Bush policies are here to stay

From an Australian commentator:

One of the greatest mistakes the opponents of George W. Bush in the US, and of John Howard in Australia, perennially make is to consider the respective leaders as aberrations and to think, therefore, that they represent odd cul-de-sacs of history. Closely allied to this is the rooted faith that once the dark leader, winner of dark victories through dark satanic methods, passes from the scene, the nation will return to normal. However, Bush and Howard represent the absolute mainstream of their nations in domestic as well as foreign policy.

Surely, you say, the neo-conservative excesses of Bush's foreign policy are sui generis. Consider this classic Bush formulation: "If a nation shows that it knows how to act with decency ... then it need fear no interference from the US ... but brutal wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society, may finally require intervention by some civilised nation ... the US cannot ignore this duty."

That's about as crisp a version of the neo-con idea as you could get. But actually I'm kidding when I say it is a Bush formulation. The words come to us from more than a century ago, from Theodore Roosevelt. Yet in his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger sets up TR as the ultimate foreign policy realist, the opposite pole to Woodrow Wilson and his liberal internationalism. The most astute analysts of US foreign policy see much more continuity than radical change in Bush, especially when the magnitude of the 9/11 terror attacks of five years ago is added. It would have been inconceivable, and utterly inconsistent with US history, for Washington not to have responded with great vigour to the 9/11 attacks.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I think whatever happens in the November mid-term congressional elections, and then in the presidential election of 2008, it is most likely the broad elements of Bush's foreign policy will stay. There may well be a repudiation of the Bush personality in either or both of these elections. However, there almost certainly won't be a fundamental change of course. By the time Bush ends his presidency in 2008 (technically in January 2009), he will have influenced directly four national elections. He won the presidency in 2000 and was re-elected with an increased majority in 2004. He also oversaw very large Republican gains in the mid-term congressional elections in 2002. In this year's congressional elections, it is most likely the Democrats will make gains. All of the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate and 36 governorships will be up for grabs. Local issues will influence many of these contests, but it is fair to see them in some measure as a referendum on Bush and in particular on the conduct of the war in Iraq.

The campaign in Iraq is not going well and is not especially popular. But the politics of this are extremely complex. I am drawn to the argument by Harvard Law School professor William Stuntz that the US public attitude is not so much get out now but, rather, win or get out. In other words, Americans will continue to support the Iraq operation provided the Bush administration can tell a convincing story about the value of what the US is doing there....

However, it is in some senses easier to predict that the next presidential election will not produce drastic change in US policy. This analysis proceeds from two factors: the politicians likely to be involved and the structural forces at work in the world. On the Republican side, the frontrunner is Arizona senator John McCain. He is critical of the Bush administration on issues such as the treatment of detainees, but he would put more troops into Iraq to make sure the victory is won. He is also if anything more hawkish than Bush on Iran. He says, for example, that the only thing worse than the US bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would be a nuclear-armed Iran. The other highly prominent Republican is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. He came to prominence entirely as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks and would run hard on national security, as would any of the other Republican contenders.

On the Democratic side the leading candidate is Hillary Clinton. She has a ton of money and would be an extremely formidable candidate. Since entering the Senate she has assiduously established her national security credentials. She serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She backed the war in Iraq. She sponsored legislation to ban the burning of the US flag. She strongly backed Israel in its recent conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Former vice-president Al Gore has become famous for his environmental campaigns but in office he was the most hawkish member of the Clinton administration. John Kerry, the loser last time, tried to run as the military candidate. All these Democrats understand that they cannot win an election unless some southern conservative states believe they can manage national security.

This will dovetail with the structural factors at work in the world. Any US president will continue the war on terror vigorously. And any US president will have to deal with the situation in Iraq as it exists and will not want to create a strategic disaster by immediate, total disengagement.

Here's a final thought. The body language of the Bush administration regarding Iran looks to me as though it is not planning to let Iran progress to nuclear weapons. A US strike on Iranian nuclear facilities by Bush before the end of his administration strikes me as at least an even money bet. And that, of course, would transform and polarise the politics of the US once again. If you don't like the US now - or if you do - you'll probably feel the same way in two or three years.

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