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America's tipping point
From TomsDispatch.com, by Tom Engelhard:
It's finally Wizard of Oz time in America. You know -- that moment when the curtains are pulled back, the fearsome-looking wizard wreathed in all that billowing smoke turns out to be some pitiful little guy, and everybody looks around sheepishly, wondering why they acted as they did for so long.
..to their amazement, Bush administration officials find themselves thrust through the equivalent of a Star-Trekkian wormhole into an anti-universe where everything that once worked for them seems to work against them. As always, in the face of domestic challenge, they have responded by attacking -- a tactic that was effective for years...
But instead of watching the Democrats fall silent under assault as they have for years, they unexpectedly found themselves facing a roiling oppositional hubbub threatening the unity of their own congressional party.
..Now, the war threatens to crack open the Republican base and chase the dream of a single-party Republican political future -- only recently so close -- right off the map.
Losing the Fear Factor
How The Bush Administration Got Spooked
By Tom Engelhardt
It's finally Wizard of Oz time in America. You know -- that moment when
the curtains are pulled back, the fearsome-looking wizard wreathed in
all that billowing smoke turns out to be some pitiful little guy, and
everybody looks around sheepishly, wondering why they acted as they did
for so long.
Starting on September 11, 2001 -- with a monstrous helping hand from
Osama bin Laden -- the Bush administration played the fear card with
unbelievable effectiveness. For years, with its companion "war on
terror," it trumped every other card in the American political deck.
With an absurd system
for color-coding dangers to Americans, the President, the Vice
President, and the highest officials in this land were able to paint
the media a "high" incendiary orange and the Democrats an "elevated"
bright yellow, functionally sidelining them.
How stunningly in recent weeks the landscape has altered -- almost like
your basic hurricane sweeping through some unprotected and unprepared
to their amazement, Bush administration officials find themselves
thrust through the equivalent of a Star-Trekkian wormhole into an
anti-universe where everything that once worked for them seems to work
against them. As always, in the face of domestic challenge, they have
responded by attacking -- a tactic that was effective for years. The
President, Vice President, National Security Adviser, and others have
ramped up their assaults, functionally accusing Democratic critics of
little short of treason -- of essentially undermining American forces
in the field, if not offering aid and comfort to the enemy. On his
recent trip to Asia, the President
put it almost as bluntly as his Vice President did at home: "As our
troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life,
they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them
into war continue to stand behind them." The Democrats were, he said
over and over, "irresponsible" in their attacks. Dick Cheney called them spineless "opportunists" peddling dishonestly for political advantage.
But instead of watching the Democrats fall silent under assault as they
have for years, they unexpectedly found themselves facing a roiling
oppositional hubbub threatening the unity of their own congressional party. In his sudden, heartfelt attack
on Bush administration Iraq plans ("a flawed policy wrapped in
illusion") and his call for a six-month timetable for American troop
withdrawal, Democratic congressional hawk John Murtha took on the
Republicans over their attacks more directly than any mainstream
Democrat has ever done. ("I like guys who've never been there that
criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five
deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't
like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done. I resent the
fact, on Veterans Day, he [Bush] criticized Democrats for criticizing
them.") Perhaps more important, as an ex-Marine and decorated Vietnam
veteran clearly speaking for a military constituency (and possibility
some Pentagon brass), he gave far milder and more "liberal" Democrats
For the first time since the war in Iraq began, "tipping points,"
constantly announced in Iraq but never quite in sight, have headed for
home. Dan Bartlett, counselor to the President and drafter of recent
Presidential attacks on the Democrats, told David Sanger of the New York Times that "Bush's decision to fight back… arose after he became concerned the [Iraq] debate was now at a tipping point"; while Howard Fineman of Newsweek dubbed Murtha himself a "one-man tipping point."
Something indeed did seem to tip, for when the White House and associates took Murtha on, John Kerry,
Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats leaped aggressively to his defense.
In fact, something quite unimaginable even a few days earlier occurred.
When Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt
of Ohio, the most junior member of the House, accused Murtha (via a
Marine colonel from her district) of being a coward, Democratic
Representative Harold Ford from Tennessee "charged across the chamber's
center aisle to the Republican side screaming that Ms. Schmidts's
attack had been unwarranted. ‘You guys are pathetic!' yelled
Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts. ‘Pathetic.'"
