Monday, January 24, 2005

Thoughts on the Inauguration

Last week, we saw the US political process reaffirm the mistake made two months ago – Bush was inaugurated. This poses a dilemma for the world – if the US were just another country, we could deal with this the way we deal with any other country that elects an erratic leader with a history of noxious policies. We would ignore them. Sadly, the world doesn’t have that option when it comes to the US.

How bad will the next four years be? I’ve already mentioned the Seymour Hersh piece that talks about the possibility of war with Iran. However, the more terrifying nugget of information in that piece was that Rumsfeld is busy constructing Special Operations teams that can avoid any legal oversight whatsoever. What could they be planning that they don’t even want to reveal it to a Republican Congress?

I’ve previously mentioned that I think the US economy is in for a major crash in the next four years. I should moderate that stance slightly, because usually a declining currency means cheaper exports and less imports. As the dollar continues its slide, exports should recover. Oddly, however, this doesn’t seem to be happening. For the last two years, the slide in the dollar has been accompanied by a growing, not shrinking trade deficit. This is a truly worrying trend.

I’ve also talked about Iraq. The news does keep getting worse and worse, but I feel no joy in being able to say “I told you so”. Noah Feldman, author of After Jihad and What We Owe Iraq was on CBC yesterday morning, saying that he thinks the elections have a chance to turn things around in Iraq because, he says, the Sunnis who largely make up the insurgency will trust elected Shia leaders more than they trust the current religious authorities. This, I think, is incredibly naïve. The Sunnis have controlled Iraq more or less since the British made it a colony, and aren’t wild about playing second fiddle to the Shia. Whether or not the Shia are elected can’t make much difference to their thinking, any more than Josef Stalin trusted US leaders because they were elected. What we have in the sectarian strife in Iraq is conceptions of legitimacy that are fundamentally different than what we in the west are used to thinking about. I believe that certain aspects of western demaocracy can be applied universally – but you have to have a respect for history first. It’s no accident that the only Muslim nation that qualifies as a real democracy (Turkey) was founded by a revolutionary leader who explicitly attacked Muslim traditions – “For the people, despite the people” was Attaturk’s motto – and was ruled largely by the ardently secular military for most of the 20th century.

So the next few years are likely to be bad for the US, and for all of us by extension. Back during the anti-war marches, I saw more than one sign comparing Bush to Hitler, but this misses the point: Just because he’s not Hitler (and so far, he’s not even close), that doesn’t mean he’s not evil. Bush has ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents in pursuit of a goal he was not able to accomplish. We can certainly accept that Hussein is a bad man, etc etc. And I certainly accept the humanitarian impulse to help people who suffer. But we have to ask what that obligation is when we have no means to help. If I could save a drowning child, and choose not to, that’s monstrous. If I can’t swim, and the child is out in deep water, what is my obligation then? Is throwing another non-swimmer in the water and saying “Go save that kid!” a reasonable response? To put it more clearly, wasting military and civilian lives on an impossible mission is not just foolhardy, it’s fundamentally evil.

The lives of the soldiers in the service of the United States do not “belong” to the government in the sense that they can be squandered for nothing. Militaries, at the end of the day, are used to effect political goals. It doesn’t matter if, like in Vietnam, the US wins every battle. If the war is lost – if not a single policy is achieved – that makes the lives lost more tragic, not less. The loss of 60,000 US lives in Vietnam, and coming up soon on 2,000 lives in Iraq is a crime. It goes without saying that the 2 million Vietnamese dead and the up to 250,000 Iraqi dead from this war are even more tragic.

The US is going to lose Iraq, one way or another. How the US deals with this is going to be another matter entirely. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re in for a repeat of the post-Vietnam syndrome, where the people responsible for this disaster admit exactly no wrongdoing, and the people who opposed the war in the first place will be blamed for not supporting the troops. This is one of the more worrisome trends in US rhetoric today – David Neiwert has chronicled the rise of extreme-right propaganda in the US, much of it in the same tones as Weimar-era German nationalism. People who think this is alarmist should remember that, at the dawn of the 20th century, few experts would imagine that Germany would engage in such vicious anti-Semitism as it did. France or Russia had much longer and nastier histories with anti-Semitism. However, the interwar period provided a breeding ground for political leaders who normalized anti-Semitism in popular German discourse, often through “innocent” things like anti-Jewish humor. (This, by the way, is why I refuse to watch Team America: World Police.) Some people think the rise of the Christian Right is something to joke about, while we’re safe on the other side of the border. I’m not so sure.

I should say that I would be overjoyed to be proven wrong about all this. It's not like I want to see a collapse in the US economy, thousands more dead in Iraq, or the ascent of far-right extremists in the US. But the trends don't look all that great from where I sit.

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