Why Iraq matters so little

The Democratic Party primaries in the US have once again shown that too many Indian foreign policy analysts are victims of wishful thinking.

Many of them hoped Afghanistan would prove another Vietnam. This was soon exposed as wishful thinking. The same intellectuals then hoped Iraq would be at least a diluted form of Vietnam. Wishful thinking, again.

But guerrilla resistance and suicide bombers then showed that while the US had won the Iraq war easily, winning the subsequent peace was difficult. By July 2003, US soldiers began to be killed at an average rate of almost one per day. The same hopeful intellectuals declared gleefully that Bush would suffer since the US public would refuse to accept high casualties.

Sorry, wrong again. US casualties in Iraq, far from ending, have accelerated. In January the number of deaths crossed the milestone of 500, making an average of close to two soldiers killed per day. On January 31, six more soldiers were killed. Did this create outraged protest in the US? Did this dominate the headlines and force a change in election strategies?

Not at all. The US public shrugged off the 500-death milestone with no sign of war fatigue. Many newspapers, including The Washington Post, buried the six deaths on January 31 on their inside pages.

The rise of Howard Dean as the front-running Democratic candidate from late 2003 onwards was seen b y many Indian analysts as a sign that the US was fed up with Bush’s imperialism and the deaths it was causing. Bush’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was seen as a further blow to him and vindication of Dean’s opposition to the war. And so, our intellectuals hoped, the scene was set for a vindicated Dean to rise on an anti-war platform and thrash Bush in the coming election. Wrong yet again.

What explains this? The economy, stupid. An exit poll after Iowa primary showed that 29% of voters felt that the economy was the most important election issue, 28% regarded education as key and only 14% regarded Iraq as the main issue. Dean had become front-runner in the Democratic primaries by being the most outspoken critic of Bush on Iraq. And those Democrats regarding foreign policy as the key issue did indeed vote for Dean. But this did not help him since the vast majority of voters regarded the economy/ jobs and social sectors as key, and so voted for John Kerry who focused on these issues.

A recent poll in Newsweek showed that 36% of voters regarded the economy/jobs as the key issue. Healthcare came second, and Iraq came a distant third with just 11%. So Kerry may indeed beat George Bush in the coming Presidential election, but mainly because of the economy and unemployment, not Iraq.

Why have so many Indian foreign policy analysts gone so badly wrong? They have made two mistakes. First, many have failed to understand how deeply 9/11 has changed the US, and to what extent the US public is willing to accept casualties on a scale unthinkable in Cold War days. Second, too many analysts see the US as an all-powerful imperialist rather than a country where people feel insecure and vulnerable in respect of jobs, income, healthcare and education.

Only foreign policy specialists can be so blind as to regard the US as a global hegemon. Ordinary Americans will wonder what all this talk of hegemony is about. So what if American planes can bomb Iraq and Afghanistan? It does not seem to prevent American manufacturing jobs from migrating to China, and service jobs from migrating to India. Bush’s term looks like being the first since the Great Depression to witness a fall in employment.

In response, all Democratic candidates have spouted protectionist rhetoric. Bush himself has imposed protectionist controls on imports ranging from steel and textiles to brassieres and furniture. Many American states as well as the US Congress have enacted legislation barring government contracts from being outsourced to India or other countries.

Meanwhile, American economists worry that the US trade deficit has swollen to a gargantuan 5% of GNP. It increasingly depends on developing countries like China and India to finance this gap, by buying more dollar securities (that is what their rising forex reserves represent).

Historian Niall Ferguson has remarked that American military might cannot translate into imperialism as historically defined because no successful imperial power has ever been so pitifully dependent on foreign money. Hegemony, ultimately, is not just about bombs and fighter planes. It is about the economy, stupid.

What do you think?