Letter to European Friends:
America's Weird Election Dance
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
August 2, 2004
Dear Wolfgang & Jaqueline:
You write that you're "confused" about how we American progressives can
possibly nominate what you call a "militarist candidate," when the bulk of the
Democratic Party -- and the population at large -- is opposed to the war in
It is confusing, just as I'm sure parts of my earlier letter to
you were ("Why
Is America Behaving This Way?: A Letter to European Friends"), about why
the U.S. was determined to invade Iraq.
What can I say about the current campaign? Politics in the U.S. is a spectator
sport, with constant shifting of alliances, positions, leaders, trends. But I
will try to help you and your friends abroad make some sense of our current
presidential campaign puzzle.
PLAYING WITH A HOT POTATO
The first thing you have to understand is that the war in Iraq is a "hot
potato" game. Nobody wants to have to hold the "hot potato" for very long and
get caught with it in their hands. The aim of the game is to force the
opponent to hold it and deal with the issue.
The current tactic of BushCheney is to somehow hope that the American-approved
"sovereign" interim government in Iraq can stagger through until November 2,
Election Day in the U.S. Sure, a thousand or more Iraqis are likely to be
killed and maimed between now and then, but, in the Bush Administration's
eyes, as long as those dead and wounded are not U.S. soldiers or "contractors"
(mercenaries), it's a win-win for the Republicans.
The Bushies' primary problem with this scenario is that, at least at the
moment, it's not working. The Iraqi insurgency seems to be gathering momentum,
rather than losing it. More innocent Iraqi civilians and those regarded as
"collaborators" with the American occupiers are being killed. And, worse for
BushCheney, more Americans were killed in July, AFTER the "handover" of that
severely limited "sovereignty," than in the month before.
In addition, the ethnic, religious and power blocs in Iraq could blast apart
at any moment. Political power-sharing is not easy to come by in that country.
Civil war is not out of the question. Note: The U.S. made sure that the Iraqi
election will be held AFTER the American presidential election.
A large part of BushCheney's election strategy depends on the Iraq
social/political situation somehow not imploding before November 2, in keeping
the insurgency relatively "contained" (read: nothing too catastrophic, and
mostly Iraqis dying), and in keeping U.S. troops hunkered down with only a
"tolerable" number of deaths and injuries until that time.
If the U.S. can make it past November 2, and BushCheney wins, then all bets
are off and the Administration can once again do whatever it wants to do in
Iraq, including ramping up the war. And starting to move overtly toward
similar "regime change" in Iran and Syria.
The neo-cons are in an enforced nap stage right now, but they're still
planning their Middle East strategies, and are, if Bush wins, raring to go.
And, in our system, when an administration cannot run for another term, there
are fewer restraints on its actions, since it doesn't have to worry about
electoral punishment for its stupidities and misadventures.
THE KERRY STRATEGY
KerryEdwards, who voted (with some conditions) to authorize Bush to go to war,
likewise need somehow to slide past November 2 without totally alienating
their anti-war Democratic base while talking about how they're going to
trample the nationalist insurgency.
In short, KerryEdwards must say nothing and say everything -- to let all sides
on the issue believe the Dem candidates are maybe on their side -- thus
avoiding having to make clear statements that would place the political "hot
potato" in their hands.
So, they mainly criticize Bush's incompetent handling of the war, while
throwing only implied jabs at the very decision to go to war -- a war (even
with their caveats) they helped authorize, let us remember.
So, as you see, the position of KerryEdwards
complicated, a dangerous bit of high-wire walking. One slip and they fall off
to one side, angering the other side of their likely voting bloc, and maybe
losing the all-important swing voters in swing states that haven't yet made up
Their tactic at the Democratic Convention, which you may have seen on
television, was ingenious, if highly risky. They decided to wrap themselves
tightly in nationalist, militarist symbols and rhetoric, in an attempt to
immunize themselves from charges they are, by their overt and sub-rosa
criticism, "unpatriotic," or "soft on (fill in the blank)," common charges by
the Republicans in the past few decades. At the convention, to carry out their
magical transformation trick, they often attacked Bush's war on Iraq from the
right rather than from the left.