There could, however, be no greater sign of a politically changed
landscape than the decision of former President Bill Clinton (who
practically had himself adopted into the Bush family over the last
year) to tell a group of Arab students in Dubai only two-and-a-half
years late that the Iraqi invasion was a "big mistake."
Since he is undoubtedly a stalking horse for his wife, that great,
cautious ship-of-nonstate, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign,
should soon turn its prow ever so slowly to catch the oppositional
If you want to wet an index finger yourself and hoist it airwards to
see which way the winds are blowing, then just check out how the media
has been framing in headlines the recent spate of administration
attacks. Headline writing is a curious in-house craft -- and well worth
following. Changing headline language is a good signal that something's
up. When the President attacks, it's now commonly said that he's
"lashing out" -- an image of emotional disarray distinctly at odds with
the once powerful sense of the Bush administration as the most
disciplined White House on record and of the President and Vice
President as resolutely unflappable. Here's just a small sampling:
The Miami Herald, "President lashes out at critics of Iraq war"; the Associated Press, Cheney Latest to Lash Out at Critics; the Buffalo News, Bush lashes out at war critics;
even the Voice of America, Bush Lashes Out at Political Opponents Over Iraq Accusations.
In other headlines last week, the administration was presented in
post-Oz style as beleaguered, under siege, and powerless to control its
own fate: The Associated Press, for example, headlined a recent
Jennifer Loven piece, Iraq War Criticism Stalks Bush Overseas; the New York Times, a David Sanger report, Iraq Dogs President as He Crosses Asia to Promote Trade; and CNN headlined the Murtha events, A hawk rattles GOP's cage.
The language used in such recent press accounts was no less revealing. Sanger, for example, began his piece this way:
"President Bush may have come to Asia determined to
show leaders here that his agenda is far broader than Iraq and
terrorism, but at every stop, and every day, Mr. Bush and his aides
have been fighting a rearguard action to justify how the United States got into Iraq and how to get out."
While Loven launched hers with, "His war policies under siege at
home…," attributing the siege atmosphere and the Bush "counterattack"
to "the president's newly aggressive war critics."
Lashing out, stalked, dogged, under siege, counterattacking, fighting a
rearguard action -- let's not just attribute this to "newly aggressive
war critics." It's a long-coming shift in the zeitgeist, as evident in the media as in the halls of Congress.
On Thursday, for instance, ABC prime-time TV news, which led with a
story on the President "lashing out" at critics, then offered a long,
up-close-and-personal segment in which a teary-eyed Murtha spoke of the
war-wounded he's regularly visited at hospitals and the fraudulence of
administration policy. That same night, another prime-time news
broadcast turned the President's claim that the Democrats were
"irresponsible" in their criticisms into a montage of Bush repeatedly
saying "irresponsible" in different poses -- so many times in a row, in
fact, that the segment could easily have come from a sharp opening
sequence on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.
None of this would have been possible even weeks ago in a country where
it was once gospel that you don't attack a president while he's
representing the United States abroad. That's why, in the Watergate
era, Richard Nixon had such a propensity for trips overseas and
undoubtedly why our stay-at-home President's handlers decided to turn
him into a Latin American and Asian globetrotter. The question is: How
did this happen? What changed the zeitgeist and where are we heading?
Polls are, it might be said, what's left of American democracy.
Privately run, often for profit or advantage, they nonetheless are as
close as we come these days -- actual elections being what they are --
to the expression of democratic opinion, serially, week after week.
Everyone who matters in and out of Washington and in the media reads
them as if life itself were at stake. They drive behavior and politics.
Fear, too, is a poll-driven phenomenon. Not surprisingly then, it was
the moment late last spring when presidential approval ratings fell
decisively below the 50% mark and looked to be heading for 40%, that
the White House took anxious note and so, no less important, did a
previously cowed media. Somewhere in that period, the fear factor,
right in the administration's hands, was transformed into a feeling
fearful factor. As I've written elsewhere,
faced with the mother of a dead soldier on their doorstep, all the
President's men blinked and the Camp Casey fiasco followed. Soon after,
before hurricane Cindy could even blow out of town, hurricane Katrina
blew in and the President's ratings headed for freefall. In just the
last month, they look as if they had been shoved over a small cliff, dipping in the latest Harris and Wall Street Journal polls to an almost unheard of 34% (only five points above Richard Nixon's at his Watergate nadir).
