LONDON: Shortly before the first Gulf war the recently retired chairman of the United States joint chiefs of staff, Admiral William Crowe, went for lunch with his successor, Colin Powell. In words that resonate today, Crowe warned Powell that “a war in the Middle East — killing thousands of Arabs for whatever noble purpose — would set back the US in the region for a long time. And that was to say nothing of the Americans who might die”.
But despite his own misgivings, Crowe clearly believed military intervention was likely in the interests of presidential prestige. “It takes two things to be a great president,” he told Powell. “First you have to have a war. All the great presidents have had their wars. Two you have to find a war where you are attacked.” Six years into his presidency it is difficult to think of a single, substantial foreign policy initiative that US president George Bush has pursued that did not involve war, or the threat of it. There is good reason for this. It is the one area in which America reigns supreme, accounting alone for 40 per cent of the global military expenditure and spending almost seven times the amount of its nearest rival, China.
Yet greatness eludes him. For if the last six years have proved anything, it is the limitations of military might as the central plank of foreign policy. Indeed, shorn of meaningful diplomacy or substantial negotiation, it has failed even on its own narrow, nationalistic terms of making America safer and securing its global hegemony. In short, in displaying his strength in such a brash, brazen, reckless and ruthless manner, Bush has asserted power and lost authority and influence both at home and abroad.
With his approval ratings at Nixonian lows and the mid-term elections on the horizon, many of his fellow Republicans regard him as a liability. Stumbling across the political landscape, rallying support for lost causes, he resembles Ernest Harrowden in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character whom Oscar Wilde described as “one of those middle-aged mediocrities, who have no enemies, but are thoroughly disliked by their friends”.
Last week’s release of the national security strategy did not counter that trend but confirmed it. Insisting that diplomacy remains America’s “strong preference”, it went on to reaffirm its commitment to pre-emption. “If necessary, under long-standing ‘principles of self-defence’, we do not rule out use of force before attacks occur,” it states. Iran received special mention, with a warning that talks “must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided”.
In practice this translates into a per perverse version of carrot-and-stick diplomacy. Offer your adversary a carrot and then threaten to whack them with the stick while they are eating it.
That America’s standing has plummeted with this approach is without question. Of the 10 countries polled in 2000 and again in 2005 by the Pew research group, the US had fallen in people’s estimation in eight of them. In only three — Canada, Britain and Russia — did a majority still look upon the US favourably. It’s not difficult to see why.
Last week the country that aspires to lead the free world stood alongside only Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands and against 170 countries in rejecting the creation of a new UN Council to protect human rights. Only the US and Somalia (which has no recognised government) have failed to ratify the UN convention on the rights of the child.
So long as the US clung to the notion that military strength would always have the last say, none of this mattered. Like a band of demented Millwall supporters, the Bush administration could strut across the global stage chanting: “No one likes us, we don’t care”. Indeed, in the first few years after 9/11 it wore its unpopularity like a badge of honour.
But as events in Iraq have soured, the ability of the Bush administration to deliver on these threats has diminished considerably. With its military overstretched and its diplomatic goodwill spent, it has been forced back to the table from a relative position of weakness, because nobody trusts it or particularly fears it. If anything, both Iran and North Korea have been emboldened by its failures in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, elections keep on producing the wrong results. Hamas is in power in Palestine; René Préval, the protege of Jean-Bertrand Aristide whom the US helped remove in a coup two years ago, won the presidency in Haiti; Ahmed Chalabi, the protege of the neocons whom the US wanted to impose on the Iraqi people at the outset of the war, could not win a single seat. Elsewhere, voters in Latin America have opted for leaders who campaigned against the neo-liberal economic strictures imposed by Washington.
The issue is not whether the developing world is ready for democracy — as the administration keeps arguing — but if the US is ready for the democratic choices made by the developing world.
But the principle area where the US has demonstrated its military supremacy and its diplomatic weakness is Iraq. This misadventure has not only alienated most of the world from the administration, but increasingly alienated the two constituencies it really does need to win over — the Iraqis and the Americans. One of the key demands of the United Iraqi Alliance, the broadbased Shia coalition that won the elections in December, was the removal of the American military. Given that the Sunnis are leading the insurgency, this leaves few backers among the Iraqis. And, simultaneously, support for the war in the US is haemorrhaging. A CNN/USA Today poll last week showed 60% of Americans believe it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq and disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war. More than half want to see the troops withdrawn within a year. Even three-quarters of the soldiers fighting in Iraq, according to another poll, believe the US should leave within a year.
These problems may in no small part be due to the fact that in invading Iraq, Bush fulfilled only half of Crowe’s criteria for a great presidency. Despite efforts to convince the world otherwise, the war for which he will be remembered — Iraq — had nothing to do with why the US was attacked on September 11. On its own, that would be a moral issue of lying to the public.
What has transformed it into a political problem is the dire situation on the ground in Iraq. The most important single factor that shapes Americans’ attitudes to any war is whether they think America will win, explains Christopher Gelpi, an associate professor of political science at Duke University who specialises in public attitudes to foreign policy. Over the past year, the percentage of Americans who believe the US is “certain to win” has plummeted from 79% to 22%; those who are either certain it will not win or believe this to be unlikely have risen from 1% to 41%.
“They are in big trouble,” explains Gelpi. “Bush’s speeches, even as late as December, managed to shore up public opinion a little bit. But what you can do with speeches at this point is pretty limited. It’s not even clear who’s listening.” –Dawn/The Guardian News Service