George Bush is smiling

As a frequent visitor to the US, I can say that most Indians do not have the foggiest idea of American attitudes and trends following the Iraq war. Many Indians ask me whether President George Bush is in serious political trouble because of the death of almost one soldier per day in Iraq, and whether he will lose the presidential election next year.

I reply that George Bush is riding high despite setbacks, Americans are taking military deaths with little flinching, and Bush looks like winning next year’s election. This does not go down well with Indian listeners, many of whom long for a repetition of Vietnam in Iraq. They confuse wishful thinking with analysis. True, President Bush’s popular approval rating is down to 53 per cent from astronomical levels during the Iraq war. However, the third year in office is often the low point of an American president, so 53 per cent is good going.

But, I’m asked, will not Americans soon rebel against casualties in Iraq, as they did in Vietnam, Somalia and Lebanon? Americans seem happy to bomb countries from safe heights. But surely they will turn against a president who fails in what was always a dubious war in Iraq? No weapons of mass destruction have been discovered. No longer can the US pretend that American soldiers have been welcomed as liberators by Iraqis. Tony Blair is under immense pressure in Britain. Will not Bush suffer the same fate?

The answer is no. Indians simply have not understood, despite constant repetition, that 9/11 has changed America so radically that all the old yardsticks no longer apply. Forget the retreat from Somalia or Lebanon, when the US public did not think, even remotely, that they were at war. Even during Vietnam, the US mainland was never attacked. But Americans regard 9/11 in the same light as Pearl Harbour. They truly believe they have been forced into war. It is a new kind of war where Americans are not sure who or where exactly the enemy is, but they are determined to do all that it takes to destroy the shadowy foe.

We in India are so accustomed to bombs and insurgencies in different parts of the country that we have lost the capacity to be shocked. Bindaas Bombay shrugged off the latest bomb blasts. When 100 people were killed by a flash flood in Azamgarh district on Wednesday, many newspapers did not even carry the news. We have become so shock-proof and so inured to deaths and outrages that we cannot comprehend how traumatised Americans are by 9/11. We do not view the Mumbai blasts as war. But Americans view 9/11 as the start of a war. When you are at war, you do not worry about fine points of international law. You make allowances for setbacks that you never would in peace time (which explains the new US willingness to accept casualties daily). You trust your political leaders far more than you would in peace time (which is why the failure to finds weapons of mass destruction has not hurt Bush badly).

Britain was not hit by 9/11. Hence Blair needs to give far stronger reasons to his people for invading Iraq than Bush needs to give Americans. In a war, you often shoot first and ask questions later. This makes the US a dangerous superpower. But it also means that Bush remains popular despite humiliating setbacks. All those who harp on Lyndon Johnson’s ignominious exit in 1968 need to remember that the same man swept the polls in 1964, in the early phase of the Vietnam war.

Above all, Bush is smiling because the Democrats seem incapable of exploiting his weaknesses. Almost all leading Democrats backed the war against Iraq. The only one who opposed the war, Howard Dean, has suddenly emerged as the front-runner in primaries. One poll gives him a huge lead of 22 percentage points over John Kerry in the New Hampshire primary. Dean, an obscure ex-governor of Vermont, has earned name-recognition by daring to abandon safe centrist politics (anti-war politics is necessarily extremist during a war).

Yet, American presidential elections are typically won by centrist candidates. Rightist Barry Goldwater was thrashed in 1964, as was leftist George McGovern in 1972. Dean may appeal most to die-hard Democrats, but will probably appeal least to mainstream Americans. George Bush is smiling because he believes that of all Democratic candidates, Dean will be the easiest to beat.

What if the Iraqi resistance becomes ever stronger? What if the American death toll accelerates? In the foreseeable future, I would say that the US is determined to stay the distance in Iraq, regardless of the cost in lives. It took five years of futile war in Vietnam before Lyndon Johnson became unelectable. Bush has a lesser foe and will face voters much sooner, and so looks safe.

What do you think?