mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


How Nick Berg’s Death Dooms Bush’s Re-election

Some American critics, including Senator Edward Kennedy, have called
the Iraq war George W. Bush’s Vietnam. But a better, though equally
tragic, analogy is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The recent
beheading of American contractor Nick Berg by Islamic militants in
retaliation for the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib signals that the war
in Iraq may be descending into the same tit-for-tat cycle of violence
that has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so bloody and
intractable for decades. An atrocity by one side is answered by an
atrocity from the other. Each outrage is used to justify the next, as
hard-liners on both sides insist on striking back, whether to revenge
the dead or simply to avoid looking weak and thereby inviting—or so
the argument goes—additional strikes. Additional strikes, however,
are exactly what this logic produces, bringing pain and suffering to
victims on both sides while kindling despair that the conflict can
ever be resolved.

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If this self-reinforcing dynamic does prove to be the new trajectory
of the Iraq war, the implications are grave for everyone, not least
President Bush. Chief among the likely consequences are more, and more
grisly, attacks on Americans, which in turn could push American public
opinion so decisively against the war that Bush is voted out of office
in November. The prison abuse scandal had already lost Bush what
little support he had in the rest of the world. Now, his enemies’
retaliation for that abuse threatens his popularity with the one
audience whose opinion matters most: the United States electorate.

The American people overwhelmingly supported Bush’s original decision
to invade Iraq. Now they are reconsidering that support, opinion polls
show, because the actual war has turned out so differently from what
the Bush administration had told them to expect. There were no weapons
of mass destruction or links between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Nor has it
been a quick and easy war. Americans have not been greeted as
liberators but resented as occupiers and now torturers. Worst of all,
nearly 800 Americans have been killed in combat and thousands more
wounded, with no end to casualties in sight.

This is not what Americans thought they were getting when they backed
their president’s call to overthrow Saddam and disarm Iraq. Asked in
April 2003, during the initial burst of combat, whether the war was a
mistake, 70 percent of Americans told pollsters for The New York Times
and CBS News that it was not; only 24 percent said it was. A new
Times-CBS poll, released on May 24, 2004, found that only 34 percent
of Americans now support Bush’s policy in Iraq. In addition, Bush’s
overall approval rating dropped to 41 percent, the lowest of his
presidency. These sentiments must worry the White House’s political
wing. For they suggest that support for the war will erode further if
there are a high numbers of U.S. casualties in the months ahead, and
high numbers of U.S. casualties seem all but certain. The fury and
thirst for revenge of Islamic militants will not be quenched by the
single act of violence against the unfortunate Mr. Berg. There will be
more deadly attacks on American personnel, both military and civilian.
Given current U.S. policy, these attacks will call forth retaliation
by U.S. forces, thus intensifying the cycle of violence, bringing more
deaths and hardening resentments on both sides to where even the well
intentioned may despair of finding a way out.

Israelis and Palestinians have grown all too familiar with this
depressing dynamic in recent years. The latest round of violence began
on May 12, when rocket attacks by Islamic Jihad militants killed
eleven Israeli soldiers in Gaza. In response, Israel launched missile
strikes and house demolitions that left at least twenty-seven
Palestinians dead, 245 injured, and countless homeless. A week later,
further Israeli strikes, including attacks on Palestinian street
demonstrators, killed another 39 people, including children, and
wounded at least 160. The Israeli Army expressed deep sorrow over the
loss of civilian lives, but victims are unlikely to forgive or
forget. Violence begets violence, and after enough of it, even
moderates begin to doubt that peace can, or should, be negotiated.

But the Israeli-Palestinian example also suggests that such violence,
despite its human costs, need not be politically fatal for the leaders
involved. After all, both Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and
Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat remain relatively popular at home
after years of escalating violence. The two men’s supporters continue
to back them in large part because Sharon and Arafat seize on each new
spilling of blood to reiterate the justness of their nation’s cause
and the inevitability of its ultimate victory.

George W. Bush has done much the same in Iraq; indeed, this resolve is
what his most fervent supporters appreciate about the president. But
Bush’s political position is much more tenuous than that of either
Sharon or Arafat, because he is leading a people who, unlike the
Israelis and Palestinians, are not hardened to the bloody sacrifices
war involves. It has been thirty years since the United States has
suffered large, continuing numbers of casualties among its servicemen
and women. While Israelis and Palestinians are well accustomed to that
bitter reality, Americans have grown used to thinking of war as a TV
event—far away, almost make believe, and without dead and mangled
bodies, especially American ones.

The beheading of Nick Berg may have irrevocably awakened America from
this dream. To be sure, Bush’s right-wing base is standing by him for
the moment, but they constitute only about one third of the U.S.
electorate. To the left of center, those who resolutely oppose Bush
make up another third. The problem for Bush is that he will lose much
of the remaining, middle third of the electorate if the news out of
Iraq stays bad. Even conservative analysts are worried. President Bush
is on a negative trend, which is usually fatal in your last year [in
office], Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution,
told The San Francisco Chronicle. Other conservatives voiced
disappointment that Bush’s May 24 speech on Iraq did little but
restate existing policy at a time when new approaches are plainly
needed. If Nick Berg’s beheading is indeed followed by more deadly
violence against Americans in Iraq—as seems all but certain—popular
support for the war will plummet. In addition, Iraq will remain the
main news story of the next six months and probably be the overriding
issue on voters’ minds when they go to the polls in November. In that
event, a Bush victory seems unlikely indeed.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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