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Chris Sanders: The Undertakers' Ball

Sanders Research Associates Ltd. provides international strategic planning and risk management services to both corporate and private clients. SRA also publishes a webzine available by subscription. Visit to get a good feel for the real deal. - Sanders Research Associates

SRA Commentary:

The Undertakers' Ball

By Chris Sanders
August 2, 2004

© 2003-5. Sanders Research Associates. All rights reserved.

History teaches that the branch of a nation that preserves itself best is the one in which most men have, as a consequence of sharing habitual and undiscussable principles, that is to say as a consequence of their shared belief, a living sense of community.

The danger facing these strong communities founded on similarly constituted firm-charactered individuals is that of a gradually increasing inherited stupidity such as haunts all stability like its shadow.
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1986) Human, all too Human Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-31945-5, p.107


The Democratic Party’s national convention was held last week. It was, frankly, less a political convention than a wake for the corpse of the Democratic Party, presided over by the undertaker himself, the Democratic Leadership Council. Much comment has been directed toward the security operation in Boston, host to the convention. This is not exactly irrelevant stuff, but it is pretty thin gruel. The real story is not how outrageous the muzzling of dissent is but how routine it is. Kerry is no protest candidate, however much members of his party might wish him to be. He is The Establishment’s candidate whose mission is to take over and prosecute the war.

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Kerry himself is quite clear on this point. He has never made any bones about the war. His criticism of the Bush administration has been for its lack of results, not the war itself. The Democrats’ strategy in lieu of running an antiwar campaign is as simple as it is clear. They have conducted a very successful campaign so far to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot. He is currently only able to run in twelve states. The Nader effect is going to be nil. The party is also doing a good job of mobilising a wide range of disparate groups under the rubric of “anyone but Bush.” Bush’s incompetence and the brutality of his advisers have ensured that if the Democrats can just get out the vote, Bush is going to lose. He has no appeal outside of his core constituency of southern Baptists and Likudniks.

What this means in the short run is that the cost of the war is going to continue to climb, because whoever wins in November, the war will go on. The Bush administration has already spent all of the funds allotted by Congress for the fighting in Iraq this fiscal year, and it is having an effect on the readiness and morale of the military. Kerry is said to be prepared to send another 40,000 troops. He will clearly be hoping that his foreign supporters, especially in France and Germany, will cough up the financing for this if not the manpower. We have our doubts. Getting rid of Bush and getting someone who knows Europe into the White House is one thing. Giving him a free pass is another.

Kerry is on the record as believing that the Bush administration attacked the wrong target with its invasion of Iraq, and considers Saudi Arabia hostile territory. A campaign to destabilise the Kingdom is already well under way, but destabilisation alone is not a plan unless you are Ariel Sharon. If the Saudi regime were to fall, outright occupation of the oil fields would be necessary, with all that means in terms of men and money. We find it highly improbable that the American military can deploy another 40,000 troops without resorting to conscription. The system as it stands is creaking at the seams. Manpower per se is not an issue; how it is mobilised is. In this context, Colin Powell’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week was a moment of comic relief. Supposedly the government there suggested putting together an Islamic force drawn from predominately Muslim nations to take over roles the US is playing in Iraq. The idea of the Saudis suggesting this is risible, but we can well imagine Powell telling them that they had better suggest it or else. If ever there was a trial balloon with a lead lining, this is it.

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which wishful thinking is informing the political process and discussion about the war. This is not to say that the Anglo-American-Israeli alliance will not “succeed” in the long run, but the challenge of subduing the Persian Gulf region is formidable and underrated by pro and anti war factions alike. There is no doubt that the world’s major naval and air power can deploy troops wherever it wishes and sustain them successfully in fortifications. But both Iraq and Afghanistan are demonstrating in real time the limitations of that power.

The truth of the matter is that the US lost the military initiative in Iraq almost as soon as the Iraqi army stopped fighting in organised regular formations some weeks after the invasion. President Bush’s declaration of victory in May last was year was a classic Bush fumble. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Indeed, the war was only beginning as we said at the time. Today the acknowledged casualty rate is running at double the rate of a year ago, and the real casualty rate has probably been much higher all along. There are good reasons for this, but the best is that the Iraqi army never stopped fighting, it just changed tempo and tactics, and in so doing went over to the offensive in one of the most intelligent and courageous gambles since North Vietnam took on the United States nearly forty years ago.

