“If we re-elect Bush, it would be a judgment on all of us,” said historian Fritz Stern days before the US November 2, 2004 general election. Stern’s observation has an eerie ring in its evocation of Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge, one of many historical verdicts on the Stalinist period of Russia’s past. From coast to coast Democrats hoped, despite unspoken misgivings and dread of the unthinkable, that John Kerry just might pull off a victory, but it was not to be. The unthinkable happened. The American people spoke and “Dubya” won re-election. May the judgment begin.
It is this seemingly unstoppable march towards, and need for, judgment that made a Bush victory inevitable. Those subscribing to historic inevitability would have foreseen Bush’s re-anointment. After all, Pax Americana is in decline; most Americans are simply too complacent to heed the handwriting on the wall. Sadly, the country has to undergo four more years of this rot, to continue on the downward path that it is on, and awaken to its folly. As the saying goes, things have to get worse before they can get better (if at all). Four more years of Bush were thus already on the cards. It is simply the “cunning of history,” as Hegel put it.
The most predictable thing about empires is that they rise and fall. Incidentally, they also tend to bring about their own downfall. In his highly acclaimed 1987 publication The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy attributed the fall of empires to their over-extension. Besides over-extension, however, there is the thing known as hubris that comes naturally with power and empire building, along with the moral bankruptcy that underpins it.
Bush’s invasion of Iraq broke the long-cherished American tradition of never being the party that launches an unprovoked attack. In undertaking this “pre-emptive” war, he also violated and pushed aside centuries-old, just war traditions. That he received the backing of 70 per cent of the country in doing so is telling: that he thought fit to insult the intelligence of the rest of the world even more so. Bush created the fiction of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to justify his act of aggression against a country already reeling from 12 years of economic sanctions. In other words, Bush launched an illegal war on the basis of a willful lie - quite an irony for a leader and a party that claim to be the unsullied champions of Christian virtue and good “values” at home. If no one else, the God whose name Bush often invokes should have taken notice.
The invasion of Iraq also saw American arrogance at some of its most crass and deserving of judgment. Apart from the WMD fabrication which has now been exposed as a lie, Bush disingenuously linked Hussein with al-Qaeda and the “war on terror,” another lie which at least half the American population continues to believe. Attached to the invasion was also the “If you’re not for us, you’re against us” tag, a cheap form of “thuggery” more in the style of Tony Soprano than a statesman of the “free” world.
Once the war and occupation began, the killing of innocent Iraqi civilians by US forces was justified on the ground of “pre-emptive self-defence,” where soldiers are allowed to shoot and kill indiscriminately not because the victims were determined to be a genuine threat but simply because they might be one. The mainstream US media shamelessly played along by reporting the murder of Iraqi civilians euphemistically as “accidental deaths”.
The Iraqi invasion, though, only reflects a deeper rot inside this state of Denmark - and despite voting Bush back into office, the American people seem to have a foreboding of it. Shortly before the election, 55 per cent of Americans polled believed the country was on the wrong track. Even after the election US consumer confidence continues to tumble, as borne out by the Consumer Confidence Index, having fallen now for four consecutive months. The rot is getting worse - and it stems from the fact that this nation has lost its moral compass and authority.
Sixty-two years ago, the United States could rightly claim to be the “good guy” when it entered the Second World War. There was no such thing as “pre-emption” then. We went to war only after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan in an act of unprovoked aggression. FDR did not concoct cock-and-bull in order to invade Chile and call it part of the war against Germany.
For years the United States had credibility when it condemned the Nazi concentration camps and posed as the champions of “human rights” in decrying the Soviet gulags and imprisonment of people without due process. But no more. Today the United States presides over a concentration camp of its own in Guantanamo Bay. It too locks people up indefinitely without trial and access to counsel. “Guilty until proven innocent” seems to be the new mantra. Actually, it is more like “Guilty and no proof required, while the beatings and sodomy last”.
It used to be we could stand tall in the world and reproach countries that tortured people. No longer. That, too, is a thing of the past. The shame of Abu Ghraib comes on top of the torture that continues in Guantanamo Bay and the “questionable deaths” (code language for “excessive use of force” and “murder”) that keep surfacing in Afghanistan. Lately, evidence has further surfaced of Navy SEALs abusing Iraqis, as if to prove the point that trampling on Iraqis’ rights and dignity in their homeland is not the exclusive province of the US Army. Then, there is the disturbing footage of the Marine executing a downed Iraqi point blank inside a Fallujah mosque. Now if we ever deign to lecture other nations on “war crimes,” we can only expect derision, if not worse, in our faces. That is what hypocrites get - and deserve.
These developments, however, are only the tip of this iceberg. There is still the matter of trumpeting morality and “values” in the face of lost moral credibility. Among the Western industrialised countries, the United States is by far the most religious of all but despite its avowed piety: It still champions excessive consumption and trumps the interests of the rich and powerful. The fact that Bush and the Republicans could coin “compassionate conservatism,” with its implication that the Bible-fed conservatism of the heartland was inherently lacking in “compassion” to begin with, says just about enough. Apparently, American religiosity is not beyond engaging in gerrymandering scams such as the one engineered by Tom DeLay, the Texan fundamentalist Christian, which guaranteed a Republican gain of at least five Congressional seats in this election. If the God that DeLay prays to is good and is indeed God, then He should have taken notice.
There is also the matter of the economy - with soaring energy, food and healthcare costs, anaemic growth, falling real wages, not to mention a housing bubble that is just waiting to burst. These days Americans are working more for less, spending more time and traversing greater distances in their daily commutes, and are increasingly squeezed out of insanely priced homes. “Squeeze” seems to be the prevailing ethos of this “recovery,” the wealthiest 10 per cent aside. It used to be US$70,000 a year was more than a decent salary; in today’s America it barely pays the bills.