Adrian Hamilton: Who can be happy at the loss of US prestige?

Just as Iraq has yanked down Bush's ratings at home, so it has reduced his authority abroad
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The Independent Online

Wiser heads should have advised President Bush to cancel or postpone his current visit to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. What looked so tempting when it was first mooted - a triumphal flight to the scene of a successful military intervention coupled with trips to guaranteed allies in Delhi and Islamabad - now looks like the rather desperate dash of a failing politician.

The Afghan leg had to be brought forward to before rather than after India to foil any terrorist attack. The Indian visit has been soured by Bush's failure to deliver on his promises of a new nuclear technology transfer. President Musharraf of Pakistan, in the meantime, looks as if he could fall any minute.

Bush, however, couldn't cancel the visit for the same considerations that he undertook it for in the first place. For domestic reasons he has to look as if he and his administration still have global reach and friends where they matter. In the war against terror, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan seemed the one group you could rely on. To call the trip off would look like weakness.

The trouble is that going ahead with it is serving to point up the President's weakness even more obviously. Just as the accelerating descent of Iraq into chaos and internecine struggle has yanked down Bush's ratings at home, so they have reduced his authority abroad. Nationalist, fundamentalist and anti-Western forces throughout the region sense that America's star is falling, and they are manouevring to take advantage of it. We are back to the anti-American slogans on the street and regimes suppressing dissent with increasing ferocity.

Iraq is largely responsible. Militarily it has shown that, even with over 100,000 troops, the US cannot ensure security or guarantee the success of its favourites. Even more damagingly, it has revealed an America that not only had no effective plan of occupation after the invasion but has has no real plan now of what to do - whether to deepen its commitment or retreat from it.

Iraq, said Bush, before departing on his trip, faced a choice - "The choice is a free society or a society dictated by evil people who will kill innocents." Fine sounding rhetoric which is being interpreted throughout the Middle East as tantamount to saying that America couldn't control the violence it had set in motion by invading the country. It was up to the Iraqis. So much then for Cheney and Rumsfeld's shock-and-awe and the vision of the limitless reach of US military power into every nook and cranny of the globe.

But Iraq has also gone sour at the same time as two other important developments have pushed America on to its back foot. One has been the sudden re-emergence of the energy crisis, in which America's position as a major importer has left it extremely vulnerable to instability and resource competition around the world. A regime change in Baghdad, of course, was meant to solve this by reshaping the Middle East. It hasn't, leaving Washington not only desperately trying to prop up royalist regimes in the Middle East but also propping up tyrannical governments in Central Asia.

The other development has been the rise of China and, more recently, India. They have the appetite and, in the case of China at least, the wealth to compete effectively for resources around the world. And China, along with Russia, are doing it, using their influence to forge new energy-based alliances even in Latin America. In appearance as much as reality, they have emerged as the countries of the future, making the US look increasingly like the nation of the past.

The US still has the wealth, the technology and the continued growth. But it is a mature economy. China and India have exuded the feeling that you don't need to go cap in hand to America to achieve economic take-off.

It would be foolish, and wrong, to overestimate the extent of US decline. It remains the only superpower, the unchallenged military leader of the world. When push comes to shove, Washington can still twist more arms and call in more debts than any other country in the world.

What has happened is largely the fault of President Bush and his coterie. In invading Iraq they announced the unlimited power of America and then promptly showed how limited it was. Even if Iraq eventually comes good (and the prospect should not be discounted), it will be too late. The sole superpower of the post-Cold War world has been revealed in all its weakness.

America is being forced back into the power politics and first-world/ third-world divisions of the past. For all President Bush's talk yesterday of democracy and the overthrow of tyrants, the reality is that the US has returned to supporting regimes of whatever ilk where they seem to offer stability and security of supply, and to confronting regimes that threaten its interests in the Middle East, Latin America or Asia. It no longer has the choice.

For its allies even more than for its enemies, this is a grim prospect. A weakened America is in nobody's interests. The worse things get, the more it will retreat not so much into isolationism but to an overriding concern with its security interests, with "winning the war on terror", as Bush repeated several times yesterday. That may bring the required cheer from the troops assembled at the huge US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan, but it is ringing increasingly hollow to the world outside.