Adrian Hamilton: The strange legacy of President Bush

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:59

Not a tear was shed, nor a cheer raised. Not even the protesters have bothered to turn out as President Bush has wound his way around Europe on the final visit of his two-term occupancy of the White House. Instead, he has come almost like an anonymous diplomat to hold talks in private, say a few words to the cameras and –unless the UK has something very unexpected up its sleeve this weekend – to depart almost unrecognised, and certainly unacclaimed.

There's a fanciful version of this event, spun by the commentators in Washington and followed even by some here, which says the very anonymity of Bush's visit is a tribute to the success of the relationship he has now developed with Europe. Where in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, relations were fraught and loud, now Bush and Europe are pretty comfortable with each other. The EU's three main leaders – Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – are all positively pro-American. Even Iran does not divide them.

Well, this may be the gloss which diplomats wish you to believe. But it's the opposite of reality. The silence that has accompanied Bush's final foreign tours is the silence of failure, not the quiet of accomplishment. He wanted to end his presidency with the outlines of a Middle East peace settlement. As his visit to Israel earlier this year showed, we are actually further from peace there than ever.

Iraq is settling down a bit. Al-Qa'ida has suffered military reverses. But the threat of terrorism has not been lessened, the reach of fundamentalist rhetoric is growing and Iraq is as far from a unitary, consensual state as ever. And with Europe? The agreement on tighter sanctions by Europe on Iran is just a cry of despair for a policy that has failed to contain the country, its nuclear progress or its influence.

In opinion poll after opinion poll across the world, the results are the same: America's standing has never been lower. Bush's policies are seen as totally discredited. And the fascinating thing is that this universal opprobrium is almost exactly replicated by the polls within America, where Bush comes out as having some of the lowest ratings since records began, and where Iraq is regarded as a terrible mistake.

And yet – and this is the equally fascinating point – when it comes to the actual policies that might replace those of Bush, there is no great debate inside the US or outside. Barack Obama's early efforts to suggest talking directly to Hamas and (breath it not abroad) even President Ahmadinejad of Iran aroused such vituperation and such swift accusations of lack of patriotism that he has been forced to retreat almost completely from them. Barely had he ensured himself the Democratic candidacy than he appeared before the AIPAC lobby declaring his full support for a united Jerusalem – a step that even Bush never made.

You have in America the mad – and to foreign eyes, inexplicable – conjunction of a public opinion that wants total change from Bush, reports from such Republican stalwarts as James Baker outlining an alternative, and yet you also have a presidential contest that allows none of the candidates to stray from the narrow and discredited path of the past.

There are all sorts of explanations for this. In the end, few American elections are about foreign policy. They concern themselves, as Obama is now doing, with the domestic economy, tax and welfare. It is a mistake for the world at large, and Europe in particular, to hope for a radical new foreign policy from Washington, whatever the results.

But then, it should also be pointed out that neither the Middle East, nor Europe nor Asia have defined a post-Bush future for themselves either. If the world still yearns for some form of American leadership, while resenting it when offered, it is because, looking at the leadership of Europe, Israel and the Arab world, or China or India, there simply are no statesmen who could offer alternatives. They are all essentially domestic politicians. That is putting too much of a burden on the US. Why should it do, or behave, any better than anyone else just because it has more arms and money than most of the rest of the globe put together? It is, after all, a nation whose power has peaked and whose President has exposed that fact for all to see.

Washington after Bush is not going to come up with a whole new set of foreign policies. It's almost certainly had it with grand visions. Bush has seen to that. But what it could do, and what its allies and competitors should dearly wish for, is to have a president that can restore some faith in itself. An America whose people start to feel better about themselves is better for us all.

There is only one candidate who can do that and it isn't John McCain, for all that he could work perfectly well with the foreign offices around the globe.

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