Thu, 28 Aug 2003

Bush looks vulnerable as the prophets of doom appear correct

Hugo Young, Guardian News Service, Vermont, USA

There have been a good few wars in our time, but none like Iraq War II. Most, in the finish, have been quite clean-cut. Even Bosnia ended. They've all, naturally, been messy. The Falklands, simplest of all, had its perilous moments. But few have had enduring, possibly lethal, political consequences for the main good-guy combatants, which is to say the U.S. and the UK.

The battles finish (two months or so has often been the span), the warriors return to base and the politics are mostly over. But Iraq is quite different. The formal war is over, but the afterburn sears into the body politic of both aggressor powers. The politics are nowhere near over. There has been no catharsis of moral or strategic rectitude. Nothing has been simplified by the so-called victory.

In this respect, the situation in Iraq, and probably the region, is as bad as those who opposed war foresaw. The leaders, of course, deny that. But their problems are getting deeper. Four months after President Bush declared the war was over, they faced electorates that worry away, as never before, at both the causes and the consequences of an event that should, by normal reckoning, already be docketed as an historic victory. After all, we won, didn't we?

In Britain, there's a forum where this national angst can be played out. The Hutton inquiry into David Kelly's death was not intended to be that theater, and the judge's verdict may well take refuge behind his narrow terms of reference. But whatever the judge says, the hearing itself exposes some of the big questions that victory hasn't erased. Were we given a false account of the threat Saddam Hussein posed? Was speculation souped up into so-called evidence? And so on.

Nor are deeper issues being put to sleep. Wasn't Blair hooked on the Bush analysis -- the need for regime change in Baghdad -- earlier than he ever admitted? Didn't he trap himself into going Bush's way, in fealty to the Anglo-American relationship? Where are all those weapons of mass destruction, whose discovery was supposed to justify the mess of terrorism and post-war coalition incompetence we see on our screens every night?

Hutton, along with the suicide bombers, keeps all this at the front of the British mind. It matters more than the row between the government and the BBC. Hutton's micro-questions are explored against a background of macro-calamity. From questions of trust, Blair moves on to face challenges to his elementary competence. Not only did he not deliver an honest version of the threat, he completely misjudged how long, and with what accompanying disasters, the real conflict would last. That's how Brits will soon be feeling, unless things change. Leaders have been kicked out for much lesser crimes.

Here in the U.S., the position is ostensibly different. There is no Hutton, nor any other single focal point where the issues can be joined. The media are too dispersed, and still mostly driven by the need to prove their own patriotism. Only events of massive fascination -- the blackout, the Clinton impeachment -- easily force their way into a national, all-American conversation. The war has yet to do that.

Besides, the Iraq war continues to be blessed in many minds by Sept. 11. Bush plays on this unscrupulously. Though there is no evidence to show Saddam's fingers near that atrocity, half the electorate believes in the connection. This supplies a bedrock of backing for the notion that the war is about the security of the homeland. It means that Americans are staying behind Bush's crusade for longer than was prophesied when the national distaste for a single body bag looked like a reason why they would not last the course. Over Iraq, the U.S. has become a more stoical citizenry. For the sole hyperpower, this could be called a commendable necessity.

But questions are being asked, and because the U.S. is the lead player they're capable of resounding more fiercely here than in Britain. Iraq has become a vast undertaking, which everyone claimed could not develop into another Vietnam but is beginning to arouse echoes of that existential American nightmare. A recent Washington Post investigation revealed more about the twisting of pre-war propaganda than Hutton is likely to expose. With heavy guns on Capitol Hill asking why post-war planning was so woefully deficient, Bush can't rely forever on single-syllable promises about terrorism not triumphing. Slowly, slowly, Americans confront the evidence that they are creating not a democracy but a terrorist state where there was none before.

This is the mood of doubt into which some pertinent literature is being cast. The timing is right. Imperial America, by John Newhouse is important enough to make waves. As well as chronicling the opportunities scandalously cast aside (by Blair as well as Bush) in the run-up to Iraq, Newhouse dissects the perils to come if the Pentagon psyche that allowed Iraq to happen applies itself to Iran and North Korea. If Bush's triumphant prophecies about the war being over continue to be disproved on the ground to such bloody effect as in the past two weeks, political traction against the man and his neo-con adventures can only strengthen.

It's hard to imagine the aftermath of this unfinished conflict displacing Tony Blair. Hutton's forensic inquiry is unlikely to come to a verdict that shatters his credibility. His reputation is already damaged. We will look with more wariness on his outrageous insistence that his moral vision of the world coincides with the British national interest. But, if only because of the arrangement of British politics, with its me-too Tory warriors and an opposition leader of pitiful irrelevance, Blair's success in an election he's determined to fight looks assured.

Bush is another matter. Despite the macho confidence, he looks vulnerable. He has no answer to what's happening in Iraq, and after another year, the American people may be asking what this is all about. That depends on a few variables, chief among them the presence of a Democrat who doesn't flinch from asking the question himself. Gen. Wesley Clark, anti-war and once Nato's leader in the Balkans, could soon be turning things upside down. Much will turn on the economy, where Bush has seen more jobs disappear than any president since Herbert Hoover, but which now shows signs of perking up.

The big thing, though, is this: Iraq is a war Americans bought into on grounds that turn out to be false. So far there are no WMD, and the Middle East gets rougher not smoother. Terrorism multiplies. The prophets of doom are, unfortunately, looking correct. After another year, the agent of world triumph, dressing in and out of his fake bomber jacket, could look ready for the electors' revenge.