Published on Sunday, November 12, 2006 by the Guardian / UK
Will This Make America Easier to Share the Planet with?
There is much to celebrate if the result means an end to the dogmatic, polarising, incompetent and hubristic approach of this President
by Andrew Rawnsley
|When George W Bush appeared before the cameras in the wake of his party's beating in the midterm elections, he asked the assembled media: 'Why all the glum faces?' The only glum faces actually belonged to the American President and vanquished Republican candidates. Rarely has an election defeat been so resoundingly cheered in both its country of origin and around the rest of the world. Bush has finally united most of the planet. The ayatollahs of Iran, the chancelleries of Europe, the majority of Americans and even some Republicans who thought their party deserved condign punishment, all have been celebrating 'the thumpin" administered by voters. This was not just a damning verdict on the catastrophic mess made in Iraq. It is the termination of a dozen years in which the Republicans have dominated both houses of the American legislature.
One very good thing about this election result is that it demonstrates both to Americans and the rest of the world that democracy still functions in America. A few weeks ago, I reported to you from Washington that I thought that the war, the corruption and the sleaze would triple-whammy the Republicans. There were many people on both sides of the Atlantic who thought that to be a rather rash forecast. They remembered the false hopes invested in Kerry, they recalled the disappointment of Gore and they took the power of the Republican vote machine at its own elevated estimation.
The ballot has done its purgative work. The Republicans have suffered their deserved fate. The plan to construct a perpetual right-wing hegemony over America has been exploded. The optimistic way of looking at these elections is that they will lead to a United States that takes a smarter and less unilateralist approach to the rest of the world. Whether this happens will firstly depend on whether Bush accommodates defeat or attempts to defy it. The signals are mixed. Donald Rumsfeld has finally been dispatched. The President has promised to try to work with the Democrats who now control both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the wake of such a defeat, he has little alternative but to sound conciliatory. The question is whether he is capable of becoming a very different President. If he chooses to try to govern along the same confrontational lines as before, that will be a recipe for paralysing conflict with Capitol Hill. Tony Blair, whose final months in office and eventual legacy will be shaped by what happens next, is desperately hoping that the White House takes the bipartisan path. So is Gordon Brown, who is likely to face 18 months working with the Bush White House.
The Democrats have a big decision to make, too. The more astute of their number grasp that these elections were more a register of revulsion against the Republicans than a sign of surging enthusiasm for the Democrats. They are a muddled and divided party, not least when it comes to Iraq. Put three Democratic congressmen in a room to talk about Iraq and they are likely to come up with four different answers.
The Democrats can use their control of all the committees on Capitol Hill to subject the remainder of the Bush presidency to a torquemada of inquiries about the Iraq war. That course is bound to be very tempting, given the scale of the mistakes, given the extreme partisanship that now disfigures so much of American political conversation, and given what a Republican Congress did to Bill Clinton in his second term. There are many scores waiting to be settled on Capitol Hill. This is one of the unwelcome results of these elections for Tony Blair. A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister blocked the attempt here to establish a full-scale investigation into the Iraq War. There will now be the mother of all inquiries into the war - one made in America. To put it at its mildest, it would be surprising if these congressional investigations did not reveal things that Number 10 would prefer to stay veiled.
Tony Blair has told friends that he hopes that the Democrats don't choose to wage a total war on the White House which gridlocks Washington and emboldens al-Qaeda and the United States' other enemies. The Prime Minister fears that outcome because these are Britain's enemies, too. Number 10's hope is that the Democrats will see the need to establish their own credibility on terrorism and security by offering solutions as well as opening inquiries.
The Democrats spent the campaign saying that there needed to be a 'new direction' in Iraq. Bush now says he is open to suggestions about how they 'move on'. But which new direction and leading where? It is not the case that America and Britain have run out of options in Iraq. There is a large range of options. What there are not are any brilliant ones. Barack Obama, the Democratic senator for Illinois and potential presidential candidate, has it right when he says that the choice is between 'bad options and worse options'. We have to hope that a chastened White House is now at least better at distinguishing between imperfect ideas and atrocious ones.
Donald Rumsfeld had to go, and should have gone long before, because he was the principal author of some of the most disastrous errors made in Iraq, especially in the immediate aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein. His departure now is probably more symbolic than it is significant in terms of policy. The American approach to Iraq was already being recalibrated before the President forced his Defence Secretary overboard. Robert Gates, the man nominated to take over, is a member of the so-called 'Study Group' headed by James Baker, Secretary of State and consigliere to the first President Bush and a Republican of the realist school. His report is designed to give George W Bush the arguments and the cover to shift direction. Here is another risk for Tony Blair. Number 10 has been getting increasingly and rightly nervous about the mounting impression that Britain is passively waiting for new orders about Iraq from Washington. A video conference between the Prime Minister and Mr Baker's panel has been arranged for this Tuesday to try to demonstrate that Britain will have influence over what happens next.
The Baker group has been invested with expectations that it almost certainly cannot deliver. No one I speak to on either side of the Atlantic expects it to conjure up a miracle formula which will suddenly turn Iraq into a peaceful, unified, liberal country from which America and Britain can swiftly withdraw their troops. The likeliest outcome is that there will be an attempt to accelerate the handover of responsibility for security to the Iraqi government. One of Mr Blair's senior advisers calls this 'putting a more Iraqi face on it'. We already know that James Baker thinks President Bush needs to swallow his 'axis of evil' rhetoric and see the merit of 'talking to your enemies'.
Dialogue with Syria is regarded as such a good idea by the Prime Minister that he recently sent Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his senior adviser on foreign policy, to Damascus. About Iran, Mr Blair is much more sceptical. It is pointed out that whenever pressure is put on the Iranians about their nuclear ambitions, 'they pretty much openly threaten to turn up the heat on us in Iraq and Afghanistan'.
The impact on the rest of Britain's agenda looks variable. There's a good chance that America will become more receptive to doing something serious to tackle climate change. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican who did get re-elected as governor of California. He did so in large part by reinventing himself as eco-friendly. The chairmanship of the Senate's environment committee will no longer be occupied by James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who thinks global warming is a great hoax. His most likely replacement is Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from the west coast who thinks climate change is the greatest challenge of the 21st century.
In other areas, the capture of Congress by the Democrats will make America harder to negotiate with. There is a strongly protectionist tendency among the new powers on Capitol Hill which will make trade talks that much more intractable. Tony Blair would like to see another effort on the Israel-Palestine conflict before he leaves Number 10, but a Democratic Congress and a weakened White House are not a good combination for achieving that.
There will be much to celebrate if this means an end to the dogmatic, polarising, incompetent and hubristic approach of this President. But the cheers need to be tempered with one caution. George W Bush foolishly told his country just before polling day that a Democratic victory would be a victory for terrorism. The leaders of al-Qaeda have naturally joined the celebrations of his defeat as if it were a triumph for them. The threats posed by Islamist terrorism, rogues states such as North Korea, and a globally assertive China are also challenges to the rest of the democratic world.
It would be reckless to think that the planet will be made safer by an America which becomes paralysed and disengaged. A less unilateralist America will be a good thing; an isolationist America will not.
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