Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 November 2004
Issue No. 716
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Reconciliation or confrontation?

After the presidential elections, is a nationwide reconciliation in America possible? asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

One of the most significant moments in John Kerry's concession speech came when he spoke of the "desperate need" to heal the country's political wounds. The tone of his speech was in stark contrast to the presidential campaign itself, one of the most ferocious and rancorous in recent US history. The tight race, which ended with 51 per cent of the popular vote going to Bush versus 48 per cent to Kerry, polarised the American people into two almost equal camps and left deep scars on the national psyche. This will have lasting effects not only in America itself but in the world at large. The key question at this critical juncture is whether Bush, who has expressed the desire for "new bipartisanship", will respond to Kerry's call for some sort of reconciliation.

Thanks to intensive voter-turnout campaigns by both sides, voter turnout in the 2004 election was the highest -- and partisanship the fiercest -- ever. Kerry faulted Bush for not doing enough to unite Americans or to build alliances, either domestic or international, and accused him of endangering the trans-Atlantic alliance and of acting in defiance of the United Nations. But for all Bush's talk of being "humbled" and reaching out to the whole country, he showed no remorse for the confrontational style that alienated roughly half the country and much of the world. Can a defeated Kerry convince the victorious Bush to make any compromises on the policies that won him the elections?

The election swept the Republicans to power not only in the White House but in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Bush was re-elected with a comfortable majority and Republicans gained three more seats in the Senate and maintained their control over the House of Representatives. There is thus no reason to suppose that Bush, who presided over one of the most divisive periods in America's history, will take any notice of the opposition forces over the next four years. With a bigger margin of victory and his party's firm control over Congress, he can safely ignore an opposition with little hold over state institutions.

As to the Democrats, traumatised and embittered by their devastating defeat, they will find it difficult to reach out to the Republicans, who are anyway not ready to reciprocate. In short, the situation is not conducive to healing the bitter partisan divide which promises to continue through Bush's second term.

Even if Kerry had won, there is no guarantee that a logic of reconciliation would have prevailed. The divide is too deep, the issues at stake too contentious for accommodation to come easily. In a situation where the Democrats have lost both the presidency and a majority position in both the House and the Senate, there is nothing to stop Bush from pursuing his militant agenda. He can claim that his victory is a vindication of his policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, and that his threats against Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Sudan -- alleged hotbeds of terrorism in the so-called Greater Middle East -- are legitimate in the eyes of the American people.

When Bush launched his unilateral war on Iraq, without the approval of the Security Council and in defiance of the demand by other great powers that UN weapons inspectors be given more time to complete their task, the legitimacy of the war was called into question both in the US and throughout the world. Indeed, the legitimacy of many of his actions over the last four years was the subject of much heated debate. Now that he has received a popular mandate to pursue the same policies, these actions can acquire legitimacy, albeit retroactively and albeit only in the eyes of the Americans who voted for him. This is bound to have far-reaching repercussions on international relations in general, not only on the domestic American front.

In stressing the need to bridge the deep divide threatening the cohesiveness of American society, Kerry is calling for the exact opposite of what Bush deliberately set out to do during his first term, namely, to underscore differences between liberals and conservatives, between rural and urban areas, between the devout and the secular.

Despite the failure of coalition forces to find any WMD in Iraq and despite his intelligence community's failure to establish a link between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda (the two initial reasons for going to war), Bush continued to insist that his war on Iraq was legitimate and justified because it had freed the Iraqi people from the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein and paved the way for the instauration of a new regime based on democracy.

Justifying war against Iraq in those terms justifies launching similar wars against other countries like Iran, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, etc. Legitimising the Iraq war can justify "pre-emptive" wars against a number of countries in the Greater Middle East, which oppose Israel and are accused of waging a war of terror against it. Bush's slogan, "whoever is not with us is against us," has been so wholeheartedly espoused by some pro- Bush commentators that they have come up with the amazing claim that to oppose Bush is to support the cause of Bin Laden and the "axis of evil" against the camp of democracy and liberty!

The results of the US elections come at a time Arafat is dying and the PLO is facing its most serious crisis ever. The highly specialised team of French doctors now treating Arafat in Paris are baffled by the mysterious virus from which he is now said to be suffering, and conspiracy theorists are beginning to ask whether the Palestinian leader may not be the victim of a newly discovered weapon in the field of bacteriological warfare.

In the first press conference he gave after his re- election, Bush declared that freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa constitute a "central element" in his policy. But what does "centrality" mean in such a context? Does it mean upping the level of violence in Iraq in the name of defending democracy and launching pre- emptive wars against Iran, Syria and/or Sudan? Does it mean, in general, taking measures that are ostensibly directed at establishing peace in the region but which in actual fact are designed to increase tensions and justify military intervention? We must remember that the United States, the most powerful state on earth, is not renowned for self-restraint when it comes to avenging itself against attacks from outside forces. That is as true for Al-Qaeda as it was for Japan during WWII, which was paid back for its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour with two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which annihilated 600,000 Japanese.

Kerry's position on the use of America's military might is very different from Bush's. He criticised the Bush administration for launching the Iraq war unilaterally, separately from the United Nations and in defiance of the wishes of many of America's allies, whose stands were closer to those of Kerry than of Bush.

So it is by no means expected that Bush will respond to Kerry's call for national reconciliation. On the contrary, all signs indicate that Bush will push ahead with his own line and take it even further. I am not alone in expressing this belief. Kissenger concluded a piece he wrote for Newsweek last week, by noting that the dilemma of our age was perhaps best summed up by the philosopher Immanuel Kant over two hundred years ago. In his essay, "Perpetual peace", he wrote that the world was destined for perpetual peace. It would come about either by human foresight or by a series of catastrophes that leave no other choice. Which it will be is the ultimate question the newly elected president will have to face.

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