Published on Friday, February 3, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
Bush Just Has to Face It: He is Wrong and Chirac is Right
The crises over Hamas and Iran underline the collapse of the neocon mission and the end of a one-superpower world
by Jonathan Steele
George Bush's presidency still has three years to run, but this week's state of the union address had an unmistakably ebb-tide air. Its tone - "chastened, deferential, modest" in the words of the Los Angeles Times - suggested that the president felt the waves of power were flowing against him.
This is not the same as being a lame duck. The moment when second-term presidents start to face severe problems in getting legislation through Congress or convincing foreign allies to support controversial measures normally comes later in the cycle. The last midterm elections (in this case November 2006) are the usual peak before the White House incumbent's domestic authority declines. On foreign policy the slippage comes even later. It may be delayed as far as the final weeks of office, as Bill Clinton found when he tried to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians in January 2001.
Nor does the change in Bush's demeanour this week result mainly from fading support among Americans for what will be remembered as the central decision of his presidency, the mistaken war on Iraq. His unprecedentedly low poll ratings certainly affected his mood on Tuesday night, and one sharp-eyed New York Times reporter noted that "he smiled seldom and only winked once". But the reason for Bush's gloom goes much deeper.
Like missionaries who find that the heathens are refusing to be converted, he and his neocon colleagues are beginning to realise that their mission of freedom is not as convincing as they expected. It is also having unpredicted effects, forcing them to confront awkward choices: carry on elaborating grand principles, or adjust the message and feel guilty of sinful backsliding.
Bush's speech was remarkable for the number of times he called on his fellow Americans not to retreat, not to give up, not to succumb to pessimism, not to be defeatist. If his policies were not floundering, these pleas would not have been necessary. They were markedly different from the confident tone of last year's address, when he had just been inaugurated for a second term and the administration hoped that Iraq's first elections would bring the collapse of the insurgency. Now, after a constitutional referendum and another election, the attacks on US and British forces show no sign of abating significantly.
Bush insisted on Tuesday that democracy was still on the march around the world, particularly in the Middle East. He cited the polls in Egypt, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, though when he claimed that Iran "is held hostage by a small clerical elite" he seemed to forget that its president was also elected: he won in a well-contested race with a high voter turnout and no obvious frontrunner.
Yet, as one listens to Bush and his neocon team, their sense of frustration is palpable. They realise they have been ambushed by their own policies. Their zeal for ideological purity pushed them into positions from which it is hard to escape without looking as though they are betraying themselves.
Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has made two difficult trips to Europe in less than a month. The first was overshadowed by the scandal over secret US torture centres in Europe; the second was meant to be a triumphant assertion of progress in Afghanistan, but turned into a series of crisis meetings on Hamas and Iran.
Rice pleads with Europeans to understand that a real war is going on and there are bad people out there. She urges us not to be complacent about terrorism and argues the need to make tough changes in our civil-liberty laws. She sees it as a success that the Bush administration has abolished the distinction between freedom fighters and terrorists. This means, she argues, that the tolerance shown to the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1980s, which allowed them generous time to drop their commitment to violence, cannot be repeated with Hamas now.
She fears that Hamas's victory will erode Europeans' commitment to the war on terror as they struggle to square the circle of continuing to help the Palestinians while calling on their new government to tear up its manifesto. The Hamas crisis is not just a foreign-policy dilemma. It is a metaphor for the brittle nature of the Bush administration's self-awarded global mission as it faces the contradictions of the real world.
The crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions is equally significant. The post-cold-war era, when there was only a single superpower, is over now. The United States is being forced to enlist Russia and, to a lesser extent, China as partners in finding a compromise. With this, the economic rise of India and the resurgence of anti-yanqui nationalism in several states in Latin America, we have clearly entered a multipolar world.
No one in Downing Street or Washington will admit it publicly, but Jacques Chirac has turned out to be right. His global Gaullism, the notion that the world has several power centres, and it is no longer just "the west versus the rest", offers a more accurate picture than the image of the lone cowboy acting in the name of us all. The analysis is not Chirac's alone, of course. The French president is in most ways a discredited figure, little loved even at home. But he is the most prominent European to dare to embrace multipolarity as the new reality of international politics.
Leaders of the non-aligned nations have been saying the same thing for a long time, as have Washington's latest bugbears, such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In his soft-spoken way, Kofi Annan has also been calling for a new recognition of the dispersal of international power. In a little-reported speech in London this week, he took issue with even the concept of a five-nation power centre made up of the permanent members of the UN security council. "Do not underestimate the slow erosion of the UN's authority and legitimacy that stems from the perception that it has a very narrow power base, with just five countries calling the shots," he pleaded.
UN reform is a slow process, and it is doubtful whether the new claimants for permanent security-council seats, such as Brazil, India and Japan, will get their way soon. But the trend is in their direction, regardless of whether it is formalised by the UN now or in several years.
So, Bush's frantic pleas to his American audience not to retreat are signs not just that his ideological simplicities carry less conviction at home than they once did. He has also begun to see that US power abroad is on the wane.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006