Focus: Part two - The world

US elections: America divided and a world full of fear
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The Independent Online

You can claim, if you wish, that American politics is not your thing, that your heart is not quickened by the joust and jostle between two parties which look pretty much the same.

But what you might not like you cannot necessarily ignore, especially not during a presidential election year. And even more so in 2004.

Every presidential election in the US is bigger, more expensive and more unwieldy than the one four years previously, and the battle between the Republican incumbent George Bush and whomever the Democrats select as their challenger will fit this mould. It is estimated that Mr Bush will spend $170m (£110m) fighting to be returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The race of 2004 will be one of the most fiercely contested of recent times. Mr Bush has been a polarising president, dividing those who believe that his actions following the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, in Afghanistan and Iraq were tough, determined, brave and principled or else illegal, stupid, isolating and hypocritical. It is worth pondering the extreme nature of these adjectives: it is rare in the United States to find someone who shrugs their shoulders about George Bush.

Those outside America who say none of this matters to them are naive. America is the world's most powerful economic and military force and the way it pursues its internal self-interest in its policies abroad is unparalleled and overwhelming. Be it the invasion of Iraq, the support for Israel with millions of dollars in loan guarantees, or even the spreading of conservative social values, such the "Mexico City Policy" which refuses overseas aid to organisations that provide abortions, America's influence is hugely pervasive.

One can argue that the President is not all powerful, at home or abroad, but this White House has shown just how focused the executive branch of government can be and how it can push its polices through the House and Senate. And the President does have genuine and real input: it is unlikely that the invasion of Iraq, the wholesale scrapping of the Kyoto treaty and the tax cuts that have rewarded the wealthy and left America with an unprecedented deficit would have happened if Al Gore had won the last presidential election, for which he obtained more votes. Howard Dean, the man most likely to take on Mr Bush, has tapped into the anger that many Americans feel about the President, but Mr Bush's approval rating has risen to about 60 per cent following the capture of Saddam. "Smeared" as a liberal by the Republicans, Mr Dean is actually a fiscal conservative and a social centrist. But, more importantly, Mr Dean is someone who has realised that Bush and the neo-conservatives have taken America to extremes, to a place outside the margins of consensus where, to paraphrase Mr Bush's own words, someone is either "with us, or against us". He is someone who realises just how important November's election is.

Watch out for...

Howard Dean: Outflanked the Democratic Party establishment by using the internet to gather money and support, unexpectedly making him the front-runner for the nomination. But the capture of Saddam and the WMD deal with Libya has blunted his anti-Bush message.

Hillary Clinton: Still has her eye on running for the White House in 2008 rather than 2004. But could come into the reckoning as the Dean candidacy loses momentum and the Democrats start looking for an alternative.

Wesley Clark: The former Nato commander could benefit if Howard Dean falters. Recently claimed that his rival asked him to join his ticket as candidate for vice-president, which was instantly denied by Dean.

Terror, by Raymond Whitaker

Somewhere in the West during 2004 there will be a terror attack to rival - or even exceed - September 2001 in scale. That is a warning constantly being issued by security chiefs. What they cannot tell us is where, when or how such an attack will come. Over Christmas the US was on alert for a carbon copy of 9/11, in which airliners were hijacked and used as weapons, but other warnings have spoken of a possible "dirty bomb", combining conventional explosives and radioactive material to maximise destruction and disruption.

All we know is that while al-Qa'ida and its allies have been prevented so far from making another major assault in Europe or North America, they have not stopped trying for another "spectacular". They have regularly shown their ability to strike at soft Western targets elsewhere, most recently the British consulate in Istanbul in November, and the next such attack is only a matter of time.

The security agencies are in the position of a goalkeeper: nobody remembers the 99 penalties he saves, only the one that gets past him. Increased awareness, high-level arrests and intensive intelligence work have weakened al-Qa'ida considerably since 2001, but its leader, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large somewhere on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So does Mullah Omar, leader of their erstwhile protectors, the Taliban, which is regaining strength in the Afghan hinterland.

If the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban were meant to be a template for the war in Iraq, developments since will not encourage Iraqis. Afghanistan remains highly unstable, with the American-backed president, Hamid Karzai, scarcely exercising any control outside Kabul. Promised aid money has not materialised, and opium production is flourishing once again. A loya jirga (grand council) was close to agreeing a new constitution last week, but many doubt whether it will be wise to hold elections by the deadline of 30 June. The fear is that the US will force elections through, more with an eye on Iraq than Afghanistan, when what most Afghans want first is security.

