As president Lyndon B Johnson struggled with the colossal illusion and gigantic defeat that was the American engagement in Vietnam, he consulted with the group termed "the wise men". There was nothing particularly wise about them, but they were the figures who managed empire on behalf of the financial and industrial ruling class. At first, they instructed Johnson to ignore the anti-war movement and Vietnamese resistance, and to persist with the war.
Domestic protest at the war increased, mutiny broke out in the United States armed forces, and Vietnamese resistance proved unbreakable. Johnson's counsellors reversed course, and told him early in 1968 to get out of Vietnam. It was then that he declared his readiness to negotiate with the enemy, replaced Robert McNamara as secretary of defence, and announced his own departure from public life. Johnson's successor as president in 1969, Richard Nixon, accepted his conclusion that the war could not be won. But it was not until 1973 (and the loss of hundreds of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives) that a peace agreement was signed. Nixon and his diplomatic alter ego, Henry Kissinger, were primarily concerned with not accepting any responsibility for defeat.
It is difficult to know what Kissinger actually thinks about the Iraq war, since his writings are a good deal more nuanced than the advice the journalist and author Bob Woodward asserts that Kissinger gives to President George W Bush - which is not to retreat.
The Baker plan
Much more importantly, it is now clear that it is unclear what Bush will do. His words and actions have been consistent, exhibiting a convincing resistance to fact and an aggressive frenzy. However, the Bush family has a master counsellor, their fellow Texan James A Baker 3rd. Baker, like the elder George Bush, knows war at first hand (in his case, the Korean war). He was chief of staff and treasury secretary to Ronald Reagan, and the elder Bush's secretary of state. He was in charge of the present president's campaign to win Florida in the post-election period of 2000.
As secretary of state, he was one of the few modern secretaries to openly refuse to align US policy with that of Israel, insisting that it was Israel which had to yield. Baker, with the former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, has been chairing a bi-partisan "Iraq Study Group".Although Baker and Hamilton announced some time ago that they would make no recommendations until after the midterm congressional elections in November 2006, Baker has now decided to speak. He said that there is a course open between total withdrawal and maintaining or increasing the present involvement; has suggested direct talks with Iran and Syria; and agreed that the present situation is untenable. (Perhaps his decision to speak is intended to help the Republicans shortly before an election in which the Iraq war is not working in their favour. Alternatively, Baker has decided that the time has come to help the younger Bush by putting public pressure on him. Indeed, the opinion polls now suggest that an American majority thinks the Iraq war is a mistake.)
Norman Birnbaum is university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center. Among his books is After Progress: American Social Reform And European Socialism In The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Also by Norman Birnbaum in openDemocracy:
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(26 August 2005)
The Baker statement presents us with a grotesque situation. The Democrats, or most of them, have been very careful to criticise the president's conduct of the Iraq war on grounds of incompetence, rather than to challenge the underlying assumption that there is a global "war on terror" which requires extreme measures and permanent mobilisation for equally permanent intervention in the affairs of other nations.
The Democrats have convinced themselves that to show flexibility (to inquire, for instance, about negotiating with the rebellious elements in Iraq) would open them to charges of irremediable weakness. At the behest of the Israel lobby, they have stridently condemned Iran and Syria and dismissed advocates of negotiating with these countries as misguided. They have used the vacuous term "redeploy" to substitute for "withdrawal" when talking of US forces in Iraq.
Now the ruthless Baker has rendered any Democratic initiative irrelevant, by claiming that he speaks for a non-partisan consensus on the national interest. The fact is, he does - if we define that interest in terms of the systematic effort to maintain as much global hegemony as possible. Baker rejected the one specific Democratic proposal - support for the partition of Iraq (made by Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee) - on grounds of its infeasibility. Given Baker's lifelong connection with the US oil industry, we can suppose an equally effective motive is a concern that Iraq's oil fields could become a perpetual object of contention.
