Global Policy Forum

Full Steam Ahead for America's Empire

Sydney Morning Herald
November 6, 2004

George Bush's convincing victory means the world will have to deal with an even more assertive White House, writes Peter Hartcher. 'Did you hear what the French Foreign Minister said when he heard that Bush had won the election?" asks John O'Sullivan, the editor of a Washington foreign policy journal, The National Interest. It's not a gag, but O'Sullivan thought it was pretty funny regardless: "He said, "France is America's oldest ally.' It's hilarious." Why? By daring openly to resist Bush's march on Baghdad, France became a dirty word in Washington. When an unnamed Bush adviser said of John Kerry that he "looks French", the francophone Kerry reacted with outrage. The Administration was guilty of "the politics of personal destruction", he thundered.

The Wall Street Journal logged it as the most effective lame insult of the entire election campaign. France had dared stand in the way of an angry America girding for war. It had openly declared an intention of checking US power in the world. But now that Bush has won a second term, France is trying to strike a conciliatory note. Its President, Jacques Chirac, wrote to Bush hoping that his second term "will be the occasion for strengthening the French-American friendship". How will the Bush Administration react to such overtures? How will the world's principal power, notoriously high-handed in its diplomacy in the past four years, treat the rest of the world for the next four years? Has it been chastened by its losses and disappointments in Iraq, where the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, famously predicted the US would be "greeted as liberators?" It's an urgent question. The first post-election nuclear crisis will present itself in fewer than three weeks, on November 25, when the International Atomic Energy Agency confronts a defiant Iran over its nuclear program; the nuclear crisis in North Korea is slow-burning, but still burns; and China installs missiles at the rate of one a week, now totalling more than 500, aimed at constraining the restless ambitions of Taiwan.

The editor of the US journal Foreign Policy, Moises Naim, formerly trade minister of Venezuela, argues that the world is about to witness a more moderate and restrained hyperpower. Even if the US will not openly acknowledge it, the cherished ideas of Bush's first term "lie buried in the sands of Iraq". These are the ideas which lent Bush's America its particular stridency, the doctrines with which Bush revolutionised America's foreign policy - the pursuit of hegemony, the right to pre-emptive strike, and a belief in unilateralism. "OK, let's go pre-emptive," hypothesises Naim, "who would you line up? The US has three deficits. First, it has a military deficit. Its armed forces are stretched to breaking point in Iraq. "Second, it has a fiscal deficit, about $US400 billion [$528 billion]. And it's not clear how much more it will cost to stabilise and reconstruct Iraq. "And third, it has a credibility deficit. The bar for persuading the Congress, the media and the people of the need for a pre-emptive strike has been raised. It's not enough any more for the President to say 'I've seen the intelligence and we need to attack."' So the Bush doctrines of security and warfare may be intact on paper, but they are dead letters, according to Naim. Is he right? The first critical part of the answer is to see whether the Bush Administration's world-view has changed. Does it see these same constraints? A former senior official in the Clinton Pentagon, Kurt Campbell, now head of security studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, cautions that many people inside the Bush Administration do not perceive reality in the same way as most people on the outside. "A lot of people who support the President are really not interested in the facts on the ground," says Campbell. "There really is a faith-based belief in the President as a person and in his ability to remake reality."

Cheney, considered to be the most powerful vice-president the country has had in at least half a century, said during the election campaign that the Iraq project was "a remarkable success". And the White House really believes it, according to O'Sullivan: "Bush feels vindicated, especially in Iraq. They feel the mistake in their strategy was in not taking even firmer action earlier. And they are going to take serious action now in Fallujah. There is a real chance that they will produce a stable government there eventually and, though it might fail, I wouldn't bet against them." So where others believe that the Iraq adventure has only clarified the limits to US power, the Bush Administration believes it illustrates the need for the application of yet more power. A senior official in the Bush Administration, speaking on condition of anonymity on election day, confirmed O'Sullivan's interpretation: "As disappointing as Iraq has been, it in no way, shape or form changes the basic mindset and vision of the President. "Some will call it arrogant. Others would call it brutally strong. It's what he took on the campaign trail, and it's what he took to the people."

A leading conservative intellectual, Francis Fukuyama, concurs: "I don't see much evidence that Bush is a reflective guy. I'm afraid there will not be much rethinking at all. Re-elected, he will say, 'They approve of what I'm doing - let's keep going."' But surely convictions held in the White House, no matter how strongly felt, cannot survive the realities that play out nightly on US TV news, as more and more Americans die amid the wreckage of car bombs and ambushes? One of the lessons of this week's election is that Bush partisans across America invest an infinity of trust in what the President says, not what they see in the news. A study by the program on international policy attitudes at the University of Maryland found, for instance, that 72 per cent of Bush supporters polled in August still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the US-led invasion. And 55 per cent believed, incorrectly, that this was supported by the conclusions of the September 11 commission.

The program's director, Stephen Kull, explains: "To support the President and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance, and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information." Belief in the face of contradictory evidence, the very definition of faith, confirms Campbell's point that many Americans have a "faith-based approach" to their President even in the field of foreign policy. Heed these remarks from Bush's victory speech this week: "There's an old saying, 'Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks."' Note his definition of capability - "powers equal to your tasks". Does this sound like a man who recognises the limits to US power?

We know Cheney does not recognise that the federal deficit represents any sort of constraint. To the amazement of Bush's first treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, Cheney once told him: "Deficits don't matter." And officials suggest that just because US ground forces are hard-pressed in Iraq, this does not preclude tough options in other crises. Iran may need to be militarily stopped from developing nuclear weapons, and this could be done by aerial bombardment without recourse to ground forces, they argue. Some officials in the Bush Administration fear that the key figures, Bush and Cheney in particular, will not recognise any limits to US military power in the crises ahead. The two principal voices of restraint in the Administration's councils of war, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and his deputy, Rich Armitage, are expected to leave government service soon. Lesser figures in American officialdom believe that the hawkish instincts of Cheney, in particular, which have generally prevailed in the first term, will be quite unchecked in the second.

On the eve of the election, China surprised many observers in Washington with a striking intervention. The Bush Administration has enjoyed a solid strategic co-operation with Beijing, so it was extraordinary that China's former foreign minister Qian Qichen should deliver a stinging critique of Bush's foreign policy. In the English-language mouthpiece of the Communist Party, The China Daily, he wrote that pre-emption and an overdependence on military force would lead to "absolute insecurity of the American Empire and its demise because of expansion it cannot cope with". What was China's motive? "I think it was a deliberate warning to the Bushies of how pissed off they are that the US has failed to come up with a workable formula for dealing with North Korea, and a hedge in case John Kerry won the election," says Chris Nelson, publisher of The Nelson Report, an influential Asian newsletter in Washington. "But now that Bush has won, the Chinese are claiming he didn't really write it. It's hilarious."

Qian's point may, in the long run, be proved correct. But in the short term, US power is so preponderant, and the men who wield it so determined, that no government today is prepared to say so openly. Not even, any longer, the French. Did the Bush Administration learn anything from Iraq? The answer of a senior Administration official speaking on election day: "Obviously, we learned a lot about allies - the ones we can be confident in, and the ones we can't." Campbell again: "We all need to get used to more of the same. This is going to be a highly charged ideological and sometimes grating foreign policy for the next four years." The French, the Chinese, the world may be feeling the need to be conciliatory to the re-elected US President. But he is in no such frame of mind.

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