The poll numbers which once gave the administration's fear factor
meaning have simply evaporated -- as have any figures which might
indicate that this administration is capable of staunching its own
wounds. Emboldening media and political opposition in Washington, such
figures give Murtha-like cover to behavior that not long ago would have
been unthinkable. A record 60% of Americans surveyed in the most recent
USA Today poll,
including one in four Republicans, said "the war wasn't ‘worth it.' One
in five Republicans said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake." Those who
felt things were "going well" for the country as a whole dropped nine
percentage points in a month.
Democrats long ago fled the ranks of presidential supporters, as
more recently have independents; now moderate Republicans are beginning
to peel away too. According to Tom Raum
of the Associated Press,"[Bush's] approval on handling Iraq fell from
87 percent among all Republicans in November 2004 to 78 percent this
month. Among Republican women, from 88 percent a year ago to 73 percent
now. Among independents, approval on Iraq fell from 49 percent in
November 2004 to 33 percent now." If you want a figure that, from the
administration's viewpoint, offers a frightening glimpse into a
possible future, consider the 79% of Americans who believe I. Lewis
Libby's indictment is "of importance to the nation"; this, despite Republican claims that the grounds for indicting were insignificant, and a new Libby defense fund made up of Republican high-rollers and assorted neocons.
In other words, replace the still emotionally charged issues of the war
in Iraq and the President's actions, where, at 34%-40%, a bedrock base
of support remains more or less intact, with a less charged
ethics-in-government issue and that vaunted Rock of Gibraltar shatters.
This is the previously inconceivable future so many Republican
politicians suddenly fear.
Just for the heck of it, throw in another factor -- "intensity" -- and
you have an even more volatile picture, given the lack of positive,
potentially mobilizing news on the domestic and foreign horizons. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post
suggests that the polling figures are even worse than they look because
intensity of feeling on the war issue is now "on the side of the war's
opponents." He adds:
"The findings on the strength of feelings about the war
were matched by the intensity of feelings about Bush himself: Only 20
percent of those surveyed said they strongly approved of the overall
job Bush was doing, while 47 percent strongly disapproved. A president
who has always played to his base finds that his base is steadily
In other words, doubt and demoralization are setting in -- a political
rot that can do untold damage. Given how many independents and moderate
Republicans who once supported the war have changed their minds, the
scathing attacks on Democrats for mind-changing on the war may not
prove a winning strategy either. They may, as Raum comments, "backfire
But here's a question: Can we trace Bush's polling near-collapse to its origins anywhere? In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine under the eerie title, "The Iraq Syndrome" (subscription only),
John Mueller, an expert on how wars affect presidencies, offers a
canny, cool-eyed interpretation of changing American opinion on Iraq.
He tracks polling data on the three sustained wars -- Korea, Vietnam,
and Iraq -- the U.S. has fought in the last half-century-plus where we
took more than 300 casualties.
All three show approximately the same polling pattern: broad enthusiasm
at the outset, a relatively quick and steep falloff in support,
followed by steady erosion thereafter from which no long-term
presidential recovery seems possible (certainly not via heightened
rhetoric). In all three wars, as support fell, pro-withdrawal sentiment
rose. Though some experts link this pattern to an American
"defeat-phobia," Mueller points out that, in cases like Lebanon in the
Reagan years and Somalia in the Clinton era, Americans have been quite
capable of swallowing withdrawal and defeat (of a sort) without making
the presidents involved pay any significant political cost.
The crucial factor in loss of support for each of these wars, Mueller
insists, is a growing casualty list and not just any casualties either
-- only American ones. (The fact that "vastly more" Iraqis have died
than all the victims of "all international terrorists in all of
history" matters little, he observes, in American popular judgments on
the war.) What makes Iraq stand out in this list of three "is how much
more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq. By early 2005,
when combat deaths were around 1,500, the percentage of respondents who
considered the Iraq war a mistake -- over half -- was about the same as
the percentage who considered the war in Vietnam a mistake at the time
of the 1968 Tet offensive, when nearly 20,000 soldiers had already
If Mueller's right, then the steady drip of American casualties -- many
less dead and many more wounded than in Korea and Vietnam, in part
because of improved medical care and triage techniques -- has seeped
deeply into American consciousness. This seems so, despite the
administration's careful attempt to keep returning bodies and
individual funerals out of sight and so out of mind; despite the fact
that the American dead -- 60 soldiers
in the first 19 days of October -- have largely been kept off the
front-pages of American papers and photos of dead Americans off
television (where dead Iraqis can regularly be seen). Short of massive
draw-downs of American forces in Iraq, there is no casualty end in
sight for this administration; and drawing down ground forces (while
substituting air power for them), as Richard Nixon learned in his
"Vietnamization" program, only solves a home-front problem at the cost
of creating staggering problems on the war front.
