Sunday, October 12, 2008

What makes this US election so momentous

[Shorter version as on "truthout" and elsewhere]

cooperation or continued confrontation?

We need to stand back a moment from the financial morass right now engulfing the American presidential election, to grasp why it is so momentous not just for the U.S. but for the world.

There is only one essential issue on 4 November: whether the candidate elected will be a president who will lead the United States towards a new era of cooperation made possible by the end of the Cold War, or whether the ethos of strong arm confrontation, coupled with outdated free market ideology, will drag on and so miss this, perhaps last, opportunity to meet the daunting challenges of a world in jeopardy. Brent Scowcroft, leading Republican security guru since the Nixon presidency in the 1970s puts it succinctly: “the world is not susceptible to U.S. domination – but without U.S. leadership not much can be achieved”. 

Right now there are two world crises: the immediate American military/financial crisis, and, simultaneously, an unprecedented existential crisis for humanity.

Since “the world became one” all countries now face the same daunting challenges: climate change; energy, food, and water shortages; nuclear proliferation; epidemics; poverty; genocide; terrorism – and more. Clearly international cooperation must be paramount not only for the U.S. to recover from the last eight years, but to deal with these immense problems largely neglected for too long – and not just by the G.W. Bush administration.

This goes beyond “left and right”, Republican v. Democrat, Conservative v. Labour. On the Iraq war – which in large measure led to the new world scene – Scowcroft the Republican warned in 2002 “an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardise, if not destroy the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken… it could turn the whole region into a cauldron”. On the eve of war, Robin Cook, ex British Foreign Secretary, resigned from the Labour cabinet in protest at the worldwide damage an invasion would inevitably cause.

And financial experts of both “left” and “right” inveighed repeatedly against the proliferation of new, ill-secured, financial instruments in a period of both de-regulation and excessive credit - governmental, banking, business, and personal. They were widely ignored by Republicans and Democrats, Labour and Conservative.          

Unfortunately, after the Clinton years of financial prudence and readiness to seek international partners in a spirit of cooperation, the G.W. Bush administration adopted the “neo-Republican” revival of ideological de-regulated laissez-faire capitalism, largely free from traditional Republican social and moral concerns, intent on greater profitability in the globalising financial sector.

This was paralleled in foreign and military affairs with the “neo-conservative” ideology of The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) supported by Vice-President Cheney and the neo-conservatives he put in key positions in the new Bush administration. The key aim of Bush foreign and military policy has been to ensure that the 21st century is indeed ‘America’s century’. And inevitably that involved confrontation – for neither China nor Russia could accept “unipolarism”: all other countries revolving around the American star. Indeed President Putin in a key, but pooh-poohed, speech on 2 October last year to the Munich security conference, offered Russia’s cooperation on condition that the U.S. abandoned “unipolarism”.  China’s position is the same. Apart from Britain (content to remain under America’s wing), few US allies, including France and Germany are happy with American global hegemony.   

“Neo-Republicanism” and “neo-conservatism” are together responsible for the world wide disaster of the Iraq War (waged primarily, though this is little recognised to establish uni-polarism), and for the present financial meltdown. The Iraq war with its overall cost of some $700bn – borrowed all the way - is directly linked to the financial crisis now requiring (President Bush says), not altogether coincidentally, $700bn to restore credit to the banking/investment sector. 

The financial crisis isn’t, of course, the sole responsibility of the Republicans – the Democrats too, shared the “neo-Republican” ethos of de-regulation which got underway with President Reagan in the 1980s and peaked in the G.W. Bush years. They failed to oppose this when in opposition, and to act when they regained a degree of control of Congress in 2006.

The Democrats are, however the party most likely, after the meltdown, to recognise that capitalism – provided there are strict rules appropriate to new financial conditions and strictly applied – can provide whatever is required from alternative energy to secure mortgages. Unfocussed capitalism, though, will go off in any profitable direction often wasting resources. Partly because they do not shy from government involvement where required, and are not the party of big business, the Democrats are far more likely to adopt what might be called “focussed capitalism” in place of wasteful laissez-faire globalisation – essential for dealing with those great challenges humanity faces.  

The Democrats are also more likely to credibly abandon “unipolarism” and recognise that (even if it had ever been achievable) American hegemony is no longer a possibility after the disasters of the Iraq war and the set-back to American financial global dominance.

 They are far more likely – since less directly involved – to recognise that the financial meltdown plus the world wide consequences of “Iraq” have ended America’s position as sole remaining super-power and accept its relegation to the status as primus inter pares of the great powers. 

The elective invasion of Iraq was supposed to win approval for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a cruel dictator and, by destroying his WMD, forward non-proliferation; (the two official reasons but also to) secure Iraq oil; obtain US bases in Iraq, so militarily dominating the region; establish US style democracy in Iraq as the model for a “new Middle East”; replace a hostile with a friendly Iraq, so much improving Israel’s security and negotiating position, and, above all, to demonstrate with “shock and awe” America’s military and financial might  - its ability to go anywhere, pay any price to ensure that the 21st would indeed be the American Century - the overall aim of the PNAC. Added after  “9/11”: the invasion would be no diversion from Afghanistan and the “war on terror” for al Qaeda would be trumped in its Islamic heartland and stripped of its appeal and prestige. The “new Middle East” would be made in America’s image – not al Qaeda’s. A beguiling scenario for an ambitious president anxious to aggrandise his country and stamp his name on history.

Merely setting this list out reveals how utterly unrealistic the neo-conservatives were.       

Instead we have what many Cassandras; warned against – two potential “Vietnams” in Iraq and Afghanistan and the dilemma of deciding how to stay and how to leave. The next President’s first foreign/military problem.  Resolving this challenge is all the more difficult against the background of America’s unpopularity and loss of support worldwide. (The Americans and the British generally underestimate the hatred generated in the Muslim world by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Baghram, CIA secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, torture etc. – even though gross human rights abuses are common in many Muslim states)   And all the more difficult too, given the remarkable success of al Qaeda which had counted on just such an ill-directed excessive reaction to its provocation on “9/11”, to metastasise and gain recruits among Muslims not only in Muslim countries, but in the West too, 

Al Qaeda’s aim to provoke a clash of civilisations is already succeeding. NATO and Europe are split. Al Qaeda is now attempting to destabilise Pakistan as well as Afghanistan on its way to destabilising Saudi Arabia and gaining control both of its oil and of Islam’s holy places – so obtaining the religious leadership and the money to impose its will on the Umma – the worldwide community of believers.

But almost all countries – including Russia and China – have a major interest in subduing international terrorism, and stability in the Middle East - one thing Iraq has going for it.

So in reforming international finance, in working to stabilise both Iraq and Afghanistan (and indeed, also Pakistan), and in beginning to deal with the great problems of mankind, the next American president must renounce “neo-conservative” unipolarism, and “neo-republican” unregulated capitalism, and seek partners wherever they can be found to deal not only with America’s, but also the world’s so intractable challenges.

The vote on 4 November - not just for president but for the Congress - must, for everyone’s sake, lead to that vital shift from confrontation to cooperation. If America leads, Russia and China – and many other “difficult” states will find it hard not to follow.

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