Bush vs. Kerry: The Conquerors' Debate

Revolutionary Worker #1254, October 10, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

As Kerry and Bush held their first debate, the U.S. occupation in Iraq announced that thousands of U.S. troops, spearheaded by tanks, were about to sweep into the city of Samarra. This brutal assault would again fill hospitals and neighborhoods with the dead and wounded.

The attack on Samarra highlighted again that the U.S. occupation has little control over Iraq's major population centers, and that the U.S. high command is determined to respond to the obvious failure of its occupation by escalating its ruthless use of military force.

With that bloody background, the two candidates debated the war and the larger U.S. global offensive. After a week in which the headlines had announced "Kerry takes the gloves off," millions of people tuned in hoping to see some real, sharp opposition to the whole course of events--to the arrogant pursuit of aggression, bullying and occupation and to the chilling, fascistic feel to the domestic climate.

Earlier this month, in an interview broadcast on L.A.'s KPFK radio, RCP Chairman Bob Avakian argued forcefully against having any illusions about what is going on in these elections:

"You do have contending sections of the ruling class battling it out, and right now it's very obvious and relatively sharp. But let's look at the actual terms on which they are battling it out--not the ones you want to pretend or imagine that they are arguing about, or that you can somehow mystically or magically make to be the terms that they are contending over. But what are the actual terms they are contending over: They are contending precisely over how to wage the `war on terrorism,' as they call it, which is really a war for empire. And how to carry out the necessary repression in relationship to that. And `to what degree do we need allies in that process?' And `to what degree do we need to talk about constitutional rights in that context, while we are trampling on them?' These are the things they are battling out. And it gets concentrated in this question, as they explicitly formulate it, including the Democrats and Kerry: `who is the best commander-in-chief?'"

Speaking to the people who wish this election (and a vote for Kerry) could serve as a referendum on war, Bob Avakian said: "They are making it a referendum on war in the sense of `who can be the better commander-in- chief?' Not what you'd like it to be: `Should we have a whole imperialist policy, imperialist approach to the world like this?'

Kerry's Promise to Save the Mission

The truth of that observation became even more clear during the September 30 debate. Kerry rolled out some criticisms of how the Iraq war was launched and conducted. But he summed up the heart of his position in a one- liner the day after the debate: "Nobody's talking about leaving, nobody's talking about wilting and wavering. We're talking about winning and getting the job done right."

From the beginning, Kerry voted to grant Bush war powers against Iraq and supported the invasion. He voted for the fascistic Patriot Act, and he has not yet let any criticism of Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo pass his lips.

But now that the war is going badly and deepening questions are felt--including at the very heights of power and within the military high command--he has felt compelled to step out with some criticisms of how the war was launched and waged, and to present himself as the "commander-in-chief" who can lead that war to victory.

In Las Vegas on September 16, Kerry accused Bush of creating a "fantasy world of spin" on Iraq. At a speech at New York University on September 20, Kerry said, "Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions, and if we don't change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight."

In the September 30 debate, he charged that the Bush White House had launched the invasion of Iraq "without a plan to win the peace" and that this decision was "a colossal error of judgment."

But all this was said to argue that he, Kerry, has a path to victory over the Iraqi resistance. And from within that framework, Kerry laid out a list of proposals. At their heart, he proposes conceding a share of influence, power and profit in post-war Iraq to other powers, like France and Russia, in exchange for their help (and more UN help) in suppressing the insurgency. Kerry says he will hold a summit to make the necessary deals, and that he would renounce any plans for permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.

The point of all that, Kerry said, was to prevent the U.S. military from getting bogged down by itself in a deepening and bloody quagmire in Iraq--and to end this "diversion" from other aggressive global military moves that Kerry thinks should have higher priority, including moves in places like Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

But it stands out that Kerry both argues that the invasion was a mistake, and yet also strongly rejects any notion of pulling out without "victory"--however long that takes.

In the debate, Kerry openly invoked the so-called "Pottery Barn rule," saying: "If you break it you fix it. Now if you break it, you made a mistake. It's the wrong thing to do. But you own it. And then you've got to fix it and do something with it. Now that's what we have to do."

This is the openly imperialist argument that the U.S. can't pull out of Iraq--even if invading that country was based on lies, and even if it was an unwise move (from their perspective of empire building). This is because from Kerry's (as well Bush's) global capitalist perspective, Iraq and the surrounding Persian Gulf region is a precious strategic area that cannot be abandoned. And it is also because, once the U.S. has thrown down in a place like Iraq, leaving would undermine the empire's credibility--and all kinds of people (in Iraq and elsewhere) will jump out and be encouraged to do more things that would weaken U.S. domination and its position as a powerful, bullying superpower. In short, as Bob Avakian has pointed out, this argument that you can't pull out once you have invaded is just the godfather principle of mobsters and hitmen.

Kerry reveals what he means by "mistake" and what he doesn't mean. He is NOT saying that the U.S. has no right to maraud all over the world. He is NOT arguing that it is unjust to conquer Iraq, or dominate other countries. In fact, he calls for expanding U.S. commando and spying operations around the world. And he openly insists, including in this debate, that the U.S. president has a right to launch "pre-emptive" invasions and attacks on anyone in the world.

