2006/12/10

A WEAPON OF POLITICAL DESTRUCTION

George Richards

“The Democrat policy is, ‘Get out of Iraq’. Our policy is, ‘Win Iraq’” – the words President Bush bellowed over a loudspeaker during a Republican party rally in the run up to the American Congressional Elections on 7 November. Yes, once again, Iraq is on the political agenda, and this time the war is topping the bill in America and Britain simultaneously. In a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons, the British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, launched a staunch defence against the opposition Conservative Party over the Government’s conduct of the war in Iraq.

On 7 November, the Democrats swept to victory in the House of Representatives – the lower house of Congress – snatching 28 seats from the Republicans, and in the Senate they managed to hold their incumbent posts and win an extra six, ending Republican political dominance since the 2ooo presidential elections. President Bush admitted his party had taken a “thumping”, and he now faces a tough last two years in office – the phrase “lame duck” is being uttered on Capitol Hill. The Democrat Party’s success came from its attack on the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq. It seems to have done the trick.

There was only one issue in both parties’ campaigns – Iraq. October had borne witness to America’s fourth worst number of casualties since the war began – 1o5 killed, and this was not lost on the American public. Other concerns that had surfaced in the run up to the last stages of campaigning – including Republican sleaze, corruption and sex scandals – became less important as the casualty rate rose and finally passed the psychologically-important 1oo mark. President Bush’s reference to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, stung by a trap in a George Stephanopoulos interview, raised eyebrows, as did senior generals’ admissions that the strategy in Baghdad was failing, and a new plan needed to be devised.

By the time the political campaigning had begun in earnest, the war was on everybody’s lips. Republicans, trying to skirt the issue, were accused of belittling soldiers’ deaths. President Bush found himself unwanted, as his party’s candidates asked that he not campaign in their constituencies. The Democrat line was far stronger than the confused message put about in the 2oo4 presidential elections, and disillusioned Republicans began deserting the sinking ship in growing numbers. Throwing a spanner in the works of the Democrat campaign machine, failed presidential candidate John Kerry, Senator for Massachusetts, cracked a joke in a school on 3o October, fumbled the punch-line and inadvertently insulted American servicemen’s intelligence: “If you study hard… you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq”.

The Republicans had found their target. Carl Rove, mastermind of Bush’s re-election, rekindled the Republican Party’s campaign furnace, and with only one week to go, including the all-important final long-weekend, President Bush was brought out of hiding and shuttled around the country. Wherever possible, the Republicans produced television adverts linking Democrat candidates to Senator Kerry and his comments, and despite the American establishment press playing down the incident, the Republicans seemed to be experiencing a late renaissance.

It was to no avail. On election night, district after district and state after state turned blue, and the Democrats realised their dream of taking both Houses of Congress. In response to his country’s unambiguous verdict on the war in Iraq, under-fire Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld resigned and was replaced by a former Central Intelligence Agency director, Robert Gates. Even once the polling stations had closed and the votes were counted, the war was driving political developments.

In a country with a slowing economy and serious social issues to be discussed, Iraq has dominated the political arena for a solid fortnight. But America is not alone. Its ally in the war, Britain, has found its own debating chamber, the House of Commons, shifting its focus to Iraq for the first time since 2oo3. A parliamentary debate on the war was held on 31 October, tabled by Members of Parliament (MPs) from the Scottish National Party and its Welsh counterpart, Plaid Cymru. The motion, calling for an inquiry into the war, was debated fiercely for much of the day, and while prominent members spoke – including the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and the former Conservative leader and Guards officer Iain Duncan Smith – the Prime Minister was notable in his absence.

Despite support from the Conservative Party and the rebellion of 12 Labour MPs, the motion was defeated and the Government line, that an inquiry would show weakness to Britain’s enemies in Iraq, triumphed. When the Speaker forbade the topic of Tony Blair’s succession in Prime Minister’s Questions on 1 November, he confirmed the return of Iraq to the forefront of British political debate. Both America and Britain, closest of allies in President Bush’s “war on terror”, have turned their attention back to Iraq. Senior generals on both sides of the water have admitted that the current strategy is failing, and the calls for a retreat are growing louder daily. The situation in Iraq is dire, and it is surprising that political discussion has strayed so far from the war in recent months. Perhaps all parties will realise that the political leverage brought by the war is dangerously unpredictable. Whatever the new make-up of Congress may be, the looming presidential elections, coupled with Britain’s general election, may force the hands of both countries’ administrations to extricate themselves from Iraq and wipe clean the political agenda. Despite Bush’s Manichaean outlook, Iraq is not a dichromatic issue, and he and Blair would do well to pay attention to the debates raging in their countries.

GEORGE RICHARDS is a member of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has written for Middle East Economic Digest and Al Ahram Weekly.

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