Anyone who has watched the procession of foreign visitors shaking hands with President Bush in recent weeks might be forgiven for believing that the US administration was about to rejoin the world. After eight months of turning its back on almost every aspect of international engagement – from arms control and environment agreements to Middle East peace – the US suddenly repaid its debt to the United Nations and Mr Bush turned the White House into the diplomatic equivalent of Grand Central Station. Aha, we Europeans sighed knowingly, America's new sense of vulnerability is fast teaching it what we learned long ago: that no country, not even the world's superpower, can act as though the rest of the world was not there.
Unfortunately, this may not be the most prescient reading of what is happening. The cataclysm of 11 September has indeed forced changes in the Bush administration's priorities. On coming to office, Mr Bush set about reordering foreign policy, starting in his own back yard with Mexico. But, instead of forging closer hemispheric relations, he has found himself dispatching his country's élite troops to Afghanistan.
With a background in business and a Harvard MBA, he ran for the presidency as a competent leader and economic manager. In office, he has presided over a deepening recession and taken the role of commander in chief. Having campaigned on a platform of military modernisation, he has found himself dependent on the forces and structures he inherited. Rising to the top of his domestic agenda was a bold plan to allow more immigrants, especially Mexicans, to work legally in the United States. The ease with which a majority of the 15 aspiring hijackers were able to enter the US legally and wreak their deadly havoc has made any relaxation of immigration restrictions a political non-starter.
Most pertinently, Mr Bush was persuaded – perhaps against his first instincts – that if he was to mount successful punitive action against the terrorists, he needed the diplomatic cover of international support, as well as foreign logistical help. Hence the overtures to the United Nations, the carousel of cabinet visits to Russia and Asia and his own shift towards the acceptance of Palestinian statehood.
But none of this means that the Bush administration will abandon its isolationist tendencies in the wake of 11 September. Before that infamous day, Mr Bush came across as an unconvincing President, presiding over a divided Congress and a divided country. He had carelessly let Republican control of the Senate slip from his grasp and was still disowned as a legitimate president by many Democratic voters. He and his advisers were debating what compromises they could tolerate on their favoured domestic issues and which might be postponed or abandoned.
Now Mr Bush's position is infinitely stronger. Congress has set aside most party politics in the national interest. The wave of red, white and blue patriotism that swept the United States in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks shows no sign of subsiding, and, so long as it lasts, it boosts the occupant of the Oval Office. Despite a wobble at the height of the anthrax scare, Mr Bush's popularity ratings have been as high as those of his father during the Gulf War.
The success – so far – of the military campaign in Afghanistan stands to strengthen Mr Bush further and so widen his room for manoeuvre. But any hope that he might use his new authority either to shift the fundamentals of his domestic agenda or to intensify US engagement with the rest of the world looks vain. His hawkish defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, looks cock-a-hoop these days, scarcely able to contain his satisfaction. In contrast, his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, seems to have lost some of the energy and drive that he so visibly possessed when he led the diplomatic dance before the bombing began. Mr Bush, for his part, has raised no expectations whatsoever that the US will take the lead in peacekeeping, aid-delivery or what he and his Cabinet call, with more than a hint of scorn, "nation-building".
So long as the Taliban make no comeback (and this looks increasingly unlikely), Mr Bush can probably rest on the laurels of war. Once the US declares its military campaign over, anything that then goes awry can be blamed on the inadequacy of the post-conflict settlement or the Afghans. It will not necessarily sour what Mr Bush will claim to be his, and the "coalition's", victory.
Mr Bush granted a glimpse of how little he intended to be diverted from his original priorities almost immediately after 11 September. Asked whether the suicide hijackings of four US domestic flights did not argue conclusively against spending so much money on his pet missile-defence system, Mr Bush said that, on the contrary, it proved how very necessary such a system was. While the logic of his answer was open to question – how (and why) would a missile-defence system have spotted and deflected or destroyed a commercial aircraft on a domestic flight? – the strength of his conviction was not.
Mr Bush has since insisted that he stands by his view that tax cuts will help fend off economic distress and he will propose more if the economy continues to slide. He is also sticking to his view that the role of government should be curbed. He lobbied personally against a Bill that would have made airport security staff federal employees (and so a charge on the public purse as beneficiaries of federal wages, medical insurance and pensions). Proponents of the Bill hoped that federal conditions would raise standards and so make it more difficult for terrorists to board US planes.
Not one of these policies, however, enjoys great support outside the ranks of Congressional Republicans. Americans may be united in patriotic fervour, but they also harbour grave misgivings about the wisdom of spending huge amounts on missile defence, when the home front has proved so vulnerable. They fret about more tax cuts, which will go into already well-lined pockets, and – with reason – about skimping on airport security.
If a longer-term effect of the terrorist attacks of 11 September is, as it increasingly seems, to persuade Americans that public spending has its uses, Mr Bush may find the political capital he has earnt from his "war" seeping away long before the next election in 2004.Reuse content