It’s been a little over seven years since George W. Bush became the 43rd President of the United States. In November 2004, he was re-elected. Suddenly, he looks like a lonely man, quite unlike the macho president out to reshape the world. His administration is now gripped by economic uncertainties and he has been unable to reshape the world according to his image.
Bush’s latest foray into Europe and the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin has done nothing to suggest that his role on the world stage can be enhanced in this late stage of his presidency. The events of September 11, 2001 defined his presidency. Just before 9/11, it looked as if China would be the focus of his attention. But the terrorist attacks altered his agenda radically. An immediate response to the terrorist attacks was the UN-mandated attack to take out the Taliban and al-Qaeda then firmly ensconced in Afghanistan. Aghast by 9/11, the rest of the world rallied around America and Bush. As the US and its allies bombed the Tora Bora mountains and the Taliban leadership melted away, the US also put Pakistan on notice. General Pervez Musharraf was told that he was “either with us or against us”. The General decided that he was definitely ‘with’ the US.
Only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — had full diplomatic relations with the Mullah Omar regime. