| Shape of things to come
Under President George W. Bush, American influence has declined in the world; the American economy is not as dominant as before and the relative decline will continue, with the rise of the Euro-area, China and India. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with one dominant military and economic power. Regional powers are now exerting considerable local influence. This will increase. Countries like Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea are now able to resist the will of the United States of America and continue with policies that are unacceptable to it.
The defeat in Vietnam and the failure of American intervention to impose its will despite military might began the change in the character of the American presidency. No longer was war a time for national unity and acceptance of the presidential prerogative in the use of American power. The president was no longer above gossip, personal comment, criticism, close investigation by and accountability to the Senate and the Congress. Even dominance by the same party in both or either house no longer prevents defeat of a presidential proposal.
President Lyndon Johnson could invent an “incident” in the Gulf of Tonkin when North Vietnam was said to have attacked American vessels. This was an excuse for Johnson to embark on an ill-fated and full-scale invasion of that country. It took the American media some years, many American deaths and the street protests of their youth, to realize that the body counts of dead Viet Cong from the army and government were false. The war was being lost despite huge American casualties.
President Nixon was impeached for leading a burglary into his opposition Democratic Party national headquarters, lying about it and concealing evidence. He resigned from the presidency. His successor, Jimmy Carter, botched an invasion of Iran by a strong military force that he sent to rescue Americans locked up in Teheran by the Khomeini regime. This brought his presidency into such odium that he could not seek re-election.
In the pantheon of post-Nixon presidents, Ronald Reagan escaped criticism even when he misused his powers by illegally selling arms to Iran to fund the destabilization of a popular Nicaraguan government. He was called a “Teflon” president because no failure diminished his popularity. He achieved his objectives of the collapse of the Soviet Union, downsizing the US government and stimulating the economy. The public forgave him his mistake in Nicaragua.
Bill Clinton was a highly successful president who revived the US economy, stimulated GDP and job growth, built a reasonable consensus with other world powers, despite opposition-dominated elected houses. Only the foolish intransigence of Yasser Arafat prevented Clinton’s mediation in the Israel-Palestine dispute from succeeding. But his cheap sexual escapades before and during his White House years almost got him impeached, and certainly weakened his presidency. However, he remains, with Reagan, the most popular post-war president because of his personality and his achievements.
A president earlier to Nixon, John F. Kennedy, is an American hero and his short presidency is regarded as the American Ram rajya. This was despite his notorious sexual adventures as president, none of which were reported when he was alive. Again, it was his personality and the aborted promise of a great presidency that did the trick. His only great achievement was when he stared down Nikita Kruschev, averting a nuclear war and maintaining American hegemony in the US’s Latin American backyard.
Becoming president on a highly disputed vote, with the support of an ideologically sympathetic Supreme Court, George Bush did not reach out to the mass of voters to build a consensus in the country and abroad. He was determined to implement the policies of the extreme tight wing of his Republican Party and restore the diminished powers of the presidency. His advisors — led by the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, unlike those around Reagan or Clinton, were men of extreme convictions who pushed for the dominance of American will on all matters. He was the first president who actually believed and was fully committed to the right-wing extremism of the Republican Party. These included freedom of oil exploration in environmentally fragile areas, preventing action that the rest of the world was agreed upon to mitigate climate change, securing oil supplies for an import-dependent US by gaining control over oil-rich countries in the Arab world, implementing tax reductions without reducing government expenditures and abandoning the process of international consultations on matters of world importance. He ignored the United Nations. His policies did not have general national or international support. He was determined to avenge the humiliation of the US by the new Iran, cutting its close ties with the US. He wanted to kill Saddam Hussein, to avenge an attempted assassination of his father by Hussein. Many believed that all this was merely a cover for gaining control over the large oil and gas reserves of Iraq and Iran. Unlike in earlier wars, there has been deep division among the American people from the beginning about Bush’s invasion of Iraq in search of mythical “weapons of mass destruction”.
In the event, even the new defence secretary, Robert Gates, has conceded that the US had lost the war in Iraq. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, friend and political ally of the senior Bush, accepts this and wants the US to bring American troops home in fifteen months, while opening doors to Iran to solve the Iraq issues, Syria to solve the Lebanon imbroglio, and for a determination of the 60-year old Israel-Palestine confrontation. American foreign policy in the Middle East under this administration is recognized to have failed. It has involved huge costs to the American economy, prestige and influence in the world. Smaller countries are able to do what they could not in earlier years without fear of consequences, namely oppose the will of the American president.
What can we expect from this Bush administration in the last two years of its life and what will be its legacy to future American presidents' Bush is being compelled to bring American politics back to the centre and to attempt at consensus rather than confrontation. Consultation, compromise and agreement with other countries are now accepted as the best ways of dealing with international problems. The unbridled use of American threats and force are no longer accepted as the way to resolve problems.
The UN will emerge in future as the best forum to resolve international disputes and deal with rogue governments. By his unilateral and confrontational approach, Bush has forced rationality in both domestic and foreign policies. The role of the Senate and the Congress in giving advice and consent to presidential actions will increase to balance the exercise of unbridled power by the president. Cabinet appointments are more likely to be of centrists than of extremists. The Supreme Court is more likely to be cautious in intervening on behalf of one party. It did this when it awarded the presidential election to Bush rather than to Al Gore, despite serious doubts about the counting of votes.
The American story holds a lesson for all democratic governments. They have to carry the people with them and not ride roughshod over large bodies of public opinion. The US is still the most powerful country in the world. The failures of the Bush administration have ensured that the power and influence of the US in future are diminished. The rise of the economic and military might of China, India, Russia, Iran, and Brazil, and even of smaller countries like Venezuela make the agreement of the UN imperative in resolving disputes. Internally, governments must move to the centre and not take extreme positions. The US will have to work closely with regional powers and compromise its positions to get consensus.