The democratic world seems to be coming up with a magic figure for the tenure of a high office. It is approximately eight years. Margaret Thatcher exceeded it by three years and had to be pushed out of office, as was Tony Blair who was two years over par. The Americans, whose love for organisation is well known, have institutionalised it to two 4-year terms for their president.
But the pushing process begins early; ask George W Bush. Till two years ago he could do no wrong. He led his country into an extraordinary adventure in Iraq and they voted him back to power in 2004 with a greater majority. He used the fiscal surpluses he inherited to pursue the conservatives’ favourite agenda — tax cuts — even after defence expenditure soared. He systematically undermined American civil liberties and the people seemed not to care.
Bush has already been condemned to the prison specially reserved for democratic politicians — irrelevance. Tony Blair is there, as are V.P. Singh, Inder Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Politics is a cruel profession. It takes a protagonist to unprecedented heights and then, without fear or favour, lets go of them. You can be a dictator like Stalin or a Mao, feared and adored in their lifetimes, but getting their comeuppance in history.
The high, and the let down, for politicians in the democratic system may not be as dramatic, but it must nevertheless be painful. In the United States, the process usually begins with a president’s last state of the union address. Last year around this time, when Bush delivered the address, the economy was doing well and the war badly. Poor Dubya, he got slammed for the war and little praise for the economy. This time, the war in Iraq is doing well and the economy on the brink of recession, and no one is talking about the war.
He was a Teflon president till last November when his party lost its majority in the US Congress because of the war in Iraq. Given the iron control that the neocons retained on the system, it is more than likely that in the coming years the Bush “legacy” will be more about discovering the ways and means through which the President damaged and devalued the system, rather than the touted achievements. Last week, the Center of Public Integrity went through the process of counting the lies of his administration on the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction and concluded that it had lied on a grand total of 935 occasions in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Bush has sought to strike an uncharacteristically non-confrontationist tone in his latest state of the union address, hoping perhaps to use the next 51 weeks that he had to salvage something of a legacy. But his thrust still seems to be the “what’s in it for me” approach. Take the war in Iraq. Violence may be down, but anyone who believes that the addition of 20,000 soldiers changed things around in Iraq is living in cloud cuckoo land. The change has come by the creation of the 80,000 strong Sunni militia paid $300 per month by the US to police the Sunni-majority areas. As for the Shias, they run the government and are biding their time for Uncle Sam’s departure. What will happen to this militia when the US leaves, no doubt after Bush is well settled at his ranch in Crawford, Tx? No one knows. But one thing is clear, neither the Iraqi army, nor the national police are capable of providing security for the country that has been torn apart by a war of George W. Bush’s making.
Typically, Bush has sought to use this last opportunity to push for institutionalising his tax cuts. The cuts, heavily weighted in favour of the rich, are supposed to produce a budget surplus by 2012 — the end of the next president’s first term. But the predictions do not take into account the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that currently cost some $200 billion per annum.
The US president has simply papered over the huge problems confronting the war in Afghanistan. They are not just those connected to fighting the resurgent Taliban and the deteriorating situation in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. They are related to the quarrels within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and its partners on the way the Afghan mission should be prosecuted, and the contribution of the nations involved. As it is, only the British, Canadians and Dutch, along with the Americans, permit their troops to fight. The others focus on “reconstruction”. Yet if there was a single issue that was to define the Bush Administration it was the “war on terror”; but the struggle in Afghanistan indicates that it is far from being won, leave alone fought with any degree of effectiveness.
The problem for Bush, and for the rest of the world, is that the American voter has moved on and is focusing on the coming presidential poll. As of now the election is wide open. We are not sure as to who would be the Democratic and Republican candidates, and circumstances could actually take the race to the summer when the delegates elected at the primaries will formally vote for their respective candidate in party conventions. Predicting what way the election will play out is even more confounding because different outcomes could be suggested with different pairs of contestants.
But certain consequences of the Bush presidency are becoming evident. According to the Economist, “the proportion of Americans who think their country should be active in the world is the lowest it has been since the early 1990s.” This is bad news. Someone recently pointed out that we have reached an era where when America sneezes the world does not catch a cold. But if the turbulence in the world economy is anything to go by, the sneeze still has the ability to generate the shivers.
But the bigger problem the world will face from an isolationist America is that of managing the world system. In an alternative world, Bush should have led the world to an era where the United Nations could fulfill its mandate of maintaining world peace and directed the efforts to combat climate change. But that and other possibilities were wantonly destroyed by Bush’s policies.
Countries like India need to reflect on a US that is less attentive to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A facile view can be that with the big bad Americans back in their own country things will work just fine. But that is simply not true. There may be 25 NATO allies and 15 partner countries involved in Afghanistan. But more than half of the 53,000 troops there are American, as is the overwhelming portion of the air and naval effort.
The US has been an interfering busy-body ever since they became the world’s hegemonistic power. But when it comes to crises — be it in Burma, Kenya, Darfur or Pakistan —the world looks to the US for leadership. The contrast with the rising role of China cannot be more marked. Beijing’s amoral approach to foreign policy has encouraged the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Pakistan and compelled countries like India to upturn its pro-democracy foreign policy in Burma.
Every election in a democratic country shifts its political paradigm. George Bush’s system-destructive tenure may actually be setting the stage for his successor to reconstruct the US on a new basis. That seems to be the sentiment that is propelling the once implausible candidacy of Barack Obama. The change of drivers has begun in the US, the old is virtually gone, but we do not yet know who will be the new driver, or his, or her’s, chosen direction.
This article appeared in Mail Today January 30, 2008