Friday, November 10, 2006

A Change of Tone, Not of Direction

Asia Times November 11

The US's new Democratic way

By Ian Williams

NEW YORK - Despite the results of this week's election, US President George W Bush, and of course Vice President Dick Cheney, will still largely have their own way, albeit with some frustrations. Between them Bush and Cheney have raised executive power, already fearsome, to impressive heights, aided by a Congress that has failed to oversee the White House - and media that have largely failed to oversee Congress.

Chastened by the results in which both the House of Representatives and the Senate went to the Democrats, the president may, for a short time at least, try to work in a consensual way with the changed Congress, whose composition is clearly a reflection of the popular verdict on his administration. One suspects that he will only be kidding, however. The real aim will be to split centrist Democrats from their colleagues as Bush seeks to divide and rule.

Previously, that would have been easier, but by a demographic accident, the Democrats with the seniority to move into the crucial committee chairs are mostly old-school liberals, rather than some of the new input who fought their elections by being more conservative than their Republican opponents.

Many of the Democratic incumbents excluded and marginalized by the rampant Republicans over the past decade may not be very merciful in return. At national and at state level, where they also won some significant victories, such as the Massachusetts and New York governors' races, there will be pressure to reverse Republican measures designed to gerrymander seats and suppress votes.

In the Senate, the Democrats, with their paper-thin majority of one, will face problems, as a party generally needs a 10-seat majority for effective control, and US senators are notoriously independent. Just as sufficient Republicans defied their party to prevent the confirmation of John Bolton as United Nations ambassador (Bolton was appointed ambassador in August 2005 during a congressional recess), it only takes the defection of a few quasi-Democrats such as Joseph Lieberman to break the party's strength on key security issues.

On the other hand, Lieberman's centrism is countered by the remarkable but little remarked-on election to the Senate of a self-confessed socialist, Bernie Sanders from Vermont, who will certainly caucus with the Democrats, but could counter any tantrums from Lieberman with his own threat to break ranks.

Even so, among the things that are certainly not going to happen immediately despite the dreams of the fervent grassroots Democrats are an immediate impeachment of Bush and a hasty withdrawal from Iraq. After all, most of these legislators voted for the invasion, and in their often-temporizing way complain about the conduct of the war rather than the invasion itself. Many of the Democratic leadership are considering presidential bids next year and so will impale themselves on their own statesmanship to avoid offending key voting blocs.

For example, John Conyers, who will probably chair the House Judiciary Committee, wants Congress to censure Bush and Cheney for misleading members over the decision to go to war in Iraq, and he has mentioned impeachment. But a newly centered Nancy Pelosi (incoming House Speaker), backed by centrist Democratic leadership types such as Rahm Emanuel, have already pulled him back.

In foreign affairs, on many issues the differences will be in tone rather than substance. Both sides of Congress are fundamentally America-firsters, but the Democrats see sweet-talking and stroking as more effective means of achieving those ends.

In general, the incoming Democrats will be pro-Israel like those they succeed, but probably much more pragmatic about it. While Republicans tended to march to the massed bands of evangelical Christians and Likudniks, the Democrats have customarily had closer ties to the Labor wing of Israeli politics, which is, arguably, marginally more inclined to a genuine peace settlement.

But they will be better informed than their predecessors. For example, New York Congressman Garry Ackerman, tipped to chair the Middle East and Asia Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, speaks Korean, and shows an educated interest in Asian affairs.

In that sense, the rest of the world can certainly welcome the new Congress, the majority of whose members actually know that other countries exist and have their own ideas about how to do things.

On other issues, the major Democratic figures want a run-down, rather than an immediate withdrawal, of the US presence in Iraq. They support direct talks with North Korea and Iran, and also support India as a counterbalance to China. They are likely to be tougher, to the point of xenophobia, than the Republicans on investment and trade issues.

This they demonstrated over a Dubai firm's failed bid to to run some US ports and the abortive bid by China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) for control of Unocal, the California-based oil-and-gas group. Democrats are deeply concerned about the trade deficit with China, both as a strategic threat to the US and as a source of unemployment for their constituents.

Now that the Democrats have assumed control of the Senate, the most likely chair of the Foreign Relations Committee is Senator Joe Biden, who is on record advocating direct talks with both North Korea and Iran. Like many of his wing of the Democratic Party with close union ties, he is unlikely to nod through free-trade agreements that risk US jobs, so there may well be some bumps in China-US ties as a result.

Biden is also in favor of giving India a pass for its nuclear program, as indeed is his counterpart Tom Lantos, almost certain to become the chair of the House International Relations Committee. A Holocaust survivor, Lantos is, of course, pro-Israel, but not to the point of taking lobby dictation. After initially supporting the war in Iraq, Lantos has called for an exit strategy and is highly critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the war. Lantos has demurred at Japanese hedging on war guilt, which may lead to problems with the new administration in Tokyo, albeit tempered by impatience with China's amassing dollars.

In the House, with a clear Democratic majority, a whole slew of committees will stand in the way of much of the Bush agenda, and their chairs have pledged themselves to roll back many of the steps of the past few years, notably those that have reduced taxes on the affluent. They will push for an increased minimum wage, more access to health care, and curbs on powerful pharmaceutical companies.

Charles Rangel, the New York veteran, will inherit the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which will bring the power of the purse to reverse the years of Republican domination of the government's social and economic agenda. However, no one is envisaging a Democratic attempt to cut funding for the Iraq war, which would be the most direct way of overcoming presidential authority.

Instead, the buzzword from the centrist Democrats has been "oversight" and the use of the congressional subpoena power to uncover how the Bush administration has mismanaged the war, and to whose benefit. In that context, even while in a minority, Henry Waxman of California has turned the spotlight on the murkier corners of the administration's operations in an admirably dogged way. Recently, he forced disclosure of details of the looting of the Development Fund for Iraq with no-bid contracts by such companies as Halliburton.

Sadly, more often than not, the media were not there when he did it, but as incoming chair of the House Government Reform Committee he can use the bully pulpit to ensure significant attention.

A small cloud on the horizon is the reaction of the financial markets. Rationally, they should be glad that the days of Republican fiscal profligacy are dated. But just as the markets went up on "irrational exuberance", in former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's memorable phrase, they can be equally irrational in their despondence.

With a falling housing market, a rising deficit and a soft dollar, it may not take that much of a catalyst to have them waving their sell orders. A nose-to-nose with China would do it. Of course it would be in no one's interest. But neither was World War I. An unstable situation, like the present US economy, does not have the resilience to take much of a push.

Ian Williams is author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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