Bush's Crisis: A Steady Course to the Rocks

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Alexander Cockburn explains how domestic opposition to Bush's war on Iraq is beginning to bite.

The stench of panic in Washington hangs like a winter fog over Capitol Hill and drifts down Pennsylvania Avenue. The panic stems from the core concern of every politician in the nation's capital-survival. The people sweating are Republicans, and the source of their terror is the deadly message spelled out in every current poll - Bush's war on Iraq spells disaster for the Republican Party in next year's mid-term elections.

Take a mid-November poll by SurveyUSA - in only seven states did Bush's current approval rating exceed 50 percent. These consisted of the thinly populated states of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi. In 12 states, including California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan, his rating was under 35 percent.

You have to go back to the early 1970s, when a scandal-stained Nixon was on the verge of resignation, to find numbers lower than Bush's. Like Bush, Nixon had swept to triumphant re-election in 1972. Less than two years later he turned the White House over to Vice-President Ford and flew off into exile. No one expects Bush to resign, or even to be impeached (though Vice-President Cheney's future is less assured), and his second term has more than three years to run. But right now, to use a famous phrase from the Nixon era, a cancer is gnawing at his presidency, and that cancer is the war in Iraq. The American people are now 60 percent against it, and 40 percent think Bush lied to get them to back it.

Hence the panic. Even though the seats in the House of Representatives are now so gerrymandered that less than 50 out of 435 districts are thought to ever be likely to change hands, Republicans worry that no seat, however gerrymandered, can withstand a Force 5 political hurricane. What they get from current polls is a simple message. If the US has not withdrawn substantial numbers of its troops from Iraq by the autumn of next year, a Force 5 storm surge might very well wash them away.

Until US Democratic Representative John Murtha's speech of 17 November, the notion of immediate withdrawal had scant political traction on Capitol Hill. The force of Murtha's savage indictment of the war was that it came from a former drill sergeant in the US Marine Corps who has been an influential hawk in Congress for over a generation. He sits on the committees which allocate military funding. He tours military bases. He's gone to Iraq many times. He's no elite liberal, but from a blue collar district in Pennsylvania, where he's gone to bat for coalminers many times down the years.

Listen to Murtha and you are hearing how the US commanders in Iraq really see the situation: 'Many say the army is broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is down even as the military has lowered its standards. They expect to take 20 percent category 4, which is the lowest category - which they said they'd never take. Much of our ground equipment is worn out.' On Iraq's condition: 'Oil production and energy production are below pre-war level. You remember they said that was going to pay for the war, and it's below pre-war level. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment is 60 percent. Clean water is scarce and they only spent $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects. And - this is the most important point - incidents have increased from 150 a week to over 700 in the last year.'

Then, amid his tears, came Murtha's sketches of the war's consequences inside America:

'Now, let me personalise this thing for you. I have a young fellow in my district who was blinded and he lost his foot. And they did everything they could for him at Walter Reed [army medical centre], then they sent him home. His father was in jail, he had nobody at home - imagine this, a young kid that age, 22, 23 years old, goes home to nobody. VA [Veterans Affairs] did everything they could do to help him. He was reaching out, so they sent him - to make sure that he was blind, they sent him to John Hopkins Medicine. John Hopkins started to send him bills. Then the collection agency started sending bills. Imagine, a young person being blinded, without a foot, and he's getting bills from a collection agency.'

And finally, Murtha's call for a rapid pullout of US troops from Iraq, capped by one of the most amazing résumés of political reality ever administered to an audience on Capitol Hill:

'I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice. The United States will immediately redeploy - immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free, free from a United States occupation. And I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process.'

What happened on the heels of this speech is very instructive. The Democrats fell over themselves distancing themselves from Murtha. Three US senators hoping to win the presidential nomination in 2008 all denounced his proposal as premature, none more vehemently than Hillary Clinton, who announced at the start of Thanksgiving week that an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq would be 'a big mistake' which 'would cause more problems for us in America. It will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state.' From Bush's presidential plane, touring Asia, came the derisive comment that Murtha was 'endorsing the policies of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party.'

It took the travelling White House about 48 hours to realise that this was a dumb thing to have said. Murtha's not the kind of guy you can slime, the way Bush and Co did the glass-jawed Kerry in 2004. The much-decorated veteran Murtha snapped back publicly that he hadn't much time for smears from people like Cheney who'd got five deferments from military service in Vietnam. By the weekend Bush spoke of Murtha respectfully and on Monday, gritting his teeth, Cheney told a Washington audience that, though he disagreed with Murtha, 'he's a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion'.

One day later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News, 'I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now - for very much longer - because Iraqis are stepping up.' A week later Bush was preparing a speech laying heavy emphasis on US withdrawals as the Iraqi armed forces take up the burden.

Are there US-trained Iraqi detachments ready in the wings? Not if you believe reports from Iraq, but they could be nonagenarians armed with bows and arrows and the Bush high command would still be invoking their superb training and readiness for the great mission.

Ten days after Murtha's speech, commentators on the Sunday TV talk shows were clambering aboard the 'Bring 'em home' bandwagon. Voices, aside from the slurred one of Christopher Hitchens, calling for America to 'stay the course' in Iraq were few and far between.

Rubble, everywhere one looks. Already the most powerful politician in Washington, house majority leader Tom DeLay, is under indictment and therefore stripped of his official position. The future looks grim for Senator Bill Frist, who faces SEC and Justice Department probes for insider trading. The Bush high command is in utter disrepute, openly attacked by Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, as a dictatorial cabal. The Plame scandal has threatened to take out the whole of Vice-President Cheney's senior staff and have the vice-president himself as an unindicted conspirator.

Consider the gloomy view from Bush the Unlucky's Oval Office, where even the birds in the Rose Garden are omens of yet another national crisis (which is scheduled to provide a bonanza to the drug companies that a US Senate subcommittee just voted to hold free of any liability if their flu vaccines have the same lethal potential as they did in the swine flu panic a generation ago.)

The hurricanes have blown away all remaining public illusions about the venality and incompetence of the president and his cronies. The economy is rickety and a long-feared end to the housing boom may be upon us.

Is there any institution not compromised, not held in popular contempt? There is no doughty popular hero at hand. The journalists' names on every lip are those of Judith Miller, named co-conspirator in the fomentation of a war that has seen the deaths of 2,000 Americans thus far, and Bob Woodward, icon of the Watergate era now caught in the spotlights as a yet another Washington insider compromised by the Plame scandal.

There's no sign that the Democratic Party is gaining any traction from the Republican collapse. With good reason. Never has a party been offered so many opportunities and taken so little advantage from them.

If a Democrat, John Kerry, had captured the White House in 2004, would this have made a difference? Yes. The imperial machine would probably be running more smoothly. The war in Iraq would have been given a new infusion of malign energy. It's not the role of radicals to call for the election of a more efficient strategist and engineer of a bloodthirsty and rapacious empire, Kerry's only claim on the voters' attention anyone remembers. So let us give thanks that Bush is in the White House, and holding the imperial fleet on a steady course to the rocks.