Bruce Anderson: President Bush may have been damaged, but that does not make for a safer world

After an election of spectacular viciousness, we had five days of equally spectacular insincerity
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The Independent Online

Luck plays a greater part in politics than most politicians care to admit. Margaret Thatcher had luck. She used it ruthlessly. Then it ran out. Poor John Major never had any luck. Tony Blair did: lots. But he never worked out how to use it. His, too, has now run out, and as of last Tuesday, the same seems to be true of George Bush.

It is almost an iron rule of American politics that when the President is serving his second term, his party will suffer in the midterm elections, and Mr Bush did no worse than several of his predecessors. With a little luck, however, he could have done much better: well enough to hold the Senate and possibly even the House. But the Republicans were hit by scandals, sexual and financial. This inflamed voters who were already angry.

All American incumbents now face a chronic problem: middle-class living standards (the American middle class stretches further down than the British one). Visitors to America will be surprised to learn that there is a difficulty. They will see that people who do very ordinary jobs are able to live enviably well by international comparisons.

"International" is the key to the problem. There is a long-term danger that global competition will tend to equalise real incomes, at the expense of lower-middle-income Americans. In most cases, their living standards have not increased significantly for the past few decades. They fear that their children will not be as well off as they are. In America, that is not supposed to happen. It is in breach of the sacred, if unwritten, item in the Bill of Rights: that this year shall be better than last year and that next year shall be better than this year.

Voters who are feeling the bite are never generously disposed towards politicians. When the politicians come across as corrupt and complacent, their party will be punished. They did and it was. President Bush had a further misfortune. Some candidates in key races were not up to it, including Senator George Allen of Virginia. If you have never heard of Mr Allen, do not worry. He is about to return to the obscurity from which he should never have emerged.

Yet - American conservatives can have lapses of judgment - he was discussed as a presidential hopeful. I could never understand why. We know what the average Frenchman thinks about George Bush's intellect. If he thought the same about Senator Allen, he would have got something right, for once. Mr Allen is not only dim. He fought a campaign which was designed to play the spotlights on his ineptitude. It is fortunate that he only has two feet. Otherwise, his mouth would have been seriously overcrowded.

He and others talked away Mr Bush's congressional majority. But they have provided some macabre amusement. After an election campaign of spectacular viciousness, we have had five days of equally spectacular insincerity. The White House is proclaiming its willingness to work with Congress. Mr Bush's people are actually giving the impression that they welcome this opportunity for bipartisanship. The congressional Democratic leaders are responding in kind. Every time the White House bills, they coo. There has been nothing like it since the Russo-German diplomatic exchanges after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

This pact will break down more quickly. Especially in the House, many of the Democrats hate the President. Believing that he stole the 2000 election, they have never regarded him as legitimate. Some of their leaders will be telling them to stay calm and sound moderate, in order to help the Democrats to win the Presidency in 2008. But a lot of them will not be able to calm down. They want revenge.

If they try to act on their desires, they will be making an electoral error: underestimating George Bush. Still the President, he still controls the bully pulpit. He is determined to pass on the presidency to a fellow Republican. If the Democrats abandon the centre for the anti-American counter-culture, Mr Bush will happilyfight them on their chosen ground. The Republicans should be favourites to retain the presidency, especially if John McCain decides that he is fit enough to run. But 2008 will be an easier challenge than the next phase in Iraq.

It is not only Democratic congressmen who are rejoicing at Mr Bush's losses. In Europe, similar feelings are widespread, and there is an irony. All the Bush-haters insist as an article of dogma that the President is a dunce. Yet they are the ones who are indulging in thoughtlessness.

Mr Bush set out to restructure the Middle East and to eliminate the failed states which breed terrorism. It is legitimate to argue that the neocons were so intoxicated by hubristic idealism that the plan was always bound to fail. But it would be folly to believe this could open a safe way back to a secure status quo.

The Bush plan had three phases: destabilise the region, use US power to keep the instability within limits, and allow emergent democratic forces to create a new order. We now appear to be falling back from phase two to phase one, with little sign of phase three. This is dangerous. If America is seen to have failed in Iraq, the fanatics' hatred of the West will be undiminished, but their contempt will increase.

American military power is a crucial underpinning of global stability. In fear of the US is the beginning of wisdom. But a nation can use its might to encourage stability only if it has the will to do so. Would America's will to power survive a strategic defeat in Iraq?

A lot now depends on the report being prepared by James Baker. His recommendations will become administration policy as soon as they are off the press. Jim Baker has never been accused of lacking self-confidence, but I am told that he has been making wry comments along the lines of: "I am a former Secretary of State, not a miracle-worker". He is searching for a sustainable policy which would enable allied force levels to be reduced while ensuring the survival of a reasonable Iraqi government. Yet it is not clear that the two objectors are compatible. The impression that America wants out will not encourage its enemies to compromise.

Mr Baker will recommend a greater use of diplomacy. But Iran and Syria are unlikely to respond to US diplomatic overtures if they believe that this is a stratagem to conceal weakness. Nor will Israel be encouraged by a weaker America. Although President Bush should have done more to achieve movement on Palestine, the Israelis are not a glove puppet awaiting a strong American hand. Israel will make territorial concessions only if it feels relatively secure. There is absolutely nothing in the current state of the Middle East to make anyone feel secure.

Those who are solely concerned with Bush bashing will dismiss all such concerns. They will be too busy gloating over his discomfiture. That is all very well as long as they are not naïve enough to suppose that the world is a better or a safer place.