And Kerry repeatedly insists that he is the one who really knows how to use U.S. military strength for global influence and power (in a way that is "smart").

As he has laid out his criticisms of Bush's policy, Kerry has all along insisted: "I want victory. I want to win, and I have a better plan to win than George Bush does."

He is, as he said at his convention, "Reporting for duty."

The Bush Agenda and Its Ambition to Permanent Power

Given this common agreement among imperialists, and given the rather close similarity between Kerry's proposals and Bush's current policies.the other thing that stood out in the debate was the intense hostility and disdain that radiated from George Bush and his arguments.

In a blunt and bullying way, George Bush argued that anyone who questions the war he launched--or really any of his main policies--even with the mild critiques of a Senator Kerry, is fundamentally undermining the U.S. position in the world in dangerous and reckless ways. He argued that anyone who criticized how the Iraq invasion was launched should be considered unfit to be "commander-in-chief."

Bush's words and his whole stance projected that he considered any opposition to be illegitimate and specifically that Kerry's challenge to power serves a world full of enemies--whether those enemies are labeled "the terrorists" or "rogue states," or refer to the various formerly allied world powers like France and Germany.

The Washington Post recently pointed out: "President Bush and leading Republicans are increasingly charging that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and others in his party are giving comfort to terrorists and undermining the war in Iraq--a line of attack that tests the conventional bounds of political rhetoric."

What the Washington Post calls "the conventional bounds of political rhetoric" are, in fact, the underlying assumptions of the whole bourgeois democratic electoral system. Within the official political system, elections--especially the campaigns at the presidential level--have traditionally been treated (at least in public) as disagreements among "reasonable and honorable men." But clearly, this tradition (like many other "norms" of previous U.S. legality and politics) has less and less of a place in the outlook and approach of the crew driving the U.S. government.

The charges are made, fairly openly, that John Kerry is the preferred candidate of "the terrorists" and that his election would mean (in the words of Vice President Cheney) a likelihood that "we'll get hit again." Senator Orrin Hatch, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that "the terrorists" are doing everything they can "to try and elect Kerry."

George Bush did not exactly repeat that charge in the nose-to-nose debate, but he came as close as possible. When asked if the election of Kerry might lead to another "9/11," Bush replied, "I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win."

Anyone watching the debate could not miss the barely concealed rage of Bush as his approach to Iraq was criticized. His beady eyes blinked furiously. His face twisted with impatience and disdain. And his answers returned again and again to that theme: even raising any criticisms meant that his opponent was unfit for office.

Many commentators remarked that Bush seems to think the very ritual of presidential debate is an "imposition" on his war presidency and has become a forum for airing uncertainties and questions and charges that should not be allowed to be aired.

This is the picture of a political crew, now controlling the heights of power in the White House (as well as the Supreme Court and Congress), that acts and speaks as if any deviation from their course is treasonous and essentially the equivalent of "supporting the terrorists."

It was impossible to watch Bush's performance and arguments in this debate without wondering, again, what extremes this crew is willing to go to in order to hold onto power--and what they intend to do with that power in the next years to press through historic changes in how the U.S. and the whole world are run.

It was impossible not to remember how the 2000 election was stolen with massive voter fraud and a Supreme Court coup, or the recent high-level position papers from within the Bush administration on canceling presidential elections in case of some major "incident."

And it was impossible not to get an even more sober and urgent sense of the need for creative, massive, organized, and clear-sighted resistance to everything this represents.

This is clearly not a time for illusions about elections. Whoever wins, things are not going to just "be resolved" on election day--nor are all the intense U.S. global aggression and domestic repression going to simply recede.

Clearly, the Bush camp has their rather obvious intentions not to give up an inch of power, or retreat from the aggressive course they have set. And millions of people in this country must deliver a clear NO to Bush and all that he stands for. But even if Kerry wins, that would clearly be no good for the interests of people here and around the world. It would be portrayed as a "mandate" for adjusting--and pursuing--the "war on terrorism."

There is tremendous questioning of the government's course among the people, and tremendous potential for real resistance against the whole outrageous and horrifying course that U.S. policy and world events have taken. Not only have Kerry and the Democrats essentially signed onto that war for empire--but they have offered their own proposals for how to do it victoriously. And given the whole history of things (from Gore's capitulation, to the Kerry nomination, to the way Howard Dean's combative tone against Bush was ruled "out of order"), it is hard to imagine the Democrats leading any real struggle if this election is canceled (under the pretext of some "incident") or stolen once again.

On KPFK, Bob Avakian spoke to all those who have argued for falling in behind Kerry because the alternative seems to be openly and increasingly fascist. Chairman Avakian said: "So if you think those are the terms, then we better do something radically different than voting for Kerry. We better build mass resistance that is prepared to carry on in the face of an attempted fascist coup, that is prepared to introduce a whole different dynamic into this."

These are historic days, with powerful forces in play and many possible outcomes. This is a time that demands clear thinking, creative resistance, and a vision of profoundly changing the world.