January 26, 2005

THE RHETORIC OF SUPREMACY: CONTEXT AND MEANING OF AN ELECTION

    Wednesday, January 26, 2005   No comments


Because of the role the US finds itself in, and because of its economic and military weight, American politics is hardly a domestic or “private affair”. For this reason, countries of the world sometime pay more attention to elections taking place here than to others taking place within their own borders. Election results therefore, are the best way to at least sense the pulse of a nation. How the results are interpreted and what do they really represent continue to be an academic and intellectual exercise. In the following paragraphs, an attempt will be made to explain the outcome and contextualize its roots and implications.

After being subjected to nearly one full year of painful political campaigning and debating; Americans were given their 24 hour taste of power. About 113 million of them exerted it. Subsequently, barely more than 58 millions sided with the incumbent; while 55 million Americans wanted to fire President Bush. As the rules of democracy have it, 2% of the voters (equaling nearly 3 million people) rendered moot the choices of 49% of the voters. Technically, a president elected in such a fashion is not obliged—at least politically—to consider the demands of the voters who voted for his opponents. Morally on the other hand, he ought to be mindful of the interests and issues that propelled them to vote against him just as he ought to be true to the platform of the people who elected him.

The next four years will tell for sure how this President understood this razor-thin margin of victory. However, those who are interested in the practical aspects of this matter rather than the academic/historical one, should be able to predict the direction of this administration. The emphasis in the new government’s agenda, the movement of personnel and the ideological and philosophical orientation of the people holding the top cabinet positions are all good indicators.

There is of course the need for political parties’ leaders to assess their performance and come up with answers to explain their successes and failures. In that context, and in the light of exit polls’ findings that showed that “moral issues” being the deciding factors in this election, political thinkers and strategists will have to answer questions such as whether or not America is moving towards the right and why.

Finally, people would want to know what will be the social, economic, and political consequences of this election. Undoubtedly, this is one of the very few times where voters turn-out reached the 60% barrier in the history of the country. The large turn out however did not seem to hugely benefit one political party over the other; it would seem that the more one party mobilized its constituents, the bigger the reaction from the other party. In other words, the political parties seem to have maxed-out during this election. The question will remain: what is keeping 40% of American eligible voters from voting.

Regarding how this mandate is seen by the President, all signs now indicate that he is interpreting it as a validation of his actions, beliefs, and agenda. He is moving towards consolidating his base in order to make a final push for “greatness”. Unfortunately, the country is divided over many issues on which very little compromise can be achieved. Therefore, the President will necessarily make his choices and they will be in most cases contrary to the wishes of the 49% of the voters. He should have no problem whatsoever achieving his goals given that both the house and the senate are in conservative hands.

Just as was the case during his first term, this President remains consistent regarding his refusal to accept any mistakes. When faced with failed policies and unfulfilled assumptions, this administration did not hesitate to appropriate others’ plan and continue to run forward from issues in the areas that cannot be fixed without admittance of fault. If this trend were to continue in the next four years; the economic, moral, and political capital of the United States at home and abroad will shrink to unmanageable status.

The dismissal of moderates (like Powell) from the administration and the solidifying of the neo-conservatives’ grip over key cabinet positions will facilitate the achieving of Bush’s goals. So if these goals are sound; that can be a positive thing. However, the consolidating of institutional powers in the hands of one person or one political entity represents more harm than benefits. The causes of these are social phenomena and are universal and they usually signal the failure of civil society to protect itself from the scared self.

During times of wars and economic hardships, a country that is based on popular mandates tends to slide towards the right. More alarming, it also tends to allow the political leaders to grab more power. Once this trend reaches the point where the ruler has control over all branches of government, and in the absence of strong civil institutions and with the alarming rise of partisan or timid media outlets; the country would slowly fall under tyrannical control. As the violence is now worldwide, one can easily see that countries that are effected most by these conditions are moving towards the right. Israel moved to the extreme right as a result of the on-going war and occupation. Russia’s Putin is grabbing more power as he deals with the on-going military crisis in the Chechen republic. The entire Muslim world is embracing conservative movements and conservative parties. And most recently, the US has shown signs of embracing conservative rhetoric.

The US politics is especially important, not just because of its role policing the rest of the world, but also because of the specifics of the internal policies and politics and its military standing in the world. With little global influence on US election outcomes; it becomes essential that US citizens take seriously their civil obligations. If it is true that the American voters primarily voted their religious convictions; then, it follows that this administration is therefore unguided as far as the war is concerned. However, the war will continue to weigh heavily on the national economy and financial welfare of the future generations. Whatever the case may be, more Americans will need to participate during election years in order to provide a more representative agenda for local and federal governments.

By all accounts, the conservative elements who needed to vote voted during this election. Admittedly, the Bush campaign strategists knew that as long as voters’ turnout remains under 120 million; they reckoned that they stand a good chance of the results going their way. They were right. In other words, almost every voter in the rural “red states” who wanted to vote could have and did vote. There were virtually no long lines in voting locations.

