Even before the midterm elections in the US last month, many Republicans had recognised that their president had become a liability rather than an asset, and had requested that he stay away from their pre-election campaigns. The perception that the mood in America had turned against Bush and the neo-conservatives was confirmed when the elections’ results came in: the Democrats took control of the House of Congress for the first time in 12 years, and gained enough seats in the Senate to match the Republicans, with 409 seats each; two seats were won by independent candidates allied with the Democrats, giving them control of the Senate. The neo-conservative argument that the US could use its overwhelming military power to bulldoze the rest of the world into submission had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan long ago; despite all the jingoistic right-wing propaganda in the American media, the election results confirm that the US public has got the message. One result is that the Republicans are unlikely to select a neo-conservative candidate for the presidential elections in two years’ time, meaning that the corpse of neo-conservatism will be buried when Bush leaves office, regardless of who succeeds him.
What is important, however, is that Muslims do not fall for the propaganda that the changes of policy that will be forced by the Democratic Congress and Senate in the short term, or even the change in administration in two years time, will mark a significant change in America’s attitude to the world. Many of America’s traditional allies, who have been shocked by the crudity of the neocon approach, will argue that the reasons that the world hates America have been wiped out by the neocon defeat; among them will be many Muslim apologists who have traditionally argued that America can be an ally of Muslims and Islam. This is a mistake that we must not make again.
The fact is that the Americans have turned against the neo-conservatives not because they reject their worldview and objectives, but because the neo-con strategy has failed to achieve what they had promised, and the price of their approach has proved too high, in terms body-bags, money (the war is costing the taxpayer a fortune, instead of paying for itself), and America’s standing in the world. It is worth noting that polls show that the American public still believe the reasons that Bush gave for going to war; it is his administration’s execution of the war that they have lost faith in. The Democrats too have generally criticised the Republicans for their failures to achieve their objectives, not for getting them into the war in the first place.
We should remember also that the problems that the world has with America did not start in 2000, when Bush was elected. Fundamentally, they are much older and more deeply rooted than that. The problem is the imperialist assumption that the whole world exists only to support the standard of living in the US, and that any degree of exploitation and oppression of other peoples is justified in order to protect the US’s national interests. Time and again since the US emerged as the dominant Western power after the Second World War, American presidents and other senior officials have proclaimed their right to intervene anywhere in the world to promote their interests at the expense of other peoples. The neocon approach was not a radical change in the American world view; it was merely an extreme and crude manifestation of an arrogance that is the real and continuing problem.
The same arrogance is shared also by European and other Western countries, whose opposition to the neocons was based not on any abhorrence of American hegemony shared with the non-Western world, but because they recognised that the neocon approach was liable to prove self-defeating and damaging to the common Western agenda. This is hardly surprising; contemporary American neo-imperialism is after all only a modern version of the same imperialist drive that led the European powers to colonise and destroy most of the rest of the world in earlier centuries.
One of the most enduring images of the US’s defeat in Vietnam is of helicopters lifting American personnel off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon while angry Vietnamese fighters laid siege to the building below them. Whether or not the US will suffer so definitive a “Saigon moment” in Iraq remains to be seen, but the totality of its defeat can no longer be ignored. But there was a deeper message to the fact that Vietnam was one of the countries that Bush chose to visit last month, after the elections’ results were known, as part of an image-building tour of friendly countries in Asia. The point he was making was that, however totally the US may have been defeated there, nearly 40 years later Vietnam is part of the American sphere of influence and recognises the US’s global hegemony and overlordship.
What American politicians of all hues will now try to do is present the humiliation in the Middle East as a defeat for the neocons rather than for America. Even though Bush is still in office, the wiping of the US’s slate, and the rewriting of history, have already begun with the removal of Donald Rumsfeld from office. The rewriters will find many allies in the rest of the world, including the pro-Western governments of Muslim countries, who will try to rehabilitate the US’s global image and influence. The US still enjoys a huge amount of institutional power, because of its domination of international institutions such as the UN, as well as economic and cultural resources, by which to reassert the dominance it has lost. And of course, the westernised elites in the Muslim world will soon find excuses to join in this effort.
Muslims must realise that it is American hegemonic imperialism that is the problem, not just neo-conservatism. The defeats inflicted on the US in recent years must not be followed by a new “Saigon moment”, when a future US president visits Baghdad to demonstrate that in the long run the US achieved its aims after all. Muslim have won recent battles at great cost; these victories must be followed up if success is to be achieved in the greater war.