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The Impending Crisis

New Theses on the War in Iraq and the Future of U.S.

By Van Gosse

The war is already lost and almost everyone knows it: that is now the tacit premise of American politics, as defined by the Iraq Study Group, and the real debate is about how to get out.

The questions then become:

How long with the U.S. military stay in Iraq, to kill, and suffer, and die?

There is, of course, no physical force that we can imagine capable of expelling it, in strictly military terms, or even a scenario where it would begin collapsing internally and need to leave to save itself- as happened in the late Vietnam war years. It is a small, highly professional, extremely well-armed garrison lying on top of-only occasionally overlapping with--a chaotic, destabilized flux, a stateless civil society in perpetual war. We need to recognize that, given sufficient political will, the U.S. military could stay in Iraq as long it wanted, inside its "zones" and armored bases, like lethal aliens from another dimension periodically cutting through the terrible human reality of Iraq, leaving little behind but dead and wounded bodies.

Yet we all know that is not going to happen. Any possibility of the United States maintaining its position of ultimate authority in Iraq, and its "power projection" in the region, is radically contradicted by the political facts. There is no support left in this country for this garrison qua expeditionary force, outside of the purely partisan Republicans, who may or may not believe in the war itself, but are true bitter- enders for their President. They will defend the fuhrer-bunker until the last dog dies, but of course this isn't Berlin in 1945: every one of them has to worry about not just 2008, but many elections to come, and the real possibility that George W. Bush will be to the 21st century's first half what Herbert Hoover was to the 20th century's middle decades, from 1930 through the end of the 1960s--a remarkably effective shorthand for lethal incompetence and an obdurate refusal to heed the public will. The Democrats were able to run against Hoover for a very long time and I think they will be running against Bush Two for just as long. So, if( as I have argued for several years) the so-called "triumph" of the Republican New Right was inherently fragile, its prospects are now akin to those of a skater who can see only thin ice ahead of him or her.

Let's step back a minute, and look at what we thought would happen,leading up to when Bush assumed power in 2001. From when he started running in 1998, George W. Bush posed as a return to" normal" Republican politics, much less ideological, a Reagan or Gingrich Lite if you will. Not only was his entire campaign an exercise in rope-a-dope, avoiding hard language, letting the pompous, anxious Al Gore flail away and then deftly counter-punching. The younger Bush also positioned himself as did JFK back in 1960, not on the left or right of the de facto incumbent (Gore), but all around him. Obviously, Bush declared himself a "conservative," that was not in doubt. But in a key moment in the second debate he also suggested that the Clintonistas were overly interventionist with their aggressive" nation-building" strategies, and that we had to leave other nations alone to make their own decisions. Beyond that, he played (and continues to play) representational politics with a vengeance. I don't think any of us yet realize the brilliance of the public announcement that Colin Powell was his Secretary of State, at the Philadelphia Convention. In one stroke, Bush neutralized the image of intolerance, bitterness and outright racism that hung over the party. Not for black people, of course! But rather for those crucial suburban white voters, women in particular, that were the GOP's margin of victory.

Now we know that all of this playing towards the center-right in his own and the Democratic Party was a deeply cynical political maneuver, masking a fiercely militarist vision of total domination both internationally and here at home. And we have seen the consequences of this in the most severe attacks on our constitutional order in more than two hundred years, in the sneering defiance of international opinion and the deep damage to relations with traditional U.S. allies, in the sense that our politics are out of control and unaccountable to any normal limits. And the voters gave a resounding verdict on these ruinous policies, first and foremost the war, on November 7. They repudiated Bush and the Republican party and everything they stand for-unilateral militarism ,war as the health of the state, the corruption of democracy. Of course, I am not arguing that the voters demanded an end to U.S.global hegemony, or to corporate capitalism, or any such thing. No, but even if they all they asked for was a return to "norm al" politics, and a government responsive to the people, that marks a sharp turn to the left in the current climate.

In early 2007, we all know the problem looming over us, and by "we" I mean Republicans too: Bush is president for two more years, our troops are still there in even greater numbers than before, they are and will be dying in even greater numbers, and there is no end in sight, none at all. This is what I mean by "the impending crisis," which for a historian has clear resonances of the 1850s and the coming of the Civil War.

I do not believe the American electorate, Congress, or the military, are going to put up with two more years of this - another two or three thousand dead (at the rate we're going), severe exhaustion and demoralization in the Armed Forces, utter disaster staring Republicans in the face in 2008.

This is where we can begin to imagine a scenario akin to what finally forced another dangerous delusional president from office-in the summer of 1974, when senior senators in the president's own party ,following the final Supreme Court decisions and the vote in the House committee on impeachment, went to the White House to tell Nixon that he had no support left in Congress. In effect, they we reordering him to fall on his sword, and that is what he did by resigning.

