October 31 2004
DOES ANYONE OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WANT THIS MAN TO BE THE LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD FOR ANOTHER FOUR YEARS?
The “international community” is a popular phrase in both the White House and Downing Street. It lends gravitas to global concern. Tony Blair uses it when he needs rescuing on foreign policy. George W Bush says it when he needs Tony Blair. But in four years of Bush in the White House the view of the actual “international community” has mattered little. The United States – and by association the United Kingdom – is isolated and mistrusted and the real “communité internationale” is praying for regime change on Tuesday.
In January 2001, as Bush was sworn into office, the promises he made were very different. He described his foreign policy aims as “humble” and claimed he was a “uniter, not a divider”. Margaret Thatcher said much the same thing when she quoted St Francis outside Number 10 after her first election triumph. Neither was successful at living up to their stated aims.
Although Bush arrived in the White House as damaged goods – put in place by the casting vote of the US Supreme Court after the legal dogfight with Al Gore – his lack of legitimacy didn’t seem to bother him. Gore had received more votes, but due to the US electoral college system Bush became the president .
What few analysts predicted was the extent of the political and economic experimentation that would follow. The administration Bush appointed, his advisers, and those organisations who had put him into the White House, were, in hindsight, all the clues needed.
A neoconservative ideology-in-waiting had been plotting in Washington since the end of the Reagan presidency. The neocon apostles, followers and would-be thinkers were dismissed variously as cranks and suspect intellectuals whose ideas would remain locked in the barely-read pages of right-wing journals. Reagan had tried some of them, and they hadn’t worked. The others were outcasts, resigned to waiting for events that would lend them credence. Then the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were attacked.
Bush’s presidency was just one aspect of life in America that changed radically on September 11, 2001. The United States had been attacked and Bush was required to lead the patriotic response. The communité internationale shared the pain: one of France’s leading newspapers declared “Nous sommes tous Americains” (we are all Americans).
A macho-Texan, tough-talking president now seemed to fit. Bush looked and sounded the patriotic commander-in-chief the US needed and whom much of the world could at least sympathise with. The Taliban were challenged and hounded in Afghanistan with the help of the United Nations. The “war on terror” may have sounded like an over- dramatic CNN documentary, but what option did Bush have other than to declare it?
But when the war on terror deliberately morphed the link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, worldwide support began to ebb. The neocon “Project for a New American Century” had helped deliver the foundation of the Bush policy of pre-emptive first strike, and there was never any real prospect of the UN giving its support. The lip service paid to the “international community” by both Bush and Blair proved to be an illusion.
Now, 18 months after the end of the invasion of Iraq, the entire project has unravelled and Bush is heading into Tuesday’s election with not only the communité internationale despairing at the political and military mess that is Iraq today, but a US electorate ready to punish its president.
A recent poll among 44 countries by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre shows the extent of the collapse in respect for the US. Since last summer, favourable opinions of the US have slipped in nearly every country for which trend measures are available.
The poll has even worse news for Bush. In most countries that are friendly to the United States, only modest percentages have confidence that the president will do the right thing in international affairs. People in most countries rate Vladimir Putin, Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair more highly than they do Bush.
One of the key themes of Bush’s speeches in the run-in to Tuesday has been that the coalition occupation in Iraq, and the “full sovereignty” of the US-appointed Iraqi interim administration, are working and that January’s scheduled elections in Iraq will turn out to be full, free and legitimate.
And if the images used by the Republican Party to get that message across were failing in their mission, they were changed. Last week the Bush re-election team replaced one of its campaign adverts after acknowledging that a photograph had been doctored to increase the number of soldiers appearing to listen to the president.
The image of Bush as hero commander has been ruthlessly promulgated by his campaign managers. And when Kerry’s accusation that he was acting alone and was isolated from those countries America would normally have counted as allies hit home, he could always point to the unswerving support he received from Tony Blair.
There are signs, though, that the double act’s potency is diminishing. Hunter S Thompson, the author of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, isn’t, as you would expect, buying the Bush or Blair spin on Iraq. “‘US transfers sovereignty to Iraqi interim government’. Hot damn! Iraq is finally free and just in time for the election. It is a deliberate cowardly lie. We are no more giving power back to the Iraqi people than we are about to stop killing them.”
Neither is Thompson hopeful of the long-term output. “Your neighbour’s grandchildren will be fighting this stupid greed-crazed Bush-family war against the whole Islamic world for the rest of their lives if John Kerry isn’t elected to be the new president on Tuesday,” he said.
If Kerry fails to win on Tuesday, the communité internationale will be worried over other issues beyond Iraq. Neoconservative thinking has been influential on issues beyond foreign policy: the “neoconomics” that was tried and failed in the Reagan years has been resurrected under Bush and the rest of the world now awaits its impact.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist from Columbia University, says that while Bush hit growth targets over the last four years that could be claimed as a quick economic recovery, there have been severe downsides.
The rest of the world needs a strong functioning US economy, based on the assumption that if the US catches cold, we all suffer ills. But in the same way that Republican adverts showed attentive soldiers who weren’t there, Stiglitz says the recovery is also an illusion.
Currently 45 million Americans have no healthcare, up 5.2 million from 2000. Those with health insurance have seen their premiums double. And for the first time since the 1930s, there has been a net loss of jobs – 1.6 million in the private sector – over the span of one presidential administration.
The Clinton administration left Bush with a budget surplus of 2% of US gross domestic product (GDP). Over the past four years that has turned into a 5% GDP deficit totalling $422 billion, the highest federal deficit in US history.
There’s reason why this should worry the rest of world. The US Congressional Budget Office says the deficit will not be eliminated in the immediate future. High levels of national debt and a huge trade deficit mean the US is currently borrowing $2bn a day from abroad. This is contributing to a weak dollar and the uncertainty that delivers in world markets.
Stiglitz doesn’t hold back in his attack on Bush’s economic record: “His administration has embarked on a reckless and extreme course that endangers the long-term economic health of the US. President Bush believes that tax cuts benefiting the most wealthy are the answer to almost every economic problem. Here, as elsewhere, Bush is dead wrong and too dogmatic to admit it.”
Bush’s “axis of evil” speech gave an indication of what was to come on foreign policy. But on basic economics there was no defining moment. The basic idea of “neoconomics”, which now dominates the White House’s thinking, is that income from savings and wealth has been traditionally taxed too much.
R Glenn Hubbard and Lawrence B Lindsey, key advisers in the early part of Bush’s first four years, have seen their ideas (once dismissed as “junk economics”) rise to prominence. The neoconomists’ wish is to see all tax on savings abolished. The implication is that the richest – who hold their wealth in estates, dividends, and capital gains from stocks and bonds – would pay nothing. Those who work and receive a direct income would eventually become the federal government’s only source of income.
The initial tax cuts Bush introduced were supposed to be a short-term measure to deal with a recession, but in the past month some of those cuts have been made permanent.