The End of the Regime?

— The Editors

THE PERMANENT DETENTION and Torture Enabling Act of 2006 was the final obscene gesture of a dying Congressional session. (Actually, make that next-to-last: They topped it off with the billion-dollar appropriation to double-fence the Mexican border, even though this means humiliating Bush’s own pals in Mexico, the right-wing politicians whom he helped steal the Mexican election. That’s another crisis we cover elsewhere in this issue.)

For the moment, the political authority of the George W. Bush regime, which has visibly unraveled even within his own party, was re-stitched when several “dissident” Republican Senators signed on to legalizing the past, present and future torture of “security” prisoners by the CIA at Guantanamo and secret prisons, and open-ended detention of presidentially-designated “enemy combatants” without charge, trial or recourse to civilian court oversight.

What do the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions and the Qur’an have in common? Mainly, the Bush administration has flushed them all down the proverbial toilet. The Democrats along with the remnant of “moderate Republicans,” like Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, had the potential to block this legislation by procedural maneuvers until after the November election. The Democrats, however, feared that doing so would open them to the “soft on terror” label in the campaign — and possibly having to take responsibility for legislation afterward in case they gain control of Congress.

Rather than take those risks, they preferred allowing Bush to destroy the Bill of Rights — and eleven Democratic Senators finally voted for the detention-and-torture bill, including ostensible liberals like Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Naturally, this didn’t prevent Bush and Cheney from attacking them anyway.

This issue of Against the Current will reach our readers right around the time we learn whether the Democrats have “taken back the Congress.” In elections as close and vicious as this country’s have become, accidents of timing are as important as issues of substance. In this regard the president’s party caught a break as gasoline prices have fallen by close to a third since mid-summer — whether due to market forces or the oil companies suspending price-gouging to give the Republicans a break, or both — while the lucky circumstance of a slow hurricane season (so far, anyway) pushed the memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita out of the minds of most white Americans, at least outside the Gulf Coast.

On the other hand, the spectacle of Republican Congressman Foley of Florida’s email sexual flirtations with House pages, and the leadership’s slothful inattention to what it knew about them months ago, gave the Democrats what Monica Lewinsky gave the Republicans in 2000. Combine that with George Allen’s “macaca” routine and concealment of his Jewish grandparentage — well, Democrats can’t fall back on the excuse of bad luck.

As for the economy, which generally decides the fate of an incumbent party in American politics as in most other countries, the signals are mixed and confusing. Corporate profits in general are through the roof, but wages are stagnant at best — and as everyone knows, U.S. auto companies are hemorrhaging money and looking to cut their work force in half. The notorious “housing bubble” is getting ready to burst, with potential severe implications for consumer confidence and spending. Although the timing of an economic recession is highly unclear, there are indications that when it does come it could be severe, with global repercussions.

Workers’ rights in America continue to disintegrate — with Northwest Airlines flight attendants barred from striking by an outrageous and arbitrary judge’s ruling (described in Peter Rachleff’s essay in this issue), and with the National Labor Relations Board “KY River” decision stripping millions of workers of the right to union representation on the grounds that training other workers makes them “supervisors.”

Insecurity All Around

If one theme dominated this election season, it will continue whatever the November results: a pervasive sense of insecurity. People feel collectively and individually insecure, and for good reason. Everyone now knows that Bush’s Iraq war is a disastrous failure and that Afghanistan is crumbling, and people rightly fear the consequences — more terrorism as Middle Eastern countries fall apart, and open-ended U.S. expeditionary wars bleeding our own population. Amidst all this, the crisis erupting from North Korea’s testing a nuclear weapon highlights at once the absurdity of the Bush regime’s obsession with the non-existent threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and of policing the world with U.S. threats and muscle.

People are worried and confused about terrorist threats, both imagined and real, and about the government’s shredding of basic rights. More and more people are insecure in their jobs, the value of their homes, their health insurance, their children’s future. Few people really feel that either party will make their families safe or secure.

The short-term question is how long the Bush regime can continue to manipulate people’s fear, as it has done so successfully since 9/11. Hence the Republicans are depending once again on the mythical amalgamation of the “war on terror” with the unbelievable debacle in Iraq. How many people still believe that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were connected to Saddam Hussein, or Saddam to the 9/11 attacks, or what either of these have to do with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine or the revived Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, all seem to depend primarily on who asks the question, and how.

For those who are paying attention, certainly, the newly leaked National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) destroys Bush’s posture that the war in Iraq has “made America safer.” The NIE lays out what most of the world again knows, that Iraq has become both a recruitment symbol and training theater for a whole generation of international jihadists. But the real significance lies in the leaking of this highly classified document — even if what it actually says was hardly a secret to most of us — at a moment when it is most embarrassing to the administration.