But we are a long way from that moment, obviously, and Bush isn't Nixon - he's much less wordily and canny, unfortunately, much less subject to political realities. Nixon was an amoral man, indeed he glorified in it, thinking that made him Napoleonic. Bush, as we all know,is deeply convinced of his own righteousness, and messianic men are unpredictable: they don't play by the rules.

Still, the crisis must come in some fashion, if only because of the conjunction of both military and electoral realities.

Whatever you may think of militaries in general, they have a profound sense of history and institutional survival, and the United States military remembers Vietnam better than any of us-this is their waking nightmare, a rising insurgency all around them, an enemy they cannot see that gets better and better at hurting them, a people that hate them as occupiers. At some point, I feel sure, we are going to see not just the evident turmoil among senior officers that has played out in the intense attacks on Rumsfeld and John Murtha's amazing conversion to speaking as an anti- warrior. We will see resignations or a visible antiwar movement in the military. Most important, however, will be the direct messages sent back to military families, of desperation and anger - "get us out of here!" It is those messages, and of course the deaths, that have begun to drag, pull and push Republican congressmen into opposition, as they feel the discomfort and moral confusion of sacrificing the sons and daughters of their own constituents and friends.

The effects on conservative Members of Congress will of course be greatly magnified as we move over to Republican and Democratic moderates, who are not intensely partisan and loyal to the President, and want to hold their seats. In their case, it will be literally a slippery slope as they slide, even against their own will, into stronger and stronger opposition.

Driving this polarization and isolation of the president, of course ,will be the rapidly rising furor in both parties over the 2008 elections. We now know there will likely be an antiwar Republican in the race, one who is personally formidable and eloquent-Chuck Hagel (and if not him, someone else). It will be extremely important to see how Republican donors, columnists, activists and finally primary voters cast their verdicts, and whether or how other candidates (including the nominal frontrunner, McCain) position themselves against Bush.

In the Democratic Party, of course, everyone is going to oppose Bush in some way. Even Hillary Clinton has just put in her "troop cap" legislation, which is a perfect case of too-little, too-late, or what her husband used to call "triangulation" - putting herself in a third position between for and against the war. And unfortunately, we can expect a lot more of that, calibrated vagueness about what each of them would do as president, as the press constantly warns them of the dangers of "McGovernism," and shills for McCain. In a sense then, the presidential race already broken out now will have contradictory effects: it will both arouse public debate, because of the incessant jockeying and outreach in both parties, and confuse it because all of the candidates with rare exceptions will be spinning like mad.

What is most likely, then, is a bipartisan, brokered deal among those stalwarts who are not running and have no desire to run for president, the Carl Levins and John Warners if you will, to rein in Bush, and force an evacuation, a change of course. That is the most likely scenario-that he will stay in office but largely gutted, reduced in power, forced finally to compromise. In that vein, one can easily imagine a slew of resignations - Rove, Rice, perhaps Cheney, for "health reasons," if the pressure becomes truly intense.

There are other possibilities, though. What if Bush refuses, insists on his "Commanderism"?

Here are the possibilities we should begin considering, things that might happen between now and January 2009:

* A large-scale family intervention, from "Poppy" Bush, his mother, Jeb and the rest, to save the family name;

* Resolutions of no-confidence in both Houses of Congress-a parliamentary solution for a presidential state, perhaps preceded by such resolutions in state legislatures;

* In support of such resolutions, truly massive demonstrations across the country, millions and millions of people flooding the streets to demand an end to the war and a presidential resignation;

* Meanwhile, one or more presidential campaigns catching fire and overwhelming the conventional wisdom about who is electable (in either party) because of an antiwar message, repudiating militarism and empire.

Here's the point, though. All of these possibilities insist that this is the greatest opportunity for a true American Left in my lifetime or that of anyone reading this screed. Naturally, it's also a dangerous time, pregnant with all kinds of possibilities, but we need to collectively be ready to grab it, to enter into and help shape what could be one of the decisive moments in United States history. The fifty-year rightist project to seize control over the American state is collapsing in the backwash of a catastrophic imperial defeat. What will replace it? The ambitions of Steny Hoyer and Hillary Clinton; the healing, Kennedyite visions of another handsome young Harvard graduate, of African descent (though we could certainly do worse)? At other points in our history--in the thirty years leading to the Civil War; during the New Deal; of course, during the long "Sixties," popular movements radically reshaped conventional politics. It is our job to do so once again. We have a world to win, or save.


Van Gosse teaches U.S. history at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, and represents the Historians Against the War(www.historiansagainstwar.org) on the Steering Committee of United for Peace and Justice. -- Van Gosse Department of History Franklin and Marshall College