Of Politics and Vengeance

Kevin Phillips's latest book is "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

WASHINGTON -- President Bush’s assertion Monday night that Saddam Hussein is as great and immediate a threat to the United States as the nuclear missiles the Soviet Union put in Cuba 40 years ago means that the issue should dominate the November elections, despite the public’s apparent desire that more attention be paid to the staggering economy. This is a tribute to both Republican audacity and Democratic fecklessness.

With almost a month to go until election day, there remains some chance that the White House’s preoccupation with Saddam Hussein and its exaggeration of the Iraqi threat could generate a voter backlash. That would compel a greater pre-election focus on the economy.

The White House preoccupation is unnerving. Forty years ago, President John F. Kennedy produced aerial photos of newly installed Russian missiles 90 miles from the United States. Bush can only discuss how Iraq, some 10,000 miles away, may be trying to use unmanned aerial vehicles to target the United States. He’s not talking about the former Soviet Union, but a rag-tag country with a gross national product the size of Kentucky’s.


The public understands that something seems amiss, even if congressional opposition is cowed. Although Americans overwhelmingly support military action against Iraq, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, a majority thinks the president is more interested in removing Hussein from power than in finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. One unmentioned ingredient: the sense of a Bush family vendetta left over from the unfinished Persian Gulf War.

There’s also a perception that Bush is insufficiently attentive to the sliding economy. Before his speech, 69% wanted more discussion of improving the economy and less preoccupation with Iraq. His talk, which ignored the domestic economy, seems not to have changed these attitudes.

So, why the current drift toward war? Partly because of popular frustration around the first anniversary of Sept. 11, but also because of the surprising ineffectiveness of congressional Democrats. Beyond House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt’s support for the White House, the reasons for the party’s confusion are many.

First, the administration’s doctrine of preemptive war is so bold in a kind of Texas-sheriff way that, despite its legal and moral dubiousness, it has harnessed support among Americans impatient for results in the U.S. anti-terrorism war. Besides, important Democratic constituencies are being tugged by a powerful, new domestic war-policy axis: an emerging alliance between the religious right, with its biblical interpretation of Middle East events, and American Jewish supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose parliamentary coalition in Israel includes that nation’s religious right.

Furthermore, it’s difficult for Democrats to criticize Bush for using war with Iraq to divert voters’ attention from the economy when Bill Clinton was the president who put “wag the dog” into the U.S. political lexicon by throwing some cruise missiles at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in August 1998 to distract attention from Monica Lewinsky. It’s also tough for Democrats to speak candidly about U.S. economic weakness -- how the country is now in the sort of downturn that typically follows the implosion of a major speculative bubble -- because Clinton was in the White House as that bubble expanded and popped. Democratic indictments of Republican economic arguments and upper-bracket favoritism are correspondingly superficial.

The ultimate Democratic fecklessness stems from the party’s supposed memory of the trouble it got into for questioning former President Bush’s 1990-91 commitment to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. What trouble? Democrats made greater gains than expected in the 1990 congressional elections, added a surprise victory in the autumn 1991 U.S. Senate special election in Pennsylvania and then went on to defeat Bush and recapture the presidency in 1992.


The second reality check lost sight of during the last 12 years is that Hussein is a second-rate, second-priority despot worth taking out, but only if and when such an effort -- preferably under U.N. auspices -- doesn’t lead to more costs and problems than his continued existence. Presidents and politicians of both parties have likened the Iraqi dictator to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. But the latter two only attained their extreme scale of evil by commanding great military machines. Even the CIA doesn’t put Hussein in any similar league.

Small wonder the public perceives Bush as more concerned about dethroning Hussein than disarming him. If U.S. involvement with Iraq misfires, it’s this sort of White House exaggeration that could fuel a backlash.

The president’s father, after building up Hussein as an international ogre, called the U.S. military off when the Iraqi despot’s days seemed numbered. This outcome fed voters’ sense of a Bush failure. Since then, the Republican presidential victory in 2000 has not only restored a Bush to the White House but has also brought back the GOP war-management teams of 1974-75 (the end of fighting in Vietnam) and 1990-91 (the Gulf War). Their hunger for revenge must be almost palpable.

This is dynastic-type policymaking never before seen in the United States. True, our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, became president like his father. But that was 24 years later, and his father, who belonged to a different party, left no unfinished war as a legacy.

The return of defense secretaries and White House chiefs of staff from previous wartime periods is just as unprecedented. It suggests a rare combination of unrequited frustrations and motivations. Consider: In spring 1975, when the war in Vietnam ended with the fall of South Vietnam to the communists and Cambodians seized the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez, Donald H. Rumsfeld, now Defense secretary, was the White House chief of staff and Dick Cheney, now vice president, was his deputy.

Former President Bush recalled Southeast Asian embarrassments in 1991, when he pledged that the Gulf War “will not be another Vietnam.” Cheney was around then, too, as secretary of Defense. When the U.S. appeared victorious, Bush exclaimed that, “We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”


Unfortunately, he was mistaken. For the war leaders of 1975 and 1991, two decades of being embarrassed by pipsqueak countries have lengthened to three. Arguably, this, not the chemical or biological weapons never used by Hussein in 1991, is what truly goads the Bush-Rumsfeld-Cheney threesome.

Some Republicans have labeled the Bush duel with Hussein as opportunistic from the start. The U.S supported Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s, despite Baghdad’s use of chemical weapons. Moreover, April Glaspie, U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the first Bush administration, seems to have given Hussein a partial go-ahead to take some border oil wells just before he went farther and seized all of Kuwait in August 1990. Then the White House mood shifted. According to the autobiography of the late Treasury secretary and Texas Gov. John Connally, a home-state dynastic foe of the Bushes, the president’s father was roused by a midsummer conversation with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “George,” she told him, “I was about to be defeated in England when the Falkland conflict happened in 1982. I stayed in office eight years after that.”

The public seems to sense the personal element in the White House duel with Hussein. With three weeks to go until the midterm elections, that leaves an unfortunate question: Where is the congressional opposition raising serious questions about which White House motivations are real and which are spurious?