A Setback To Bush & The Neocons

23 November 2006
The Republicans’ defeat in the US mid-term elections is a massive setback for Bush and the neocons, but its importance has been overlooked by much of the India media. Praful Bidwai analyses the huge global significance of these elections and their implications for Indian foreign policy.

So utterly obsessed is the Indian media with the country’s nuclear deal with the United States that it has reduced its coverage of the Democrats’ impressive capture of Congress (America’s parliament) solely to a speculative discussion of its implications for the agreement’s passage. The Indian public thus risks missing the true domestic and global significance of the results of the US mid-term election, which represent a huge defeat for President George W. Bush and the dominant Neoconservative group of advisers around him.

The Democrats’ victory in both the House of Representatives (where they lead the Republicans 230 to 196), and the Senate (where they now have a 51:49 majority), leaves Mr Bush a lame-duck president mid-way through his second term.

The election, held to the entire House and a third of the Senate, turned into a referendum or plebiscite on Mr Bush’s leadership. The American public resoundingly rejected him and returned the House to the Democrats 12 years after the Republicans won it. It’s an eloquent comment to Mr Bush’s popularity that almost half the 58 candidates he campaigned for lost. Of the 18 candidates whom he visited more than once, only four won.

Crucial to the Republicans’ defeat were their elitist and unpopular domestic policies, their corruption and sleaze, and the Iraq war. The Democrats campaigned on a “Six for ‘06” platform, including alternative policies on healthcare, education, minimum wages and social security. However, it is the public’s reaction to the Iraq quagmire that formed “the driving factor” in the elections, as the Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel put it. (His management of the anti-Republican campaign drew praise from Mr Bush, no less.)

The Republicans repeatedly pledged to push “full-speed ahead” with their Iraq policy, thus isolating themselves and widening their rivals’ lead over them. They had obviously miscalculated the domestic unpopularity of Iraq’s occupation, which has caused the death of 655,000 Iraqi civilians and almost 2,000 US soldiers, without achieving an iota of stability.

Significantly, the election results have wrecked the Republicans’ plans to build a long-term Right-wing hegemony over the US and have a lock on domestic policies so that they can give them an ultra-conservative and pro-business turn. They have also undermined the stranglehold of the Neocons over Washington’s foreign and security policies. The authors of the “Project for a New American Century” wanted the pro-US “unipolar moment” appearing after the collapse of the Soviet Union to be prolonged /indefinitely/ so they could establish a modern-day Roman-style American Empire. They have suffered a well-deserved drubbing.

Nothing could be more humiliating for the Neocons than the sacking of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was responsible for many policy blunders that led to the present mess in Iraq. Some of these derived from his dogmatic faith in the “Revolution in Military Affairs” and “smart” weaponry—which doesn’t really work. According to the US Central Command, Iraq is now sliding into bloodshed, civil conflict and chaos.

Mr Rumsfeld’s replacement by former CIA director Robert Gates, a member of the “Iraq Study Group” headed by former Secretary of State and Bush Senior’s confidant James Baker, is expected to recommend a change of direction in Iraq. Mr Baker is a Republican “realist” of the old school, who believes in managing the world and does not share the Neocons’ zeal for aggressively reshaping it through “regime change” in “Axis of Evil” states and by spreading democracy.

The Neocons’ ascendancy under Mr Bush made for a particularly malign, militarised and bellicose America, which further raised its defence spending, invested heavily in nuclear weapons and “Star Wars”-style ballistic missile defence, and threatened to intervene in different parts of the world. The US walked out of arms control agreements like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and refused to sign the Rome treaty for the International Criminal Court.

The US invented all kinds of false banners and excuses for Empire, including destroying “weapons of mass destruction”, “humanitarian intervention”, “regime change” to promote democracy, and combating the narcotics trade. It invaded Iraq while antagonising its own treaty allies and alienating millions of people across the world, especially Muslims. The US’s operations in Afghanistan have only had limited success in destroying the Taliban/al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Islamophobic content of US “counter-terrorism” strategy has increased, earning it more criticism from all parts of the world.