The most important date for both countries is the US presidential election on Tuesday 2 November. With the progress of the "war on terror" so unpredictable, President George Bush cannot afford to be in the position he is now, with US troops vulnerable in Afghanistan and subject to almost daily attack in Iraq. Although the capture of Saddam Hussein makes it inevitable that much attention in 2004 will focus on where and how he is tried, and what the sentence will be, it does not appear to have done anything to reduce armed resistance to the American-led occupation.

That resistance has already forced the White House to speed up its timetable for getting out of Iraq. Next year sees a spate of deadlines: the key date is 30 June, when the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer will be dissolved and formal control handed over to an Iraqi transitional government. This means that the military occupation can be declared over well before the Republican Party meets in August to nominate Mr Bush for a second term, but in practice little will change. For all the impatience of the Bush administration to declare "mission accomplished" in Iraq, a full constitution and a government elected by universal suffrage will not be in place until the end of 2005.

Just as many American troops will be required in Iraq after 30 June as before; if Pentagon hawks try to impose their favoured candidate, Ahmed Chalabi, as leader of the interim government, US forces could be in worse trouble than they are now. Mr Chalabi's Iraqi National Council supplied much of the questionable intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used by the US to justify the war, but commands next to no support on the ground. Any attempt to cast him as Iraq's Hamid Karzai risks disaster.

There is one other group which will be awaiting the outcome of the presidential process in a mood somewhere between hope and despair: the hundreds of "enemy combatants" held in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Which administration or candidate will advocate their release in an election year? If the prisoners have any awareness of the outside world, they will know the answer: none.

Watch out for...

Ahmed Chalabi: member of the Iraqi Governing Council the Americans would most like to become the interim president - but that may count against him.

Osama bin Laden: they may have got Saddam but al-Qa'ida's leader is still hiding out in a cave in Afghanistan. Or somewhere. Expect him to speak out once more.

Security becomes an Olympic event

Sport by Alan Hubbard

Jonny Wilkinson's drop of magic will be a hard act to follow, but Britain's Olympians must at least go some way towards emulating their own achievements in Sydney last time if the current national sporting euphoria is to become the name of the games, which return to their Grecian cradle in August. The British team won 11 golds in 2000 and will have to work hard to equal that.

Similarly in the other major international sports event of the year, England's footballers will be compared invidiously to their rugby counterparts should they fail at least to reach the final of the European Championship in Portugal in June. The track record suggests breath should not be held. And in both the Olympics and football, the tension created in competition is unlikely to rival that felt by the organisers and security forces, as terrorism and hooliganism both threaten pursuit of sport.

A decent Olympics for Britain doubtless will encourage the denizens of the International Olympic Committee to look benevolently on London's bid for 2012 as they always like to see a strong host nation. Yet while the bid may not be damaged if the performances on the field do not come up to scratch in Euro 2004 - a British team has not participated in the Olympic tournaments in 40 years - matters off it could have a devastating effect. Should the hooligan hordes lay waste to the streets of Lisbon, not only will England face expulsion from the tournament and possibly the World Cup, but also the anti-London vote that is already being assembled by some elements of the IOC because of the Iraq war could be strengthened further.

Ironically, in both Athens and Portugal, national hopes could be hit by the enforced absence of two high-profile figures caught in sport's drugs net: the champion sprinter Dwain Chambers, who failed a dope test, and footballer Rio Ferdinand, a key England defender, who notoriously failed to take one. There are many who would feel happier if it was the English fans, rather than a forgetful footballer, who were forced to miss out in Portugal, where tournament organisers insist they will take a softer line on policing than their Belgian counterparts did in Euro 2000. Security measures, they say, will be low profile so as not to inflame the situation. Even so, the 10 stadiums will all include police cells.

Hooliganism rather than terrorism is seen as the main security threat, unlike in Athens where more money is being spent on keeping competitors and crowds safe than on any other aspect of the games, or on any previous sports event.

The security budget has doubled to nearly £500m since Athens was named host city in 1997. A multi-national security force of 50,000, including Britain's SAS, will be backed by 200,000 Greek militia.

Greece, with its porous borders and vast coastline, is seen as particularly vulnerable, but at least the trial and imprisonment of 14 members of the 17 November terrorist organisation seems to have eliminated internal threats. The main concern is the possibility of attacks on cruise ships - including the new Queen Mary II - which will be berthed at Piraeus as floating hotels. Submarines, frogmen and divers will patrol the harbour. The Greeks have refused to allow the United States and Australia to bring their own armed security personnel. The minister in charge of security, Giorgos Florides, says: "If you have police from various countries carrying guns under the same roof it is possible that war would be declared. This is not the Wild West."

Watch out for...

Giorgos Florides: terrorism presents a huge challenge to the Greek minister in charge of security as the Olympic Games return to their ancient birthplace.

Sepp Blater: if England's bad boys run amok, the Fifa president could see to it that the team they claim to support is ejected from both the next World Cup and the European Championships.

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