Byline by M J Akbar: Hollow Triumphs
George Bush is still President of America, so who or what has been defeated in the electoral upsurge that gave Democrats a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives last week? The shift in power marks the defeat of triumphalism as state policy. What is triumphalism?
Its core is shaped by the triumph of the individual over the institution. Anyone who wins an election is tempted towards semi-divinity. When victory is unusual, or against heavy odds, the tendency is strengthened. Both George Bush and Tony Blair had to challenge more than just a ruling party to win. Bush, moreover, lost the popular vote and scraped through on the dubious strength of a few chads. He was re-elected by the amazing incompetence of an otherwise intelligent challenger. How much closer can you get to belief in a divine mission?
American government is shaped hugely by the character and predilections of an elected President, but George Bush could not have pushed through his Iraq war agenda without a compliant legislature. He conceived this war in fantasy and pursued it in illusion. The legislature could have acted as a reality check; it did not. Bush veiled illusion with aggressive morality. The logic was forceful: I have been invaded, hence I am sincere; I am sincere, therefore I am right; I am right, therefore I am good; I am good, therefore any opposition to me is evil. My war is God’s justice and America’s salvation. Any opposition to my occupation of a sovereign nation must be irrational, barbaric or terrorist.
The problem with triumphalism is that it collapses without triumph. The term derives from the triumphs that the Roman Senate accorded to military heroes. But to deserve a triumph you had to be a Caesar. There is no laurel that was ever designed for an empty head. Bush could afford the smile of a Caesar when Saddam Hussein was defeated three years ago and the insurgency had not begun. That incidentally was the moment when he could have negotiated a withdrawal with a new Iraqi government. He had ended the Saddam dictatorship. But he stayed on to conquer Iraq.
When success is elusive, politicians tend to console themselves with the illusion of success. From there it is one step towards selling a lie through manipulation of minds.War is a harsh environment. Death demands explanation and justification, There is collateral anger if death is seen as senseless. The pressures of democracy are corrosive. Governments always have to sell their decisions. But when they resort to communication malpractice they may buy the present but they inevitably sell the future.
Cleverness prevails over wisdom. Bush has been a master of the politics of democracy. He has exploited his personal weaknesses brilliantly: he has defined his naiveté as a form of sincerity. You never know what tricks the brainiacs are conjuring up to fool the ordinary voter!
Bush has won three elections by exploiting the power of the ordinary, but success has been sustained by a devious rhetoric.
Terrorism and Al Qaeda are critically serious threats, but they are also complex. A war against them needs commitment, conviction and above all honesty of purpose. It is honesty that enables parents to live with the coffins of dead sons and daughters, whether they are wrapped in the American flag or draped in an Iraqi shroud. Any dishonesty, or even the perception of it, extracts a terrible revenge. Bush was exposed gradually, in a dribble of news reports, articles and books which destroyed his thesis that he had occupied Iraq to save Americans from terrorism. Americans were ready for sacrifice against terrorists; they were shocked when they realised that their moral and military resources were being consumed by a different agenda. An intelligence estimate, on the eve of the elections, that the war in Iraq had actually increased the threat of terrorism rather than decreased it was perhaps the final straw that tipped the balance away from Bush.
The Bush linkage between Al Qaeda and Iraq was made through Islam. It was cheap tactic that had the lifespan of a tawdry lie. For a while it worked: for the American heartland the fact that both were "Islamic" was enough. Bush created an "Islamic" enemy because in that imprecise haze he could conjure up whichever demons he wished. Over time, the brew consisted of inaccurate history and demonic myth stirred in a large cauldron of fear. It was not just the use of "crusaders". That might have been a genuine slip of the mind, for all I know; and in any case it was the Church and Christian princes who drenched Jerusalem in knee-deep blood before they were defeated in a war that lasted two centuries. More relevant was the conscious and repeated use of terms like "Islamic fascism" and some mysterious Caliphate that hovered like a monstrous threat over western civilisation.
A cursory analysis would have revealed the weakness of the construct. Islam is 1,400 years old. Fascism appeared on the map of Europe with Mussolini in 1920. So whatever else fascism may or may not be, it certainly cannot be Islamic. Yes, it is absolutely true that there have been many Muslims who have been fascists. But why blame Islam for the sins of Muslims? No one blames the Vatican for Mussolini, or the Church for apartheid although the white racists of South Africa were churchgoers.
The Caliphate, like the Holy Roman Emperor, is a concept from the age of empire. It is a pre-nation state institution which has outlived its utility in the contemporary age of nationalism. It was abolished by a man who can justly claim to be the father of post-empire Muslim nation states, Mustafa Kemal Ghazi. It was Mustafa Kemal who saved Turkey from partition and virtual annihilation by the British after Turkey’s defeat in the First World War, even while the Caliph was trying to save his dynasty’s skin at the cost of his country. If Al Qaeda uses this term then it only goes to prove how distant it is from ground reality.
But the conversion of Islam into the enemy had another purpose: it obscured the fact that the principal — though not the sole — motivation of the Iraq insurgency was nationalism.
The answer to triumphalism is good, old-fashioned realism. It took defeat at home to wake up from what can literally be described as his dream-world. But he could be more formidable awake than he was when drugged by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, if he accepts the rationale of realism in the remaining two years of his term. If he uses the undoubted power of his office to create a new balance across the world, he could seed a new order that his successor can nurture. (Blair’s successor will be in office within months.)
Bush has spent the last three years waging war against Iraq. He will need, at the very least, to spend his next two years doing something even more dramatic: discovering the difficult route to peace with Iran and healing the very deep, very painful wounds that Israel has inflicted upon Palestine. That would be a genuine triumph.