Mr Bush has made the world a more discontented, turbulent and dangerous place. It’s thus extremely annoying to hear many Indian policy-makers mindlessly parrot the words, “Mr Bush may have been bad for the world, but he’s good for India”—as if India weren’t part of the world or had shrunk its horizons so miserably as to be unconcerned at the consequences of Mr Bush’s policies for the world, including Afghanistan, and West and Central Asia.

Such parochial and reductionist views speak poorly of India’s claim to emergence as a world power. They reflect the pitiable mindset of the Indian elite, which honours Mr Bush with a 56 percent approval rating, in contrast to his under-40 percent rating in most of Western Europe and the US itself.

At any rate, what does the new political combination in the US spell for the American people and for the larger world? Domestically, it’s likely to pave the way for a less stridently Right-wing, less slavishly pro-corporate and less uncompassionate policy regime, with fewer tax breaks for the rich and greater social spending. This will hopefully sober down Washington’s egregious global advocacy of “free-market” dogma too.

The US Congress is also unlikely to extend beyond June 2007 the mandate given to Mr Bush to conclude the Doha Round under the World Trade Organisation. This is likely to jeopardise the Round—to the /benefit/ of the developing countries, which have much to lose from opening up their markets to the developed countries’ manufactures and services.

However, even more important are the possibilities for change that open up in West Asia under Washington’s new political dispensation. West Asia, we must acknowledge, is /the crucible/ in which global politics is being reshaped. Several scenarios are possible, particularly for Iraq: first, the US withdraws in an orderly manner, leaving a credible democratic governance structure in place, shored up by genuine attempts at inter-ethnic reconciliation; second, Washington partitions or trifurcates Iraq into a Kurdish North, Sunni Centre and a Shia South; or third, transitional authority is vested in a broad UN-led multilateral arrangement which paves the way for a truly independent and democratic Iraq.

The first scenario is unlikely because it demands uncharacteristic wisdom, foresight and generosity on America’s part. The second is a recipe for a historic /catastrophe/. A partitioned Iraq won’t be at peace with itself or its neighbourhood. The whole region will bleed interminably. The US must be dissuaded from this course. The third scenario is feasible, but won’t happen unless many voices speak strongly in its favour, including the UN, the European Union, Russia, China, India, the Non-Aligned Movement and other groupings.

However, bringing the right scenario into being and shaping it will require a high degree of policy independence, vision and imagination. We must hope that the countries and leaders concerned develop these. The same combination must be applied to break the current impasse in Palestine, which is a precondition for healthy change in West Asia. This can only happen if the US abandons its strategy of supporting Zionism and Israel’s cynical campaign to strangle the Palestinian national liberation movement, massacre innocent people in the occupied territories, and bully and brutalise its neighbourhood.

This is a tall order, but the pressure of sane public opinion can and must be brought to bear upon the US—in international forums, bilaterally, and through civil society anti-war mobilisations like America’s “United for Peace and Justice” movement.

India’s best bet lies in exerting sobering influence upon the US on its Iraq and Israel/Palestine policies. But to do so, India must itself jettison its unbalanced approach to West Asia, which largely consists of tailing the US and further developing a skewed strategic alliance with one of the most abominably Right-wing governments in Israel’s history.

Only by changing its own foreign policy orientation can India contribute to reinforcing a healthy shift in US policy, while fighting for a more balanced, multipolar and less strife-torn world, in which the rule of law and global multilateral institutions are respected. The time has come for India to correct course by giving up its narrow-minded obsession with riding the US piggyback to global greatness and glory.

India must reclaim her broad-horizon, independent and Non-Aligned foreign policy and focus it sharply on promoting an agenda based on the universal values of peace, justice and balance, not the cynical pursuit of power without purpose.

An edited version of this article was published in The Daily Star, 21 November 2006

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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