For an administration still fighting "withdrawal" with all its
strength, this may prove a problem with no exit -- further casualties
acting as a motor propelling the unhappiness that changes more minds
and pushes falling polling figures ever downward, propelling unease
about the country which only leads to escalating casualty figures of
another kind -- those growing defections from the ranks of your core
When Agendas Go Bump in the Night
To put the present crisis in some perspective, you could say that two
central agendas of the Bush administration proved to be in conflict,
although for years this was less than evident (even to the players
involved). There was the long-planned neoconservative drive to invade
Iraq and, through that act, begin to remake the Middle East. The
neocons were backed in this by Vice President Cheney and his crew in
the vice-presidential office as well as allied figures like John
Bolton, Stephen Hadley, and (some of the time) Donald Rumsfeld, none of
whom were necessarily neocons. The motives this disparate group held
for remaking the region in their image ranged from the urge to
establish a planetary, militarily enforced Pax Americana and/or an urge
to control the oil heartlands of the planet to a desire -- from the
Likudniks in the administration -- to secure the region for an
ascendant Sharonista Israel.
Whatever the overlapping motivations, at the heart of this policy lay
an urge to unleash a Constitutionally unfettered "war president" on the
was a crucial issue in all of this largely because, once established as
an essential tool of the war on terror, it would be proof beyond a
shadow of a doubt that George Bush's presidency had been freed of all
restraints.) Put into full effect on March 20, 2003, when the "war on
terror" melded into an invasion of Iraq, the policy was meant to place
in the President's hands every global lever of power that mattered for
It now seems far clearer that the endless fallout from the fatal
decision to invade Iraq is eating away at another agenda entirely, one
that emerged from the domestic political wing of this administration --
from Karl Rove, Andrew Card, Tom DeLay and their ilk. This was the
Republican desire to nail down the country as a purely red (as in
red-meat) Republican land. The vetting of the K-Street lobbying crowd,
the increasing control over the flow of corporate dollars into
politics, the gerrymandering of congressional districts to create an
election-proof House of Representatives, the mobilization of a
religious base dedicated to an endless set of culture wars, the
ushering in of a right-wing Supreme Court, and so many other activities
were all meant to create an impregnable Republican Party in control of
every lever of power in our country into an endless future.
The unfettered, imperial President and the unfettered, imperial
Republican Party were joined at the hip by the attacks of September 11,
2001, which led to both the "war on terror" abroad and the Patriot Act
and the Homeland Security Department domestically. Had the Bush
administration pursued both agendas, minus an invasion of Iraq, the two
might have remained joined far longer. The crucial invasion decision,
made almost immediately by the neocon war party backed by the
President, was supported by White House Chief of Staff Andrew (""From a marketing point of view,
you don't introduce new products in August") Card and Karl ("the
architect") Rove, both of whom believed that a good war, well promoted
and correctly wielded domestically, might drive a Republican agenda to
eternal domination in America. None of them expected that it would
prove to be the wedge driven between the two agendas.
The first hint of this was caught perfectly in a classic headline: On
May 2, 2003, George Bush co-piloted an Air Force jet onto the deck of
the USS Abraham Lincoln
(carefully kept thirty miles out of its San Diego homeport so that the
President could have his "top gun" photo op instead of climbing a
gangplank like any normal being). Following this "historic landing," he
stepped up to an on-deck podium where, under a White House banner that
read "Mission Accomplished," he declared that "major combat operations
in Iraq have ended." This was clearly meant to be the stunning start of
the President's campaign for reelection in 2004, a classic piece of
Rovian image manipulation and a nail in the coffin of the Democratic
Party. And so it seemed to most at the time.
But if you revisit the CNN story about the landing and speech,
headlined "Bush calls end to ‘major combat,'" it's hard now not to note
the subhead lurking just under it: U.S. Central Command: Seven hurt in Fallujah grenade attack.