Those who doubt this simply are not reading the news, censorship or no. Fighting is controlled by the resistance, who increasingly are picking the place and the timing of their engagements. Not only that, but they are showing a capacity for standing their ground. In a recent Heron’s Latest Catch we read of an engagement in which Iraqi troops, regulars in uniform no less, attacked an American base and engaged the US reaction force for a full 90 minutes before melting away. This is proof positive, as if anyone ought to need it, that superior firepower and control of the air are not necessarily decisive. What will be decisive will be the political struggle for Iraq, and not just the one in Baghdad. That struggle has already been lost.

The US has tried to minimise casualties by refraining from offensive operations in the wake of its failure at the gates of Fallujah and Najaf earlier this year. It is trying to evade responsibility for results by giving an Iraqi veneer to the occupation while keeping control over means to itself. This clumsy attempt would fail no matter who was chosen to head an Iraqi government as long as that regime bears responsibility for outcomes but no authority to influence them. Since the minimum US objective is to have “temporary” but permanent bases for its armed forces and control over Iraq’s oil industry, an Iraqi government acceptable to the US is automatically illegitimate in the eyes of most of Iraq’s population. This by definition rules out anyone but the most opportunistic of candidates, who will require for themselves as high a return as it is possible to squeeze out of their very high risk jobs. That in turn ensures that corruption will be maximal and the opportunity for acquiring any sort of legitimacy minimal. The new government has already lost two misters to assassins. How much would you reckon you had to make to run that sort of risk?

For those like me with a cynical turn of mind, the debate apparently raging in the US over the neo-conservatives who inspired this war (Have they peaked, Are they coming back?) is hilarious. The truth is that they have been around for a long time now and show no signs of peaking, never mind leaving. This is the same crew who hijacked American foreign policy in the late 70s with the establishment of the Committee on the Present Danger, and in so doing delivered the coup de grace to those Americans whose economics were more production oriented, whose politics were more accommodative to the interests of labour, and whose stance toward the rest of the world was more cooperative. In the Republican Party this faction has coalesced around the Bush Family (caps most definitely intended) and in the Democratic Party it is embodied in the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC is, as Howard Dean intemperately pointed out last December and in so doing ensured that he would not be the Party’s candidate for president, the Republican wing, which is to say the Bush wing, of the Democratic Party.

Practically speaking what this means is that American politics may never have been so polarised. I say “may” because political polarity requires some sort of organised alternative to a so-called two-party system that is nothing of the sort. Nothing shows this better than the Democratic convention, held with all the excitement and anticipation of a Stalinist communist party congress. Appropriately, even the American Communist Party has endorsed Kerry. Bewildered delegates to the convention, some 95% of whom are against the war, find themselves in the position of nominating a candidate who is pro-war. Even more bewildered pundits on the left and the right seem to think that this ensures that Kerry will lose in November. They still don’t seem to have figured out that with two pro-war candidates in the race that the war per se is not an issue as far as the election is concerned. It is true that disgust may keep voters at home and that this would favour the Republicans in most instances, but the Democrats are equally as good as the Republicans at stuffing ballot boxes, as Richard Nixon found to his chagrin in 1960. Anyone-but-Bush hysteria has ensured that all the party organisations will do their damnedest to get out the vote for Kerry, and that is a question of money, not issues. We think Kerry is going to win and is going to get his chance to try and get the Europeans and the Japanese to pick up a bigger share of the burden of securing the Middle East and saving American face. Whether this can be done on terms acceptable to Washington is an open question.

Bur whoever wins it is very likely that once the election is over and out of the way that the US is itself going to go on the military offensive again in an attempt to regain the initiative in Iraq. The costs are mounting, both candidates want to cut taxes, and both need some sort of success to take to the negotiating tables in their quest for international support. When that offensive fails as is likely, Washington is going to find out just how tough it really is to be broke. And this is clearly what sustains those Iraqis who have chosen to fight rather than surrender. All they need to do on the ground in Iraq is survive. If they can do that, they will win their war.

Chris Sanders


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