Arabia is the land of illusion and desert mirages. And as he jetted last week from kingdom to sheikdom, to be regaled with feasts and falcons, jewels and ornamental swords, George Bush might have imagined that all was well with his presidency. But this, his longest and most ambitious trip to the Middle East, will surely be remembered – if it is remembered at all – as a gaudy, irrelevant footnote to a presidency that has long since failed.
Today is a sombre milestone, marking the start of the last of Mr Bush's eight years in the White House. This being a leap year, exactly 366 days remain until 20 January 2009, when his successor will be sworn into office. It is a time when incumbents look to their legacies. And for this President the view could scarcely be bleaker.
Is he the worst President in US history? Mr Bush faces stiff competition from the likes of James Buchanan, who watched as America slipped towards civil war, or Warren Harding with his corrupt administration, or Herbert Hoover, who failed to halt the slide into the Great Depression, or, more recently, Richard Nixon, the only President to be forced to resign. But in terms of dogmatism, incompetence, ignorance and divisiveness, Mr Bush surely compares with any of the above.
His first, albeit far from most important, bequest is seemingly inevitable defeat for his own party in November, ending almost 30 years of Republican dominance since Ronald Reagan took power. As David Frum, a one-time Bush speech-writer, put it the other day: "I fear the Republicans are heading to an epochal defeat, 1980 in reverse. Every gain we have made since then has been wiped out since 2002."
That, it should be noted, is a Republican speaking. But Frum's evidence is overwhelming, from the President's consistently abysmal approval rating, to the 70 per cent of the population who believe the country is "on the wrong track" (a level not seen in two decades, and that before all-but-certain recession began to bite), to the 51 per cent of Americans who identify themselves as Democrats. By contrast, just 36 per cent of Americans call themselves Republicans – the widest such margin in two decades. Even on the Republicans' signature issue of national security, Democrats are at level pegging. All other things being equal, it is hard to see them losing in November.
In politics, of course, all other things are not equal. The chances of Bush ordering military strikes on Iran may have receded, after last month's report by the US intelligence community that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. But some other foreign calamity, a lethal domestic terrorist attack or even a scandal could reshuffle the electoral cards.
Pace the result of last night's primary in South Carolina, the Republican with the best shot at victory is John McCain, the veteran Arizona Senator and a candidate with genuine appeal to independent and centrist voters. He has a chance precisely because he doesn't come across as a standard-issue Republican. But if elected, even he will have to set about cleansing a political version of the Augean stables.
In Greek mythology, Hercules washed away that mess by re-routing the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. Whoever takes the oath of office next 20 January will face a similar task in repairing America, both at home and in the eyes of the world. By almost every yardstick, the country is in a worse state than seven years ago – a state virtually unimaginable when the new century dawned.
Mr Bush cannot be blamed for some of the difficulties. On illegal immigration, among the biggest concerns to voters, the reform he proposed, offering a legal path to citizenship, was sensible. Alas, by 2007 he was too weak to push it through.
Much the same goes for the economy. Presidents are the first to claim responsibility for the good times, but in fact have little power to influence events. The recession that now looms is not his fault; if anyone is responsible, it is the once-lionised former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, and the central bank's over-lax policies in the aftermath of 9/11. The accelerating downturn also proves how, contrary to assertions, the business cycle has not been abolished by the wizardries of hi-tech econometrics.
That said, the Bush era leaves its own nasty odour. Corporate cronyism has been rife. Globalisation and cuts driven by ideology have turned the wealth gap between rich Americans and the rest from an embarrassment into an obscenity. Since 2001 the real income of ordinary Americans has stagnated.
And the mind-boggling losses suffered by such pillars of the financial establishment as Merrill Lynch and Citibank, followed by humiliating foreign bail-outs, suggest something is fundamentally amiss with capitalism, American-style. Like Enron and WorldCom, these colossal financial shipwrecks will forever be associated with Bush's tenure.
A cartoon last week in The Washington Post caught the mood of laissez-faire drift. "Anything interesting happen while I was gone?" asks a voice from Air Force One as the President's plane flies over Manhattan on the way back from the Middle East. Below, a giant sign dangles from the skyscrapers of America's financial capital: "USA – Now a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Foreign Investors".
Of even more immediate concern will be the surge in inequality that affronts America's inherent sense of fairness. Nowhere is this more evident than in healthcare. As Mr Bush has fiddled, the sickness of the existing system, which leaves a sixth of the population without coverage while consuming a similar share of the country's entire GDP, has become near terminal.
Even more corrosive has been the damage inflicted on the US system of governance. This President may have blithely ignored mainstream science, pretended global warming was not happening and only belatedly grasped the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. In one domestic activity, however, Bush has not tarried: that of perverting and undermining the constitution in the name of expanding the President's power to fight his "war on terror".
To that end, what everyone else considers torture has been sanctioned, the basic legal right of habeas corpus has been denied to designated "foreign fighters", illicit eavesdropping on US citizens has been authorised and fear-mongering has been turned into a political strategy. Somehow, the next President must restore Americans' faith in their own institutions.
In foreign affairs, the story is the same. The Iraq invasion may not be the greatest foreign policy blunder in US history. But it is among the greatest, utterly discrediting the country's intelligence services, hugely straining relations with key allies, handing a massive strategic victory to Iran and stretching the country's military close to breaking point.
Belatedly, the President has learned the virtues of diplomacy, and his troop surge has at least reduced the violence in Iraq. Even so, he has bequeathed a no-win dilemma to his successor. It is too late for victory. His successor must decide how to withdraw US forces without plunging the region into new chaos.
In the meantime, familiar issues such as the Israeli-Arab conflict have festered amid years of neglect, which this one trip to the region will not expunge. Soaring Bush promises of a democratic Middle East now sound like a bad joke, as Washington again embraces the ruthless autocracies it knows. US policy in Pakistan is in ruins, Osama bin Laden is still at large and the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan. Not only has America lost confidence in itself, but a great tide of anti-Americanism washes across the Muslim world.
And that may be the greatest challenge of all facing a President Obama, Clinton, McCain or Romney. America, as Bush never tires of insisting, must lead. But it must lead by example, not just by military force. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, secret CIA camps, waterboarding and "extraordinary rendition" have all combined to give the lie to the US as champion of human rights.
The new occupant of the Oval Office can but hope today's dislike for America is directed at a leader, not at a country. That may well be, but one thing is for sure. Never again will the US occupy that extraordinary position of supremacy – military, moral and economic – that it held in the interlude between the demise of Communism and the attacks of September 2001.
To the 44th President falls the task of explaining that truth to the country, as well as dealing with the concrete day-to-day problems left by George Bush. Indeed, one wonders, why would anyone want the job?
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