Seven wounded American soldiers -- that really says it all. The
photo-op that was meant for the reelection campaign was already being
undermined by another story; two policies yoked together were already
pulling in different directions. Our present moment was already being
born, unnoticed but in plain sight.
Now both agendas are in disarray with no help whatsoever on the
horizon. Imagine, for instance, that the South Koreans timed the
announcement of the withdrawal of the first of their troops from
(Kurdish) northern Iraq for the moment the President arrived in their
country. Imagine that Tony Blair's people are now said to be perfecting total withdrawal plans for next year, and that the President recently may have had to slap down the top American general in Iraq for suggesting withdrawal (or at least drawdown) plans of his own. Imagine that various European nations
are now investigating (or in the case of an Italian court charging)
American agents in the war on terror with crimes. Imagine that the
President, who often insisted Saddam had been overthrown to rid Iraq of
its torture chambers ("the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever") and to end the reign of a "murderous tyrant who… used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people," now faces a "tip-of-the-iceberg" torture scandal
in Iraq involving the people we've brought to power and another
spreading scandal about the American use of a chemical-like weapon, white phosphorous,
on civilians in the city of Fallujah. Imagine that we proved less
capable than Saddam of delivering basics like electricity and potable
water to the people of Iraq, that we squandered billions of taxpayer
dollars in "reconstruction" funds there, and that we face an insurgency
which continues to grow and spread in opposition to a shabby elected
government all but in league with the Iranians. Imagine that the
President's Iraq War is now devouring his presidency and that it can
only get worse.
The Middle East is a sea of political gasoline just waiting for the
odd administration match or two; American foreign policy is in a kind
of disarray for which even the final days of Vietnam offer no
comparison; while at home, the DeLay, Frist, Libby, and Abramoff
scandals (and associated indictments) can only grow and spread. Special
Counsel Fitzgerald has just announced his decision to empanel a new
grand jury, sure to drive the Plame scandal ever deeper and higher into
the administration and ever closer to the 2006 elections or possibly
beyond. It would be easy to go on, but you get the idea.
It is a truism of American politics that voters are almost never driven
to the polls by foreign policy. In this case, however, the war in Iraq
has chased the President and his men ever since he landed on that
carrier deck. How little he knew what he was asking for when, in a
moment of bravado, he said
of the Iraqi insurgents, "Bring ‘em on." He just barely beat the
erosive effects of his war to the polls in November 2004. Now, it
continues to eat inexorably into the heartland of Republican political
domination. Even Republican discipline in Congress -- without the
Hammer's hammer -- has disintegrated under the heat of the war. As
Chris Nelson wrote recently in his Washington insider's newsletter, The Nelson Report:
"The stunning swiftness of the bipartisan Congressional
collapse of support for the Administration's conduct of the war in
Iraq, and by extension the entire anti-terrorism effort, is such that
it has not been fully appreciated by the ‘leadership' of either party.
That's the real meaning of a Senate vote which Republicans tried to
spin into a victory for the President, because they avoided the
Democrat's amendment to set performance-based withdrawal deadlines."
Now, the war threatens to crack open the Republican base and chase the
dream of a single-party Republican political future -- only recently so
close -- right off the map. No wonder the Democrats have just come out
swinging (sort of). The political shock and awe the administration so
regularly deployed after Sept. 11, 2001 no longer works. The Democrats
suddenly have discovered that -- no thanks to them -- the American
people are somewhere else and they have little to fear from George Bush
or Dick Cheney. No Presidential "counterattack," no "lashing out," no
set of speeches or new agenda (to be announced in the 2006 State of the
Union Address or anywhere else) is likely to change any of this for the
better for this President. Fear is no longer on the Bush
administration's side. No wonder they're now afraid -- very, very
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a
regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.
[Note for Tomdispatch Readers: Sometime after Thanksgiving,
in a companion piece, I'll take up the issue of what to make of the
various "withdrawal" plans and schemes already beginning to rain down
on us. In the meantime, for those who want to follow the American war
in Iraq, there are no better places to start daily on-line than: Antiwar.com for all the stories you're less than likely to see on the front page of your daily paper; Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog for the latest from Iraq with his own incisive essays thrown in for good measure; and Paul Woodward's War in Context website for his sharp eye for the telling story from papers around the world.]
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt