Bush understands the Al Qaeda because he is just like them… He truly believes he is on a mission from God, By Prem Shankar Jha. *
While all eyes in India have been glued to the Maharashtra elections, the rest of the world has become increasingly preoccupied by the approach of another election-that of the American president on November 2. For the first time in human history, who becomes the next president of America has ceased to be the Americans' business alone, and has become the world's business.
As the campaign has grown hotter and dirtier in the US, tension has mounted in England, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, as people have alternated between hope and despair at each new twist in the candidates' fortunes. " Perhaps the time has come", a Peer of the Realm in Britain whom I visited at the House of Lords said to me, "for all of us to have a vote in who becomes the American President".
Interest in the American elections has never been so high. Nor has partisanship been more marked. Opinion polls conducted in several western European countries have shown that 60 to 80 per cent of the respondents want John Kerry to win.
The British newspaper, The Guardian, which has been utterly steadfast in its opposition to the Iraq war, has gone so far as to obtain the voters' lists from a number of key 'swing' states in the US, and invite its readers to write to one voter to persuade him or her to vote for Kerry. By the middle of October, 11,000 Britons had taken up the offer.
At the National Theatre in London, 'Stuff Happens', a play by the noted playwright, David Hare, has been running to full houses. It is a painstakingly honest and sympathetic reconstruction of how and why Bush and Blair went to war in Iraq. It is therefore all the more damning. The title is a quotation from Donald Rumsfeld, who dismissed the looting of the Baghdad museum and the rioting that broke out across Iraq on April 10 with this now immortal phrase.
The play highlights the evangelical, born again, strain in Bush's personality and holds it responsible for the devastation of Iraq. God told him to fight terror, and God told him to invade Iraq. It reminds us that till the time it was written Bush had used the word 'evil' 319 times. 'Stuff Happens' is sold out till Christmas.
Across the Atlantic exactly the same unease, sometimes bordering on panic, has gripped the American intelligentsia. In an article titled "Without a Doubt" published in the New York Times magazine on October 17, Ronald Susskind, a former senior writer of the Wall Street Journal and co-author of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's book The Price of Loyalty, quotes Bruce Bartlett, a Republican who worked in the Reagan and senior Bush administrations as saying, "If Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican party starting on November 3." The nature of that conflict, he says, will be essentially as the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
"I think a light has gone off for people who have spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do. This is why George W Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, … they are extremists driven by a dark vision. He understands them because he is just like them… He truly believes he is on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms the need for analysis… But you can't run the world on faith".
Susskind's article has set the neo-conservative dovecotes on fire, and brought down a storm of condemnation upon the New York Times. But the unease he reflected is not confined to the intelligentsia. It is shared by large numbers of people all the way down to the lowest economic and social rungs of society. It was reflected by the 62.5 million audience for the first Bush-Kerry debate, the second highest in recorded history. It is now being underlined by the record numbers who are registering themselves to vote for the first time.
Many factors have converged to bring it to a head. The rising American death toll in Iraq, the pointlessness of the deaths, and the lies and deceit that the subsequent investigations exposed have played an important part. But in sharp contrast to opinion abroad, Iraq would probably not have sufficed to create the consuming anxiety that the rising voter registration reflects, had Bush not flaunted his lack of concern for the rising unemployment (insufficiently reflected by the official statistics), the rising budget deficit, the collapsing dollar, and record levels of poverty, reflected in a 5 million rise in the number of people without health insurance.
He demonstrated his utter insensitivity yet again, earlier this week, by announcing that he intended to privatise old age pensions because the treasury would not be able to cope with the rise in pension bill when the post war baby boom generation began to retire around 2011.
Democrats were quick to point out that this sudden show of resolution in tackling a long dormant problem smacked of hypocrisy because it had not prevented Bush from cutting taxes.
Just one third of the tax cuts that Bush had enacted for the rich would have sufficed to keep the state pension system intact in the face of the baby boom. Coming on top of Iraq this lack of concern, bordering upon contempt, has sapped public confidence in Bush's capacity to rule. The poor no longer feel safe.
Despite opinion polls that show the race to be a near dead-heat, the Republicans know that they have been forced onto the defensive. Their response has been to deploy, with ever growing lack of restraint, the one weapon that has brought them so far - fear.
Ever since Kerry stepped up his attack upon Bush for having needlessly landed the US in a quagmire in Iraq, Bush and his team have been emphasising that the nation is at war; that Bush has shown the resolve that a war-President has to have by attacking Afghanistan and Iraq, and that Kerry is too soft and indecisive to keep the country safe.
Vice president Dick Cheney has gone a step further and warned the people that if Kerry is elected, it will virtually be an invitation to Al Qaeda to commit fresh atrocities on the American people. In a current bus stop tour of the key state of Ohio, Cheney has decided to dispense with truth altogether and warned his listeners that American cities will face suitcase nuclear and biological weapons if Kerry is elected. Cheney's crude tactics provoked the New York Times into accusing him and Bush of basing their re-election campaign on 'fear-mongering'.
The response to these tactics has come from NGOs, human and legal rights organisations and ordinary citizens. Across the country, and particularly in the dozen or so 'swing states' these have fanned out to ensure that Republican governors do not steal the elections from the people by denying the ballot on one pretext or another to some of those who want to vote.
Not surprisingly most of the spotlight is focused on Governor Jeb Bush who did just that in Florida in 2000. Activists for democratic rights point out that by one means or another between four and six million people of all persuasions who wanted to cast their vote in 2000 were prevented from doing so. They are determined to prevent this from happening again.
In the end it is the new voters who are likely to decide the results. They are a wild card that pollsters are unable to capture in their predictions. The Republicans are making frantic attempts through church organisations and corporate sector advertisements to bring out their own voters. But there remains a lurking suspicion that most of the new voters on November 2 will be 'protest voters' who want a new tenant in the White House.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.