NO ONE can accuse George Bush of setting his sights low. His inaugural speech last week — delivered to what amounted to a mass rally of the Christian fundamentalist right — promised more of the neo-conservative medicine that gave us the conquest of Iraq.
In fact there is nothing especially Republican about Bush’s core message that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”. It was the Democrat Woodrow Wilson who first declared almost 100 years ago that the global expansion of market capitalism and liberal democracy would bring peace to the world. But, under the influence of neo-conservative ideologues, Bush has made the idea his own.
He announced at his inauguration that “it is the policy of the US to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.
Taken literally, Gore Vidal commented, this amounts to “serenely declaring war on the rest of the world”. But it would be silly to take Bush at his word. Condoleezza Rice was more specific at her confirmation hearings as secretary of state. She listed the following “outposts of tyranny” — Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Belarus, and Zimbabwe. This is an interestingly selective list. It didn’t include Russia and China, which aren’t exactly poster boys for Amnesty International, but which are too powerful to threaten.
Also omitted were Uzbekistan, ruled by a particularly nasty dictator, but a key US ally in the “war on terrorism”, and the US’s main Arab clients, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As Gary Younge pointed out in the Guardian, Guantanamo Bay, Bush’s own little outpost of tyranny, didn’t figure. In other words, Bush and Rice are hypocrites. This isn’t exactly news to most people on the planet. Somewhat more interesting is that the US is very unlikely to do anything much about most of the countries on Rice’s list.
Iran is the key exception. The neo-cons are already ranting themselves into the same kind of frenzy over Iran that got the US and Britain into Iraq in the first place. And, if the US journalist Seymour Hersh is right (and he usually is), US special forces are already target spotting in Iran. The destructive powers of the Bush administration are limited by objective factors. To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, there are the known knowns and the known unknowns.
Chief among the known knowns is Iraq. This is a first-class disaster that is tying up and gradually wearing down the elite of the US military.
As long as the Pentagon is fighting the present counter-insurgency war in Iraq, I can’t see how it could mount a ground invasion of Iran— a country more than three times the size of Iraq, with a population of nearly 70 million. Air strikes are another matter, but these are unlikely to secure the “regime change” for which the neo-cons hunger.
Moreover, the US’s best chance in Iraq may turn out to be provoking a civil war between the Shia majority, who stand to do well in Sunday’s elections, and the Sunni minority, from whom the insurgents are mainly drawn.
But the Iraqi Shia elite have close links with the Iranian ayatollahs. Trying to destabilise the Iranian regime might cut across US strategy in Iraq.
The most important known unknown is the US economy. It is being kept afloat by a massive inflow of capital from East Asian economies that depend on the US market for their exports. But how long can this delicate balance continue? The Bush administration is currently campaigning against the European Union relaxing its arms embargo on China, the hub of the East Asian economy, because the US and China may go to war some time over Taiwan. That’s stability for you.
Finally there are Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns — which can come out of the clear blue sky, as it did one September morning in Manhattan. There are plenty of rocks on which George Bush’s attempt to remake the world in the image of Republican America will founder.