accidental either; it could be built into the executive power structure. George W. Bush is likely to have a lot less real power, for good or ill, than his friends or enemies imagine now.