WASHINGTON -- The most repeated observation about the outcome of the election is that the policy on the Iraq war will turn out essentially the same, no matter which candidate wins.
Either George W. Bush or John Kerry, the reasoning goes, will be forced to work through Iraqi elections, the continued use of military force and a gradual withdrawal of American troops, probably over a period of years. The corollary argument is that because neither can afford a precipitous change in the pattern already in place, Americans can expect much of the same post-elections.
From the traditional, non-neocon conservative right, this "behavioral equivalence" presumes that the president will be forced, by events and his own realization of the disaster that Iraq has become, to return to a less radical stature. Farewell, dreams of empire!
From the left and moderate Democratic and Republican centers, the senator is seen as a man who, despite his opposition to the Iraq war and his severe differences with the neocons, will find himself obliged not to lose another American war. Farewell, dreams of peace!
The only problem is that these suppositions are simply inaccurate -- and we Americans should start thinking now about what will really happen in the crucial days after Nov. 2.
If the president wins again, he will oversee an even more radical administration than his first. With his all-or-nothing temperament, he will take re-election as carte blanche to go ahead with his program of pre-emption and imperium. Rather than pulling back from future Iraqs, he will rush ahead, feeling ordained by history.
In a second Bush administration, virtually all the moderates will disappear. Almost surely, Colin Powell will leave as secretary of state; and with him, many of his allies. Donald Rumsfeld may leave as defense secretary -- and although he is no moderate, he is also not a neocon. His leaving would open the Pentagon to the neocons just below him, none of whom show the slightest embarrassment or regret about the mess they've made in Iraq. All of them can be expected to push ahead with more crazy schemes after Nov. 2.
Talk around town is that National Security Council adviser Condoleezza Rice would be in the secretary of state slot, thus substantially decreasing any opposition from there to Bush's expansionist dreams. Also, Pentagon deputy Paul Wolfowitz would be named secretary of defense, cementing the power of the radical neocons in the defense establishment.
No group with counter ideas has in the last four years been allowed to flourish, mainly because the president is so attuned to their pugnacious ideas and dependent upon their flattering attention. The idea that a dependent, yet stubborn president could suddenly change seems quite improbable.
In fact, as numerous indicators attest, the neocon group around the president are already readying for the next step -- to force the U.S. to take on Iran as well as Iraq, and perhaps then Syria.
The ideas being bandied around from Washington to Jerusalem involve Iran's growing nuclear capacity, which would be the target of an air attack by Israeli forces with the complicity of the United States. Indeed, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations said publicly at this fall's General Assembly opening that the terrorist threat was not to be found in Iraq but in Iran (an old fear).
But the Iranians, hardly unaware of these public musings, have already taken their, shall we say, precautions.
Since the beginning of the American occupation of Iraq, foreign intelligence services say, between 1 million and 3 million Iranians have crossed over into Iraq (many of these are Shiites who were expelled during the 1980s wars; nevertheless, they greatly enlarge the Iraqi Shiite population).
Even more important, the Iranians say that if Israelis attack them, they are ready to send three Iranian divisions across the border into Iraq to attack American and coalition forces -- who would then be fighting wars on three fronts, if you include Afghanistan.
There are those in the neocon camp making policy around President Bush who talk of "eternal war," supposedly as a way to transform the world. With the perceived national approval of re-election -- at the same time that the American military has said it will wage an all-out attack to reclaim the cities of Iraq -- it would be expected that an inflated President Bush would march deeper into conflicts he has identified from the beginning.
But Iran is far from the only next stop for the neocons, with their intimate relationship with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Besides Iran, in a second term their intentions are to oust Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and overthrow the Syrian Baathist regime.
If the United States is to have another four years of this kind of foreign policy, it will come to be considered an outlaw in the world, most of its historical standards and principles in tatters and its future unknown.
In a first John Kerry administration, on the other hand, there would, at least at first, be few miracles. His would be the hard business of extricating us from Iraq without leaving behind a shameful period of history. His would be the formidable job of building up American stature and values in the current absence of them in the world.
But at least we'd have a chance.
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