In contrast, in the swing states especially, and in major metropolitan centers in general; voters had to wait four to six hours before they were able to cast their ballot. It is highly possible then that many who wanted to vote could not do so due to the long lines. Given that elections take place on a work-day; not all people can afford to take a day off or go to work late. Given the implication and the importance of this year’s election; it is only reasonable to conclude then that at least the majority of the 40% of the voters who did not vote are from large metropolitan areas who could not afford the long wait. Florida and Ohio are especially good cases in point.

The responsibility for these disparate conditions falls on the shoulders of the federal government which had failed to fund and undertake election reforms and establish national standards. It is true that since most states allow absentee balloting, busy citizens ought to take advantage of that option; but given the importance of voting in democratic systems; it remains the responsibility of the government to make sure that every citizen can vote without any undue inconvenience. It is legally and morally wrong that people in different areas have different standards and different conditions for casting a ballot in the same political campaign.

Regardless of the outcome of any election, the elected leaders are expected to govern in the name of all: those who voted for and those who voted against them are equally important for the direction of the country. When candidate A is elected by 51% of the voters; A ought to be mindful that 49% of the voters also preferred a different approach and A ought to govern from the middle to reflect the political makeup of all constituencies not just half of them. Doing otherwise is poor governance, unwise choice, and down-right political opportunism. The outcome of elections like the one we just had is humbling to politicians and that is how they should interpret it.

If the choices of the rest of the population are not understood in this context; four years from now, the victors of today will realize that it was a hallow victory. After all, this administration is the one that decided on deep tax cuts, the deficit, and the war; they will need the next four years to reap their harvest. If their policies are sound, then they better deliver in the next four years because they have no excuse: after all, the same political party is now in control of the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and of course the White House. Moreover, the executive branch is now monolithic, in that the very few so-called moderates were replaced by neo-conservatives. In short, the American voters will not forgive them if they do not succeed; since this is one of the very few instances—if not the only one—where all branches of government are in the hands of one political entity. It is in a sense, poetic justice: 49% of the voters think that this administration has broken the country; their minority voice is then telling the President: YOU broke it, now YOU must fix it.

Sadly, the individuals associated with this administration do not seem to recognize this reality. The head of the Defense Department for instance does not understand that one cannot win a war of ideas with big guns. He stubbornly insists that overwhelming force and military might can and will defeat any enemy. A good example of this trend is his attitude (that of Donald H. Rumsfeld), the man in charge of the War on Terror and his assessment of its outcome. When invited to congress to explain the Abu Ghrayb scandal; and after more than four hours of testimony, which began with a prepared statement offering a ''deep apology" for the torture of Iraqi prisoners, he showed his real position which is far from contrition. When Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin asked him how the United States can ''restore our credibility" on human rights matters, Rumsfeld asserted that America was already superior: ''I mean, why do people line up to get into this country year after year after year? I read all this stuff—people hate us, people don't like us. The fact of the matter is, people line up to come to this country every year because it's better here than other places, and because they respect the fact that we respect human beings."

The secretary of defense is either out of touch with reality or he is simply incapable of distinguishing between the economic opportunities that our country presents (which is the real motive behind the influx of workers) and human rights standing. There are many other great Western states that show equal respect to human rights and civility as we do here; but they lack the economic opportunity. That is why even citizens of those countries flock to America. Human rights are intrinsically linked to economic opportunities and America has been superior because both human rights and economic opportunities were honored. If anyone of these two is omitted, it will not take long before the second vanishes.

The mentality of supremacy is detrimental to the wellbeing of this country. And this country cannot afford to not know that humility and respect for dissent are good road-signs on the path to greatness; not military power and arrogance. The laws of nature and the lessons of history show us that no superpower could ever defeat ideas by brute force. The simplistic framing of the military conflict as a war against those who “hate us” is fatal. The wars that are won are against other military forces. No military power has ever defeated an idea no matter how potent, simple, or ridiculous it might be. The minute a state resorts to crushing ideas by the use of brute force; such a state has automatically put itself on a course of defeat.

The handling of the war is central to an economic recovery and to the US standing around the world. There is no logic that can ever make the war acceptable morally. That is because any logic that is embraced by one group party to a violent conflict could be easily claimed and appropriated by the opponent. Continued violence in the form of war ultimately risks either legitimizing violence or creating an opponent who is just as committed to it. Either way the logic of violence is a losing one when taken in its broader context.

The characterization of this administration’s approach to war and to the world as being one that is arrogant is not one that stems from ideological differences. In fact many voices from the neo-conservative camp are now saying the same thing. Just last week, William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard magazine, circulated a surprise demand for Rumsfeld’s dismissal. “What remains to be done is to announce new leadership for the department of defense,” wrote Kristol. “I am allergic to Rumsfeld,” said another champion of the war on terror, Ralph Peters. “We did a great thing in Iraq, but we did it very badly… He is an extremely talented man but he has the tragic flaw of hubris. His arrogance is unbearable. My friends in uniform just hate him.” Not to adopt the flawed logic of guilt by association; but the fact that people like Powell are gone while Rumsfeld and Rice are still around can only suggest the strong affinity between Bush and them and his approval of what they represent.

