After Hussein, What Will Bush Do For an Encore?

There were scattered grumbles at the recent Congressional Black Caucus confab that President Bush is spending far too little time talking about issues such as education, health care, political reform, and racial iniquities. And that saber rattling against Iraq diverts too much attention away from domestic problems. They are right, but they miss a point.

While some experts raise huge doubts that Saddam Hussein has the deadly arsenal of mass destructive weapons Bush claims, and that he has blinked in the face of world condemnation and agreed to weapons inspections, politicians have long known that beating war drums against a real or trumped up enemy is a cheap and easy way to boost poll ratings, rally the troops on the home-front, and deflect public attention from domestic problems. Bush has picked his target and words well. Hussein is universally reviled as a despot, butcher, and warmonger. Bush has excised the horrid word "war" from his vocabulary. This stokes public terror of death and suffering. He has replaced it with the antiseptic terms, "anticipatory self-defense," "counter-proliferation," and "regime change," to describe an attack on Iraq.

Bush's semantic gyrations, and Hussein as foil, are crafted to achieve three aims. In off year national elections the party in the White House almost always loses Congressional seats. Bush can ill afford the loss. Republicans cling to a razor thin majority in the House, and have a one-seat deficit in the Senate. A big vote shift to the Democrats could torpedo passage of his stalled Homeland security bill, his plan to privatize social security, impose school vouchers, school prayer, restrictions on abortion rights, Alaska drilling, and the confirmation of several of his controversial and much maligned nominees to the federal courts.

Republican off-year election losses could also embolden Democrats, who have been roundly accused of political cowardice, to speak out against Bush's policies. A big Republican Congressional win would make it easier for Bush to fatten his already gargantuan campaign war chest, and to garner more major public and media support for his policies. Barring a catastrophic personal or political goof, he would be in a commanding position to beat back a Democrat presidential opponent, and sail back into the White House in 2004.

Then there are the Bush critics. In the past few months, liberal Democrats, the Congressional Black Caucus, civil rights, civil liberties, and women's groups, environmentalists, and anti-globalization activists have shed their terror of being branded traitors and have started to peck at Bush on the Florida vote debacle, his refusal to back expanded hate crimes legislation, to speak out on police and corporate abuses, to sign the Kyoto global warming treaty, his support of school vouchers, Alaska drilling, elimination of abortion funding, and his meat axe of civil liberties protections in the anti-terrorism bill. They forced Bush to back-pedal and promise to crack down on corporate pillagers, pump more funds into housing, education and job programs, and to publicly soften his environmental obstructionism.

War fever would send the critics back into headlong retreat, wipe domestic woes from the news headlines and national debate, and paralyze Congress. A quick, easy, and victorious foreign war would push Bush's political stock back up to the same giddy heights that it soared to after the September 11 terror attacks.

But will war fever work? There's a good chance it will. Short of Hussein committing suicide or suffering a heart attack, with only a smattering of dissent, Congress will give Bush the green light to do much as he pleases in Iraq. Despite some public jitters over the uncertainty of attacking Iraq, opinion polls show that most Americans generally back Bush. And the mainstream media will continue to keep public attention riveted on a war effort, and ignore domestic issues.

The trick is that the war must be quick, easy, and effortless. High casualties, military bungles, and an active antiwar movement would spoil it. A prolonged, costly and bloody war tripped President Johnson in Vietnam, a botched attempt to rescue hostages tripped Carter in Iran, the devastating suicide attacks on Marines tripped Reagan in Lebanon, the bloody and failed attempt to topple a warlord tripped Clinton in Somalia. And as Bush, knows all to well, the failure to finish off Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War in 1991 ultimately soured the victory for Papa Bush. This fuels the deep suspicion and criticism that Bush's obsession with nailing Hussein is more about settling old scores than securing the peace.

If, or more likely when, Bush wages war to get rid of Hussein, he will have much of the press, lawmakers, public opinion, and the world's mightiest arsenal behind him. The search will be on then to find another compliant bogeyman to keep White House ratings up and public attention on domestic issues down.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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