By Bernard-Henry Lévy, the author, most recently, of ‘American Vertigo: On the Road from Newport to Guantanamo’ (THE TIMES, 07/11/06):
THE PARADOX of American democracy and especially of these midterm elections: both are local, even provincial. They rest on the homosexual escapades of Congressman Mark Foley of Florida; on Virginia Senator George Allen’s use of “macaca”, an obscure racial epithet, to refer to a volunteer working for his opponent; on the question of gay marriage in South Dakota, South Carolina and Wisconsin. The Republican majority in the Senate will be lost or maintained according, in part, to how credible the Bush Administration’s promises seem in New Jersey, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.
In short, everything will be decided according to local squabbles. Yet these are the only elections of truly global importance in the world. This is the only electoral battle that we know of on which, in a strict sense, the fate of the planet hangs.
Why? If there are “swing states” in today’s America, there are also “swing issues”: there are, if one prefers, questions of colossal importance on which nothing less than war, peace or the survival of the world depends. And on these, US opinion — and therefore the Administration itself — hesitates, oscillates, and can, at any moment, tilt in one direction or the other according to the ratios in the ballot box.
If, for example, the Democrats carry the House, it’s likely that they will launch a flurry of investigations, inquiries and proposals regarding the many controversial steps that the Bush Administration has taken over the past six years, drawing the public’s attention again to issues such as the legality of “extraordinary renditions” and corruption among American officials in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, I believe, the President will suddenly discover that the notion of “enemy combatants” is unconstitutional and will close the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What a victory for democracy! What a defeat, in consequence, for the propagandists of hate and terror!
The war in Iraq will not stop magically. However, a Bush Administration faced with a Republican minority in Congress would be obliged to foster alliances and at times take into account dissenting opinions, particularly the ones within the party. Voices will emerge asking to engage in the debate that has been missing for four years about the enormous strategic error that was the intervention in Baghdad. As tongues are loosened, imaginations freed and ideological deadlocks finally begin to yield, the outlines of solutions, and even exit scenarios, will surface.
Conversely, a Democratic majority in the Senate and the House, even if it changes nothing about the depth of anti-American feeling in Europe, will deprive governments on the Continent of their providential alibi for inaction and their spirit of appeasement: the scarecrow of Bush’s hubris. They will be obliged — or it will contribute to their obligation — to take a more active part in the global battle against Islamofascism that is the challenge of our times.
One knows that in France, for example, the temptation exists to suspend or reduce co-operation on the ground with the forces fighting terrorism — a collaboration that, since the days after September 11, has gone on continuously. However, a stinging defeat of the Bush team at the polls would not easily justify such a decision across the Atlantic. The French President, faced by an American government that represents a wider spectrum of opinion, would be hard put to explain the withdrawal of French commandos from Afghanistan. In other words, a White House forced to engage in — as the Democrats call for — a form of multilateralism would put Europe’s back against the wall more forcefully than its previous boasts, calls for crusades or born-again Christian sermons about the End Times.
A victory of pro-choice partisans in South Dakota or adversaries of unregulated gun sales in Ohio will oblige the White House — without losing too much face or explicitly agreeing with the arguments of the former future president, Al Gore — to reconsider its irresponsible positions over the Kyoto Protocol and the US contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Oil lobby or no, President Bush will not be able to feign to be unaware that Americans also have a stake in the battle for the survival of the planet on which we all depend.
In short: small causes, grand effects.Petty battles, colossal butterfly effect.
We will know, now, very soon. The two victories of the “moral values” maniacs in 2000 and 2004 were never a movement but a battle of the rearguard. The sustained direction of the past 40 years of American history — toward the victories of civil rights, the democratisation of the South, the loosening of moral strictures — demonstrates that the Bush phenomenon is above all a last stand, the ultimate and terrible outburst of a beast that knows it is wounded and is gambling it all. The reasons to hope largely overtake the grounds for worry.