Kerry says he'll send more soldiers to Iraq, will start reducing the
military's dependence on National Guard troops and will rotate them out, and
will lure more old allies -- including your homelands of Germany and France --
to lend support. (He implies he might be able to do this, because Bush&Co.'s
arrogant, bullying ways have turned off our former allies, who have no desire
to aid Bush in any way; with no such political baggage, Kerry presumably could
start fresh, and re-establish normal relations with Europe.
Now, as with Bush, these Kerry tactics may have no grounding in reality -- why
would the European allies want to send troops or money for a policy they
thought wrong to begin with, and has little chance of success now? -- but the
Kerry campaign figures the verbal jiu-jitsu merely has to work for the next 90
days, until November 2. In the meantime, they can count on the stressed-out
Bush&Co. forces to make more big mistakes domestically and abroad, alienating
voters even more, and that many of the most damaging BushCheney scandals will
explode in their faces: Plamegate, Halliburton, unconstitutional torture
memos, Bush's AWOL status, 9/11 pre-knowledge, etc.
(Danger: Cornered beasts are the most dangerous. BushCheneyRove, aware that
their own polls are showing them sliding badly, are capable of doing ANYTHING
to pull out a victory, ranging from fraud on Election Day to dirty tricks on
the campaign trail to almost welcoming a major terrorist attack.)
If KerryEdwards win, their real Iraq policy will be worked out between
Election Day and Inauguration Day in January. I couldn't tell you with any
precision what that policy will be. They may not even know themselves what it
My guess is that while still talking the Bush-like military talk, they will
begin walking in another direction, moving toward closing down the U.S.
adventure in Iraq as quickly as possible. But, the point is that none of us
progressives is sure what Kerry has in mind; it's possible that he really
believes all the gung-ho rhetoric he and his running mate have been spouting,
or that by constant repetition, they may paint themselves into a war corner
that will be difficult to get out of after Election Day.
THE ELECTORAL TWO-STEP
In short, though it might not make much sense to you in Europe, what you're
witnessing in both parties is a kind of political dance through the electoral
minefields. The race is so close that neither side wants to make the slightest
mistakes, giving their opposition opportunities to pick up the few votes, or
few states, that might make the difference.
So the Bushies hope their sleight-of-hand in Iraq -- installing a friendly
interim government, hoping to keep the death/maiming toll of U.S. troops way
down -- will convince American voters that Bush has "turned the corner" in
Iraq, and so no need to change electoral horses in the middle of a war. (The
same with the sputtering domestic economy.)
The Democrats hope that their vagueness and their rhetorical flourishes to
both the anti-war and more hawkish elements in the party will work to bring
both forces together, each side believing that their point of view will emerge
as official Kerry policy once the election is over.
The main emphasis of the Democrats is on getting Bush&Co. out of the White
House, and the ruinous, dangerous polices that go with them -- their penchant
for police-state approaches to domestic dissent, and their predilection for
invading and bombing countries that stand in their way abroad. The American
Constitution and the lives of thousands of our young men and women in the
military, and countless thousands of innocent civilians abroad, are at grave
So we progressives bite our tongues in public and work our asses off to get
Kerry elected, knowing he'll be a fine president on domestic issues, and maybe
can be leaned on in private to change his foreign-policy positions on Iraq,
the use of military force, and Israel-Palestine.
Rest assured that if Kerry wins and doesn't change his foreign/military
attitudes as expressed in the campaign, he is going to face a population deep
in disappointment, angry and ready to rise to express its wrath, and an
activist base that will make his life miserable until he alters his ways.
But, deep in my heart, I think John Kerry, if and when he wins -- and the
momentum is going his way, with more and more defections by Republicans
appalled at the incompetent, reckless crew that hijacked their party -- may
well turn out to be a solid, positive force on the world stage, as well as
good for America on the domestic issues of health care, education, the
environment, judicial appointments, tax policy, jobs-development, the economy,
and the like.
Jaqueline and Wolfgang, I hope this letter helps explain our current,
ever-strange political situation in America. I know it's confusing -- it's
confusing to us, too, and we live here -- but it's just part of the weird
every-four-year dance we do in the hope, which seldom materializes, that a
president will emerge who will grow into greatness and guide us through the
dark times with the light of his intelligence, moral strength, wit and
determination to get good things done.
Kerry could well turn out to be that man.