Adrian Hamilton: It's not enough to drop Donald Rumsfeld

He has chosen to demonstrate the full panoply of US power and shown its limits
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The Independent Online

There is a rather comfortable, and comforting, feeling among liberal Americans and their friends abroad that after the mid-term elections the US can somehow roll back the excesses of President Bush and automatically regain the country's prestige and popularity abroad by charm and changing faces.

True, President Bush's decision to invade Iraq made the US peculiarly unpopular through the world, and Britain alongside it. International opinion poll after opinion poll has shown a savage fall in trust and belief in a virtuous America.

But even if America did change its face and - difficult although it still seems - find a way to extricate itself from the Iraqi imbroglio, it would still face a Herculean task in undoing the damage internationally that the Bush administration has wrought.

It is not just that America has made such an error in invading Iraq, it is that Bush and his circle have chosen to demonstrate the full panoply of US military power and thus shown its limits. In the morass that is Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has revealed that it doesn't have the troops, the resources or even - on the evidence of these elections - the will to act as a global controller, quelling conflict and changing regimes at its will. Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thought they could do it. They said they could do it. They attempted to demonstrate that they could. And they have shown they can't.

If you look around at virtually all the major international issues, or regions, you see the truth of this. Attempting to face down North Korea and Iran over nuclear power, Washington has had not just to seek alliances but hand over much of the responsibility, to China on Korea and less effectively to Europe over Iran.

In the UN, over world trade, even in its backyard of Latin America, the US has failed even to use its financial and military muscle to create the combines that would have been taken for granted five or 10 years ago.

Dropping Donald Rumsfeld and retreating from Iraq won't reverse this. Nor will anything that has been said by the Democrats during the election meet the problem. Only Colin Powell, seeped in the bitter lesson of Vietnam, in his recent speeches has begun to address the issue of what the US can or cannot do in the new world. Most other politicians have seemed content, enthusiastic even, to continue to subscribe to the theory of overwhelming US power, accepting only that it has been wrongly directed.

The loss of the House of Representatives and very possibly the Senate is not going to lead to a dramatic change in US policy. It can't. The ramifications of the Iraqi venture are set too hard. Politics in the Middle East has been radicalised, the cause of Islamic fundamentalism has been strengthened, the sense of confrontation between West and the Muslim world has been solidified. Part of this is due to Iraq. But part also is due to the unstinting support that he has offered Israel - greater than any President before him.

The Democrats seem in no mood to alter this, or to offer any real alternative. US troops cannot be easily withdrawn from Iraq, or the country neatly divided into separate confederate groupings, without leaving chaos behind them. Yet their continued presence is inflaming the conflict.

James Baker's committee can talk of bringing in Iran and Syria to help with a solution. While it might help cover a withdrawal, it would also reifnorce an Iranian resurgence which the White House and Jerusalem are dead set against. If anything, the temptation is still for Bush to demonstrate "shock and awe" against Iran rather than embrace it. The Democrats might oppose the use of force but they wouldn't favour the embrace as the alternative.

What the US needs now is a complete reappraisal of its role and power in the world. It's something that Britain, as its closest ally, could help it with. Only the UK is as implicated as Bush in it. Nothing so illuminates Tony Blair's leaving of office than this defeat of his friend in the White House. It is not simply the fact that the British Prime Minister hitched his country's wagon so completely to the Bush engine, but he bought in to the whole concept of the US as hyperpower. Britain had to "hug them close" because that was where power was and where it would develop.

Only now Washington is imbued with the aura of diminishing power and departures. The coming men are not in the President's circle. Which is good news for Gordon Brown, who has retained strong links with the Democrats, but not so good for a Britain that seems to have no more idea than Washington of the role it can perform in a world where the US's star is no longer in the ascendant.