At the height of his power, Joseph McCarthy appeared invincible. Beginning in 1950, the senator from Wisconsin made a name for himself by claiming that the USA government employed hundreds of communists. For the next four years, no one in Washington dared stand up to McCarthy’s witch hunting. Yet his over-reach soon prompted the establishment to regard him as an unsteady extremist and to turn against him. Within months, the USA Senate had voted overwhelmingly to censure the demagogue, and McCarthy’s career was finished.
The illegal war of aggression against Iraq has become a festering sore, and will be to the future shame of all American political society.
Fifty years later, USA President George W. Bush is about to suffer the same fate. He, too, looked invincible after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Afghanistan. With help from advisers, Bush, too, intimidated critics into silence by challenging their patriotism. And Bush, too, eventually over-reached, insisting on a war in Iraq that has now blown up in his face. Opinion polls have shown for weeks that Bush is being dragged down by Iraq, but the polls only hint at a deeper problem: The costs of the Iraq war have turned America’s political middle, both inside Washington and across the country, against Bush. Politics are unpredictable and a lot can happen in four months. But absent a miraculous return to calm in Iraq, Bush is headed for defeat in November.
The USA is often described as polarized on political and cultural issues, with half the country favoring Democratic and half preferring Republican values. In fact, over a third of the electorate identifies itself as “independent,” sometimes leaning to the right, sometimes to the left. In effect, they are the kingmakers of American politics, and they will decide Bush’s future. Bush will never lose the third of the electorate that stands on the right of the political spectrum. Nor will he gain the third on the left. It is the middle third whose votes will be decisive.
Bush’s approval ratings soared after Sept. 11, largely because most of the middle third rallied behind him. And they stayed behind him for the next two years, through the initial phase of combat in Iraq. But when the USA occupation began unraveling this spring, many independents began rethinking their support of both the war and the president who launched it. A poll in June by the Annenberg Election Center found that nearly twice as many self-described independents disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq as approved it. By late June, a majority of Americans was saying that the war was not worth its cost and had increased, not reduced, the threat of terrorism.
This dissatisfaction on national security issues - which had been Bush’s strength - has driven his overall approval ratings down to 42 percent, according to a New York Times-CBS News poll released on June 27. Not only is this the lowest level during Bush’s presidency, it is dangerously low by historical standards. During the last 50 years, no president suffering such poor approval ratings four months before an election has recovered to win a second term.
Bush brought these troubles upon himself. He sold the Iraq war as an act of idealism and self-defense, and Americans trusted him. But the war they signed up for is not the war they got. The weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda that were the war’s main rationales turned out to be false. USA troops in Iraq were not greeted as liberators but resented as occupiers. And the Abu Ghraib pictures sickened the public, undercutting faith in the war’s morality.
Worst of all for Bush, USA casualties and televised beheadings of hostages have fed Americans’ doubts that the war can ever be won. These doubts are more important than the absolute numbers of casualties in Iraq. Analysis of USA public opinion during previous wars shows that Americans will accept relatively large numbers of casualties if they believe that a war is being won. But once Americans conclude it cannot be won, even small numbers of casualties are regarded as unacceptable. This dynamic not only explains the erosion of Bush’s support over the past four months, it suggests his ratings will fall further in the months ahead unless violence in Iraq dramatically declines.
The Bush administration plainly hopes the recent transfer of official sovereignty to Iraqis will reassure the American public that USA involvement in Iraq is winding down. But no amount of spin can disguise the fact that 140,000 USA troops are still in Iraq and will remain there past election day. Insurgents are sure to continue targeting these troops (and the thousands of civilian contractors in Iraq), making additional casualties certain.
All this will keep Iraq in the news through to the election. And the tone of coverage will be skeptical, largely because the center is also turning against Bush inside Washington. Most Washington journalists are hostages to official sources; the doctrine of objectivity means they can’t report that grass is green unless someone in authority says so. This helped Bush after Sept. 11, when Democrats and Republicans held their criticism for the sake of national unity. But beginning with the dissent in 2003 of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who blew the whistle on the administration’s false claims about Saddam’s nuclear weapons capabilities - and saw his wife identified as a CIA agent in retaliation - more and more Washington insiders have dared oppose Bush’s foreign policy.
The most recent case is an anonymous high-ranking CIA official who charged in his book “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism” that Bush played into Osama bin Laden’s hands by invading Iraq. In mid-June, a group of 26 former generals and diplomats issued a statement charging that the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially in Iraq, had damaged USA national security and urged that Bush not be re-elected. The White House dismissed the group as partisan, but the conservative pedigree of many of its members made that jibe unpersuasive. Meanwhile, Bush and his neoconservative advisers have also received extraordinary criticism from active duty military officers, exemplified by an Army Times editorial that insisted that the administration should not be allowed to pin blame for Abu Ghraib solely on low-ranking troops.
This dissent colors the tone of coverage. The same news outlets that cheered Bush on through the initial combat phase in Iraq are now running stories highlighting the problems for the USA occupation. Journalists were embarrassed by how uncritically they transmitted the administration’s now-discredited rationale for war, and some are trying to make up for it. The New York Times and Washington Post have published self-criticisms, but more important has been the new skepticism of the press corps, and not only on Iraq. When Attorney General John Ashcroft called a news conference to warn that terrorists might strike during the Memorial Day holiday, reporters immediately asked if he was not simply attempting to manipulate the public mood - a challenge that would have been inconceivable six months ago.
But even hot-button issues won’t distract voters anguished by the deaths in Iraq. Nor is the economy, usually the most important influence on voters, likely to save Bush. In recent months the government has reported that the economy is expanding, jobs are being created and consumer confidence is increasing. But these announcements have not translated into more support for Bush in polls, perhaps because they come in the wake of the largest USA job losses in history and because many of the new jobs are in the low-paying services sector. Even if the economy continues to improve, it may not help Bush much.
In the history of USA presidential elections, there is one issue that trumps the economy in influencing voters. When the country is engaged in a shooting war, the latter becomes decisive in voters’ choices. That’s not good news for Bush.
The 2004 election is, in short, John Kerry’s to lose. And while no one should put that past the stiff Massachusetts senator, this election is not primarily about Kerry. One last lesson from USA presidential history: When an incumbent is running for re-election, the vote is more a referendum on him than a judgment on his challenger. Do voters want to give this president another four years or not? Bush is running against himself, and his mishandling of Iraq makes that a losing proposition. As with Joe McCarthy, the American middle is finally waking up. And George W. Bush is going down.
Mark Hertsgaard is a correspondent for The Nation and Link TV and the author, most recently, of “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.”
Article courtesy of the Daily Star