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THE TOP IS A LONELY PLACE
- A year after, the US is retreating into a dangerous isolationism

Among the scores of heads of state and government who are in New York this week to attend the United Nations general assembly and to commemorate the events of September 11 last year, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness: but not sadness over the tragic events in New York and Washington a year ago.

It is sadness of the kind that is writ large on the face of the United States of America’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, every time he appears in public these days. Powell can hide it no more.

It is a sadness which comes from the realization that an opportunity to change the world substantially has been lost. Lost because in this 50th anniversary of the formal end of the Republican platform of American isolationism, the US is retreating into isolationism of a different and more dangerous kind.

A year ago, from Tokyo to Timisoara, from Suva to Surinam, people empathized with the US after they saw the dramatic destruction of the twin towers in their drawing rooms. In many cities in Europe, they chanted a new version of John F. Kennedy’s famous words in June 1963 in Berlin: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). They chanted with much feeling: “We are all Americans”.

That was a year ago. Last week, Powell was, instead, booed and shouted down when he appeared at the world summit on development in Johannesburg. In the US itself, the unthinkable happened: George W. Bush, the president with the highest popularity ratings in history, faced hostile demonstrators on a visit to the west coast.

What is happening to America on the anniversary of September 11 is what happened to Rajiv Gandhi after he secured a mandate which even Jawaharlal Nehru could not manage on the morning after, as it were, the struggle for independence.

Rajiv Gandhi frittered away his historic mandate. Bush did not have a mandate for the White House to start with: Bill Clinton is still the last elected president of America. But the American people anointed Bush with a mandate after their horrific encounter with global terrorism. The international community not only complemented that mandate, but looked up to Washington in the hope of global leadership. Like Rajiv Gandhi, Bush has chosen to fritter away that mandate and has been remarkably successful in doing so.

When the external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, was in Washington on Monday, a reporter at his press conference referred to “the only issue in Washington” these days. Sinha assumed the reporter was talking of the anniversary of September 11. He was not. What the reporter had in mind was the Bush administration’s single-minded pursuit of Iraq. If you live in America’s capital city these days, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Iraq has overtaken the aftermath of September 11 as the issue which is engrossing the attention of the Bush administration. Even in this anniversary week.

It is tempting to think of Iraq as a disease which the Bush White House wants to cure, once and for all. For sceptics of US policy, it is equally tempting to think of Iraq as a face-saver, in the long run, for America’s inability to nab Osama bin Laden or break the back of his worldwide terrorist network.

Neither is true. Among the ideologues in the Republican party, Saddam Hussein is seen merely as a symptom, not the disease. The disease, as they see it, is any challenge to America’s global leadership in any area anywhere in the world. In the corridors of power in Washington, “pre-emption” has become the most popular word among those who oil the levers of power. By pre-empting Saddam Hussein they hope to set an example for anyone who may even remotely think of casting himself in the Iraqi strongman’s image. This was not what the world expected of the US when there was an outpouring of sympathy for America a year ago.

In a way, the contradictions which have laboured to create this scenario go back to the Bush presidential campaign in 2000. The “Vulcans”, the core group including US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, and national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, which advised Bush during his presidential campaign, argued for a Republican administration which would drastically cut US involvement in peace-keeping, state-building and such other multilateral efforts.

They were just about having their way in the early months of the new Bush administration when bin Laden — referred to by Bush and other top officials at their meetings as UBL — struck. That created a new situation for the Republican ideologues, similar to what came in the wake of the attack on Pearl Habour during World War II.

America was again required to think and act globally. Powell was willing to do so. Recall his testimony before the senate foreign relations committee, which convened to consider his confirmation. “We are attached by a thousand chords to the world at large...to its teeming cities, to its remotest regions, to its oldest civilizations, to its newest cries for freedom,” Powell said, raising hopes of a new pattern of American involvement with the rest of the world.

But not so his peers in the Bush team like vice-president, Dick Cheney, and defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. They were busy recasting the Bush campaign platform in Republican ideological terms to meet the demands of September 11.

America, the Republican ideologues have concluded, cannot afford the isolationism of the pre-Eisenhower era. And yet the US has to be isolationist enough to protect its interests.

Everything that has happened to US foreign and military policy in the run-up to today’s anniversary is the result of this dilemma facing the Bush administration.

And Iraq is seen in the White House as a test case for this new ideological line. A war with Iraq, as of now, seems inevitable. But that war will be fought on Republican terms solely by the US. If at all anyone joins in, they will merely play second fiddle to America.

The Republican leaders want America to assert its global pre-eminence without ambiguity. At the same time, they want America’s global leadership to be asserted in such a way that America acts and talks as a nation apart. This will be the new global mantra of the Bush White House.

Such a posture, extended beyond Iraq, involves suppressing any challenge to America’s global leadership. There will be no room for Saddam Husseins in countries which are seen as potential challenges — howsoever small — to the US.

Had this policy been implemented retroactively, there would have been no Sukarno in Indonesia, no Nasser in Egypt — why even Indira Gandhi would have been seen as a challenge to Washington that today’s White House would not put up with. America’s looming conflicts with the rest of the world — on climate change, on non-proliferation, on missile defence, on bio-weapons control, on trade, on the International Criminal Court, indeed on the UN itself — are all results of the shifting ideological positions in the Republican party. They are personified by men like Cheney and Rumsfeld. Powell, on the other hand, who was once described by Bush as someone who “believes, as I do, that we must work closely with our allies and friends and project our strength and our purpose with humility”, has become the odd man out in the administration.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned the Americans two years ago while addressing the US congress that distance did not provide insularity to the US. Yet, until a year ago, most Americans would have thought it inconceivable that anyone could breach their safety guaranteed by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

If Washington’s response to the threat on September 11 last year had been to work with the rest of the world in facing up to a common challenge to mankind, today’s anniversary could have been observed in a truly global way. But as it is, today’s ceremonies in Battery Park are, for most heads of state and government attending the event, more of an exercise in political correctness and expediency than any spontaneous sharing of emotions with the Americans. It could have been different. And Powell understands this better than anyone else in Washington.

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