Unless the declining capital of the US around the world is blamed on the State department; there is no other way to interpret the early dismissal of Powell. Not only is the military solution is failing to win the war, but it is also causing more damage to the country’s image. Again, this is not a judgment stemming from political dissent; rather, it is one that is supported by the findings and recommendations of an advisory board that is working for the Defense department and that is supposed to guide Rumsfeld. In a detailed report released this thanksgiving week, the Defense Science Board (DSB) concluded that al-Qaeda is essentially winning the propaganda war. How could an organization whose leadership is on the run win, you might ask; simple, we are winning it for them every time this administration take the wrong step. For instance, and as argued by the authors of the report, the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have actually increased anti-American sentiments across the Muslim world:

"US actions appear... to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination."

The report also concluded that the US government had failed to adapt its Cold War communications strategy to deal with the threat of extremism in the Muslim world.

“In stark contrast to the Cold War, the United States today is not seeking to contain a threatening state empire, but rather seeking to convert a broad movement within Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of Western Modernity—an agenda hidden within the official rubric of a “war on terrorism”… Today we reflexively compare Muslim “masses” to those oppressed under Soviet rule… This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-US groundswell among Muslim societies—except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the US so determinedly promotes and defends."

More damning is the suggestion that the US is also losing the "war of ideas" in the Muslim world, referring to all attempts by Washington to convey information crucial to the so-called war on terrorism the report asserts:

"In this war, it is an essential objective because the larger goals of US strategy depend on separating the vast majority of nonviolent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists… But American efforts have not only failed in this respect. They may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended…”

During the past four years, the administration consistently took one step forward and two steps backward due to the unsynchronized action plans undertaken by the state and defense departments. Even outside observers could see that Powell had spent more time putting out fires started by the defense department than on fulfilling the normal diplomatic mission of the State Department. From the treatment of POWs, to the justification of Iraq war, to the handling of the Palestinian conflict; the State department spent all its energies on the defensive. The National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, whose job was to articulate a coherent and comprehensive national security policy, was herself caught in the ideological and academic theories and failed to pay attention to the reality on the ground. May be giving her the task of “making friends” with other countries will give her a steady dose of the hard reality when she realizes that no one will share a cafeteria table with her with that kind of arrogant attitude.

The moral and legal dilemma in which the US finds itself is that while it is preaching to the rest of the world that armament and the development of weapons of mass destruction are losing propositions and are bad for the world; its military civilian and uniformed leaders are bragging that it is because of the military superiority that America is superior to everyone else. In other words, it is the use of force that will ultimately be accredited with any emerging democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. That in itself is a validation to amassing weaponry instead of books and channels of communications between the citizens of the world.

Until four years ago, the military leadership was hardly seen on TV screens and newspapers’ pages. Thereafter, Rumsfeld and the generals became daily TV stars. They became prominent and their role and function was not restricted to their area of responsibility. Rather, they answered questions related to defense matters as well as matters of diplomatic and even domestic nature. In a sense, they even set the tone for the homeland departments as well as the foreign policy leadership. A good example that shows this alarming trend is the tone and content of remarks made November 29 by Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command.

"We can generate more military power per square inch than anybody else on Earth, and everybody knows it… If you ever even contemplate our nuclear capability, it should give everybody the clear understanding that there is no power that can match the United States militarily."

These are the kind of statements that are made glorifying brute force and nuclear capability at a time the US is telling North Korea, Iran, and the rest of the world that weapons of mass destruction are bad. Either nuclear and chemical weapons are tools of the uncivilized and they ought not exist in a world yearning for peace; or they have a positive function that is the basis why civilized and advanced nations ought to pursue them. But the logic of “good for us bad for them” will not and cannot stand regardless of how superior the entity that subscribes to it is.

The reliance on military power to spread democracy is flawed and shortsighted. It is already producing the opposite results of the intended ones. Recently, there were reports that even Saudi Arabia was in the market for “ready-to-use” nuclear gadgets as a security backup plan in case its alliance with the US were to fall apart. North Korea sped up its production of nuclear weapons immediately after the Iraq war. Iran is on the brinks of acquiring nuclear capability and its legislature passed laws prohibiting the executive branch from ever giving up its right to nuclear technology. Russia’s Putin bragged about his country’s possession of nuclear weapons and programs that no other nation around the world has. In short, the cold war is in phase two, and the world is more dangerous because of the glorification of wars, tools of murder, and violence. The world is not safer because of the rhetoric of superiority that takes weapons of mass destruction, war, violence, and “democracy as a foundation. The situation shall become inveterate if this election’s results are used to embolden this trend and give free reign to those in power.

SOUAIAIA

About SOUAIAIA

Islamic Societies Review Editors

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