If this weren’t enough, during the week when Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly ridiculed George W. Bush at the United Nations, the general response of the U.S. media, aside from the right wing hard core and some self-righteous editorial writers, was not so much outrage as indifference.

One might have thought that leaders who are clear targets of the empire’s wrath — and in Iran’s case possibly facing an imminent military threat — would be diplomatically cautious and conciliatory. Quite the contrary, Chavez and Ahmadinejad laid on a heavy (if not entirely coherent) serving of anti-Bush populism. Not only does this stance sell  well in much of the world; given the cynicism within the U.S. populace and the crises that have tied the administration’s hands in Iraq and Afghanistan, whipping up a war hysteria against Iran is almost impossible at the moment.

Mirror Image

Why, then, was a massive Republican defeat in November not a foregone conclusion? Partly it’s the peculiarities of a rigged U.S. electoral system. The Democrats needed to win 15 new seats to take the House of Representatives; but of the 435 districts, only around 40 — less than 10% — are considered seriously “in play,” as both capitalist parties have collaborated to maximize their safe seats. In the Senate, of course, only a third of the 100 seats are up for election in each two-year election cycle.

Finally, the Republicans’ control of crucial state administrations enables them to engage in voting-machine fraud and disenfranchisement of minority voters — not on the old-time scale of Eastern Europe or the Richard J. Daley machine in Chicago, to be sure, but in a targeted fashion that can sway the results in a closely contested district.

More than this, however, this spectacularly failed right-wing administration has been blessed with an “opposition” that is the reflection of its blithering self. It’s not an exact duplicate, obviously, but more like a funhouse mirror image. The Democratic Party has only one major asset — the visceral dislike for Bush that runs throughout the electorate. Aside from that, it has little to offer, least of all a coherent message.

Take the war. The mainstream Democratic argument runs something like this: Bush’s adventure in Iraq was a disastrous mistake, which most of us voted for because he lied to us. (Vote for us; we’re the party that was fooled by George W. Bush.) Now that we’re there, we can’t leave until the Iraqi military and police are ready to take over. (We can run the war better than Bush, though we can’t explain how.)  Iraq has diverted America from the war on terror. (We can’t bring troops home from Iraq, because we need to transfer them to Afghanistan.) We don’t like Guantanamo and secret detention (but we won’t repeal the PATRIOT Act or close Guantanamo or do much of anything else about civil liberties except talk about them.)

If this doesn’t sound like a clear message to a war-weary public, you’re right. It isn’t. What’s worse, the Democrats’ substantive policies, such as they are, can only make the Middle East and the world even more dangerous. The vast majority of Democratic politicians, including most of the antiwar types — like Ned Lamont, who famously defeated pro-war Senator Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary — supported without reservations the Israeli assault on Lebanon. The overwhelming majority voted for the genocidal legislation to starve the occupied Palestinian territories for the crime of voting for Hamas, against U.S. orders.

A repudiation of the Republicans would be a welcome sign that the Bush gang’s lies aren’t working any longer. But the Democratic Party does not and cannot look like an antiwar party, for the simple reason that it isn’t.

The Bush administration may be getting ready to fall apart. Condoleezza Rice, already disliked by the neoconservatives for her insufficiently bloodthirsty approach to Iran, is getting thrown under the bus for ignoring George Tenet’s explicit pre-9/11 warnings of an imminent al-Qaeda attack. Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of a bargain-basement strategy for the Iraq occupation, is openly despised by the military command. North Korea’s defiant nuclear test not only creates huge dangers for Asia; it exposes Washington’s refusal to talk directly and officially with the North Korean regime as still another failure.

No one believes the administration has a domestic economic policy other than scraping by without a recession before 2008. Internationally Iraq and Palestine are disintegrating, Lebanon is shattered, the Middle East may explode again, Pakistan and India are renewing their threats, Russia and Georgia are close to war. The U.S. military forces on the ground are tapped out and Washington’s moral authority has evaporated in the face of its imperial incompetence and brutal disregard of human rights.

In short, we’ve been through an election riding primarily on the question of war, with an electorate that is deeply disillusioned with the war and the warmakers — and no antiwar party as the “official opposition.” That’s why the political logjam remains in this most backward of supposedly advanced democracies. Until this is broken, the shadow of Guantanamo and secret prisons and wars without end — the unavoidable consequences of the United States ruling the world — will hang over us all.

ATC 125, November-December 2006