The Democrats' problem
I write four weeks before the midterm elections. The significance of the Baker statement is clearly apparent to most participants in public debate. It indicates the possibility that Bush will, sooner rather than later, alter his course. From the perspective of our imperial managers, it might be an advantage to have a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives (or even Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate) to legitimate the change. There is an additional benefit for the Republicans: the more belligerent and primitive of their voters can be appeased with the explanation that it is not Bush who is ceding, but a Congress which does not share the president's courage and resolution.
It remains to be seen how the Baker sortie works itself into the political process. Until now, the public conviction that the Iraq venture is deeply flawed has been gaining ground. Earlier in the year, the president lost the majority which once believed that there was a direct alliance of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda: it no longer appeared convincing. The absence of weapons of mass destruction has been transformed, for a majority, from a massive error into a purposeful deception. What was missing was a clear majority in favour of withdrawal, as opposed to the majority willing to declare that the war was a mistake. What can happen now - especially if, in the effort to maintain a consensus, the president refrains from an attack on either Syria or Iran - is a diminution of public focus on Iraq as diplomats and generals desperately attempt to find a solution.
There, a further difficulty will intrude. Apart from the general legitimisation of a total American right to send its armed forces anywhere at any time, the Republican unilateralists have lacked a coordinated and specific international strategy. Put another way, they have known what they did not want: environmental regulation, redistributive economic development, more powers for the United Nations, too much autonomy for the European Union. They have had no answer as to how, given the rise of Asia and the independence of the Latin American bloc, US hegemony can be maintained in the long run. They are strenuous proponents of Nato's extension eastward, under US command - but, of course, official and public scepticism in the major west European nations is a barrier to the total transformation of the Atlantic alliance into an American instrument.
The Democrats adhere, for the most part, to their own version of multilateralism. The difficulty with it is that it assumes a position for which there is very little evidence - that the role of the US (except for regrettable mistakes like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq) is invariably benign. The Democrats frequently speak of the cultural and social values which make the US model of society so appealing to citizens of other nations: ethnic and racial and religious equality, the separation of church and state, civil liberties and human rights (not least, those of women). A major difficulty is that these values are hardly uncontested within the US itself: substantial numbers of citizens oppose these, in theory and in practice. Moreover, the institutionalisation of these values presupposes what the US lacks: a broad consensus on economic and social equality and, at the very least, some restraint of market-generated inequalities.
There are two additional difficulties with the Democratic approach to foreign affairs.
Much of the intellectual work it entails is done by academics, congressional staff, research institutes and the Democratic contingent in the governmental foreign-policy apparatus. A great deal of it is neither disinterested nor reflective: it is the purposeful construction of a consensus, often at a low common intellectual denominator. Nothing can be as damaging to a career in Washington as a reputation for obdurate independence. Most foreign-policy statements written by people in the Democratic orbit may be interpreted as applications for posts in the next Democratic administration.
The second difficulty is the close connection of the Democratic Party to the Israel lobby. substantial amount of the funding of the party (perhaps one-third, if not more) comes from Jewish citizens. The most outspoken critics of the alliance with Israel are also in the Democratic Party, in the Congressional Black Caucus, the Progressive Caucus and the socially critical and internationalist parts of the Catholic and Protestant churches. Still, given the dependence of the party on Jewish voting blocs in California and New York, and the effectiveness of the Israel lobby in its singular mixture of intimidation and persuasion, most congressional Democrats are unlikely to dissent from unequivocal support for Israel.
It is significant, however, that the Israel lobby has not had an easy time recently. There was a good deal of US criticism of the disproportionate savagery of the attack on Lebanon. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's conspicuous sabotage of UN efforts to obtain a cease-fire, until Israel was ready for one, has contributed to a vertiginous loss of her prestige. The supporters of Israel made every effort - unsuccessfully - to stop the Council on Foreign Relations from inviting the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to a discussion.
What renders the lobby especially nervous, however, is the return to politics of figures such as James Baker, known for their refusal to accept the assumption of an identity of interest between the US and Israel. The supporters of Israel - and especially those close to the present Israeli coalition government - have been uncritical advocates of the war on Iraq in particular and the "war on terror" in general. They fear nothing so much as the view that the US must cease its total support for Israel in order to pacify the middle east and the Islamic world.
