There’s a tantalising spectre haunting modern U.S. and international politics. In the painfully drawn out final months of the Bush presidency, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone, outside of the extreme fringe, willing to defend the policies of that administration. Even erstwhile supporters now display a palpable nostalgia for the golden ’90s and the years of the Clinton administration, when seemingly the greatest problems of the day were whether or not to start a and make out like a bandit in the IPO, and alternate uses of cigars.
Many have pinned their hopes on the elections of 2008 seeing both an increased Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, and a Democratic resident in the White House, more likely than not another Clinton, and ushering in an end to the war in Iraq and the fiscal and political excesses of the last couple of years. Seductive as this vision of the future is, chances are they’ll be disappointed.  

This assumption, that the system can be easily reset, and set on a better course, which I’ve expressed doubts about in the past, underpins a lot of contemporary debate. My Bits of News colleague, Henry Midgley, expressed this hope in his recent article on Chris Bowers‘ statements on the possibility of a “permanent Democratic majority”. His belief, shared by many, that a return to Clintonite Third Way policies will cure what ails the U.S. body politic, strikes me as a tad naive.  

Especially in hindsight, it might be argued that those policies, even the first time around, did little to arrest the long term developments that have led to the present state of affairs. To believe that those same policies, or rather that same method of triangulating a politically expedient common wisdom, would avail to restore the old order domestically and in foreign affairs, depends on a rather shallow reading of the past and the forces at work that brought us to the present situation.  

Dubious as the Bush presidency’s policies have been, the underlying problems of the U.S. are not all of his making. Under the cover of the economic boost of the IT revolution, the Clinton White House and Congress enacted free trade agreements which had little to do with comparative advantage and mutually beneficial exploitation of resources, and everything to do with labour arbitrage. Basically it was a medium term play, based on the possibilities offered by cheap transport and communications, to shift production to low wage countries, while still being able to sell the goods in high wage regions. The sad fact is that aside from his other eccentricities, Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” was very real. That in turn was itself a symptom of a more basic problem still.  

Even those who upbraid the Democratic leadership in Congress for their failure to challenge the initiatives of the White House, balk at the thought that there’s more to it than sheer lack of guts in the face of accusations of being soft on terrorism. Glenn Greenwald has been one of the most consistent, and insightful commentators on the debacle in the Middle-East. But in his recent blog entry on Senator Carl Levin‘s statements in support of White House and military claims of the Surge of forces having been a success, he also is left with a conundrum. Why won’t the Democrats oppose White House power grabs, or take any serious steps towards ending the war, when it’s within their power, and such actions would have widespread popular support? What’s the reason for this lack of “intestinal fortitude”?

The point is that it might not reflect a lack of “intestinal fortitude” at all, rather the reverse. While some Democratic representatives and senators might vote contrary to their better judgement for fear of political blame, or hope of political gain, the attempts to explain the actions and statements of the bulk of the caucus, even in the face of overwhelming support for a radical shift in policy in the polls, begin to resemble the mathematically impressive, but completely misguided attempts to save the geocentric Ptolemaic system. At some point the far simpler explanation becomes the more convincing one, that sizable and influential blocks of the Democratic Party establishment don’t lack intestinal fortitude, but indeed demonstrates an impressive amount of it, by acting against the clear wishes of their political base, and the American public at large. Not reluctant hostages to imperial policy, they are in fact the committed defenders of those policies.    

As I mentioned in a previous article, this doesn’t necessarily reflect a deep seated nefariousness, yearning for conquest, or even wish for the inherited powers of a unitary executive following the 2008 presidential election on the part of the Democrats, as much as a realisation that America is in a real bind as regards the Middle-East.    

Even if it wanted to, the U.S. would now find it exceedingly difficult to disentangle itself from the Middle-East. That die was really thrown back in the ’70s, when the U.S., faced with the domestic Hubbert’s Oil Peak, chose not to initiate a program of exploring alternative energy sources, or follow through on strict fuel efficiency standards. One could compare it to a patient with renal failure opting out of a transplant, and instead going on constant dialysis.    

One of the most insightful thinkers in this area, who early on saw that the end of light sweet crude not only had economic consequences, but also political, and cultural ones, was Stirling Newberry. Prior to the domestic peak oil production, and subsequent decline, U.S. interests in the Middle-East were still economically important, but mainly for U.S. based oil companies. When the U.S. became a net importer of crude, it became a matter of national importance. It was also at the root of the trade and current account deficits that would plague the U.S. from then on.    

The very landscape of the U.S. had been shaped in the heyday of the automobile, with sprawling suburbs that were clean, safe, and relatively cheap, with most conveniences drive to or drive through, with little in the way of public transport. This was made possible by cheap and plentiful petrol to ferry people to their place of employment. That structure, made even more dominant in the years since the ’70s also represents an enormous sunk cost in infrastructure, massive enough to stagger belief.    

At this late date, with no replacement kidney in sight, one can’t just rip that dialysis tube out the arm of the patient without risking a complete system shutdown. Whether they would have preferred the past to have been otherwise or not, most everyone inside the Washington Beltway today, Democrat, or not, are painfully aware that overt imperialism is the obvious strategy today, not primarily to create a new reality on the ground, but to underpin the very status quo pre Bush that so many across the political spectrum long to return to.  

When Vice President Dick Cheney stated that the American way of life was non-negotiable, he was in fact speaking not only for himself, or even the Republican White House and Party, but also for the establisment at large, including the leadership of the Democratic Party, many of whom might not have made the case with such bluntness, but nevertheless ascribe to the same view of the world. The United States simply can’t afford the risks involved in losing control of the Middle-East, possibly to hostile powers.  

The Iraq war is not simply a Bush folly, but merely the first in a series of resource wars looming on the horizon, on the outcome of which hangs the very way of life of millions of people.  

                           This article is also available at Bits of News.

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