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The union under a radical president

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The state of the union is one of rising unemployment and a growing number of people with little or no health insurance; of reckless energy use and the trashing of the environment. Of a growing disparity between rich and poor, encouraged by the federal government. Of a mushrooming federal deficit, and budget crises in states, cities, and school districts across the country.

                  The state of the union is that of a nation preparing to go to war to depose the government of Iraq --- and willing to do the same with other countries when it decides it should.

                  That is not the State of the Union President Bush outlined last week. But it is the reality.

                  It is a troubling time. It would be a troubling time if the nation's major challenges were limited to the domestic. But we have the additional dangers of terrorism and a war with Iraq.

                  And leading us, with confidence and fierce determination, is --- as Bill Keller put it in a recent New York Times Magazine article --- a truly radical president.

                  For even the most informed citizen, it's hard to know what to focus on, as Bush and his supporters roll out plans to undercut Medicare, privatize Social Security, invade privacy and weaken criminal-justice protections, exploit wilderness areas, erode workers' rights, attack contraceptive and abortion rights, and punish the poor.

                  Bush's new budget, announced on Monday, creates a record deficit that will further weaken the economy --- and according to news reports, it does not include the cost of a war against Iraq.

                  The president, like Governor Pataki, is engaged in a disastrous game of pass-down, cutting taxes and forcing local governments to go without vital programs or pick up the cost themselves --- through increased property and sales taxes.

                  (Bush's proposed budget, apparently, is just the beginning. On Monday, February 3, NPR's Morning Edition carried the pronouncement by Republican leader Tom DeLay that "the president's package is a floor, not a ceiling." DeLay isn't losing sleep about the prospects of a federal deficit, either. "The Soviet Union had a balanced budget," he said.)

                  Bush's budget will do exactly what, in his State of the Union speech, he insisted he would not do: "pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, other generations." Those costs will be not only financial but also human, as we cut school aid, environmental protection, retirees' benefits.

Nor is the impact of the Bush presidency confined to the United States. Bill Keller's Times Magazine piece, "The Radical Presidency of George W. Bush," summed up the record of the past two years: "Bush has been willing to throw overboard reams of established foreign-policy doctrine in his enthusiastic assumption of the role of solo superpower, scrapping the ABM treaty, scheduling the first deployment of antimissile batteries and enshrining 'pre-emption' as the American military doctrine."

                  And pre-emption will play out first in Iraq, presumably within a few weeks.

                  The arguments against the war are by now well known. Yes, Iraq is ruled by a monster who kills and terrifies his own people. Saddam Hussein's brutality, writes Matthew Rothschild in The Progressive, "is undeniable and grotesque." But, says Rothschild, "similar torture techniques are common among such allies as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as other nations such as Burma." And in his State of the Union speech, says Rothschild, "Bush was silent about them."

                  Washington did not go to war to depose Stalin or Khrushchev, notes Rothschild. "Is Saddam crazier than Stalin and more of a threat?"

                  And, he notes, "the Soviet Union had the wherewithal, as Khrushchev was not shy about reminding us, to destroy the United States. Saddam doesn't pose one-thousandth of that threat."

                  Nor is Iraq the only country that currently has "weapons of mass destruction." In a Martin Luther King Day address, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich ticked them off: "Seventeen nations are seeking, have, or are capable of acquiring nuclear weapons of mass destruction; 20 nations, biological weapons; 26 nations, chemical weapons. More than 20 nations have or are at work on missile technologies to deliver those weapons."

                  The US and the world face many dangers. The question is, how do we respond to them? And what are the dangers and the costs of the Bush policy?

                  The dangers include loss of lives: Americans', Iraqis'. An Iraqi attack against Israel. The use of biological and chemical weapons against US troops. An increase in anti-American sentiment throughout the world. An eruption of terrorism aimed at Americans and our allies.

                  The cost may be staggering, not just in funding the war, but also in the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq.

                  The cost should include (though we may simply walk away after the war) intensive involvement in stabilizing the Middle East. "If America takes on Iraq, it takes on the reordering of the whole region," wrote Michael Ignatieff in the Times Magazine ("The American Empire," January 5). "It will have to stick at it through many successive administrations."

                  And the US will have to find a way to bring about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. "Unseating an Arab government in Iraq while leaving the Palestinians to face Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships," wrote Ignatieff, "is a virtual guarantee of unending Islamic wrath against the United States."

Just over two years ago, George W. Bush moved from a weak state office to the most powerful position in the world. Now, backed by conservatives in the Senate and House, he is using that office to bring about dangerous changes. Most troubling, his fundamentalist religious beliefs do more than inform his decisions; they embolden him. He seems convinced that he is on a God-sent mission.

                  "Righteous purpose is strong stuff," wrote Bill Keller in his Times Magazine piece, "and it can be highly flammable. It's worth remembering that moral certainty led Reagan's administration into the culminating scandal of Iran-Contra, the scheme to sell missiles to Iran and divert the profits to arm anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. Bush has not only rehired several of the Iran-Contra intriguers, but he has also reproduced elements of the climate in which the plot was hatched --- obsessive secrecy, a premium on loyalty, a taste for working through foreign proxies, and impatience with Congressional oversight."

                  "In a democracy," says a Progressive editorial, "the fateful decisions of war and peace are not supposed to rest in the hands of one man. Today, they do.... Lacking intellectual curiosity, [Bush] boasts of an infallible gut... embraces a huge global mission, and couches it in fundamentalist language. And he has assigned the Pentagon the primary role in carrying out this mission."

                  Well, what to do?

                  1) Pressure Republicans to resist. While Republicans have control of the House and the Senate, their Senate majority is slim. And not all Republicans agree with him on all issues. Some are worried about Iraq. Some are worried about the deficit.

                  2) Keep the pressure on moderate and conservative Democrats.

                  3) Encourage and support progressive Democrats. (Watch especially the Progressive Congressional Caucus, co-chaired by Kucinich of Ohio and Barbara Lee of California; http://bernie.house.gov/pc/.)

                  Bush's radical leadership is not a partisan issue. It is a crucial matter of national security, and of the conscience and future of the country.

                  In his Times Magazine article, Michael Ignatieff offered John Quincy Adams' statement that "if America were tempted to 'become the dictatress of the world, she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.'"

                  "What empires lavish abroad," wrote Ignatieff, "they cannot spend on good republican government at home: on hospitals or roads or schools. A distended military budget only aggravates America's continuing failure to keep its egalitarian promise to itself."

                  "And these are not the only costs of empire," wrote Ignatieff. "Detaining two American citizens without charge or access to counsel in military brigs, maintaining illegal combatants on a foreign island in a legal limbo, keeping lawful aliens under permanent surveillance while deporting others after secret hearings: these are not the actions of a republic that lives by the rule of law but of an imperial power reluctant to trust its own liberties."

                  This week, Colin Powell leads us in another step toward war, as he addresses the United Nations Security Council. And then --- later this month, early next --- we will begin the battle. But while the attack will be the most dramatic sign of the changes Bush has brought to the nation, it will be only one sign.

                  This is no time for silence, or for cowering in the face of complex issues and a powerful presidency. This is a time for watchfulness. And this is a time for protest.

Read more about The State We're In in the Cover Story section

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