The mindset of power
Intellectual reflection on the election and the political climate has entailed the assertion that the "neo-conservatives" - having conceived the war in Iraq and still arguing for one on Iran - are on the defensive. That is so in the short run. The "neocons" were originally Democrats who were an integral part of the party's trade union and internationalist sectors. They began their not very long march to the Republicans in the 1960s. The issues that moved them were the Vietnam war (in which they took an aggressive position), the question of Israel (after they were dismayed by initial criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by the liberal and modern US Christian churches), and the rise of blacks as an independent political force.
Later, they opposed the efforts at coexistence undertaken by Nixon, his successor Gerald Ford and Kissinger, and specifically opposed arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union in an unsuccessful effort to compel it to allow Jewish emigration to Israel. To a large degree the term "neo-conservative" describes supporters of Israel. However, it also describes the belief that the US is an achieved revolution - and an alliance with defenders of traditionalist values and proponents of a minimal welfare state and a deregulated economy.
The neocons have moved, then, from their earlier attachment to what was termed the warfare-welfare state to a belief in empire abroad and a market-dominated society at home. That a market society is conspicuously unable to mobilise the enthusiasm of its exploited and fragmented citizenry for global hegemony (since its citizens are preoccupied with economic survival and a declining living standard) surely has occurred to them.
That is why they join President Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney in cultivating fear as the predominant cultural and psychological motive of contemporary American life: fear of "terror," of immigrants, of sexuality, of threats from Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and even of the dying Fidel Castro in Cuba. Fear, too, of the refusal of erstwhile allies and friends (the Europeans) to accept American hegemony. The simple-mindedness, crudity and aggressiveness of the bearing and rhetoric of the president are assets. They are indispensable to Bush's retention of his electoral clients among the more unreflective.
The difficulty, for both Bush and his party, is that his arguments no longer seem so compelling. When Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois ran for president against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, an enthusiastic supporter told him, "All the intelligent people are for you." Stevenson replied: "Not enough. I need a majority." Bush has drawn upon the once limitless reservoir of American ignorance and primitivism, but no longer has a majority.
The election and beyond
To this has been added the absurdly exaggerated drama around a Republican congressman with a sexual interest in congressional messenger boys. Those colleagues who were complicit in ignoring Mark Foley's frailties have now turned on him with fury. Their rage is understandable. Much of the fundamentalist Protestant electorate actually believed that the Republicans were the party of God and family. The Foley case suggests that - in the US, at least - Lucifer is bi-partisan.
Perhaps, however, the impact of the scandal is greater for having been preceded by a general decline in the prestige of Congress, stemming from several cases of flagrant corruption. The Democrats have a serious chance of achieving a majority in the House of Representatives in next month's elections, and their Senate chances are looking increasingly favourable. But many of the serious questions confronting the nation are not being discussed in the electoral debates - above all the nation's deformed relationship to the rest of the world.
The concentration of electoral discussion on issues of public expenditure for education and health, on the steady loss of manufacturing employment abroad, on the increase in economic and social inequality, is conspicuous for its exclusion of the global context. Even immigration is discussed as if the only problem were the willingness of the US to receive immigrants, not the conditions in Latin America which lead so many to risk crossing the border.
In this context, the intellectual and political consequences of Bill Clinton's version of the "third way" has been Democratic inhibition. "The Hamilton Project", presented by the group preparing Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy in 2008, is a repetition of the policies of Clinton and his treasury secretary, Robert Rubin: systematic efforts to induce the private sector to invest; the Federal Reserve (the central bank) to lower the interest rate by restraining government expenditure; and government expenditure concentrated on education, research and the welfare state. The Clinton plan takes insufficient account of the internationalisation of the economy, and makes no mention of the enormous distortion of national income in arms expenditure.Empire, quite apart from the Iraq war, sets the framework of the election. In one aspect - treatment of domestic problems as purely domestic - it reflects imperial hubris. In another - the arms budget - it is equally casual in supposing that the nation can indefinitely continue to waste its resources. Whichever party emerges victorious in November, the next two years will be full of the torments of problems unresolved because they hardly have been acknowledged.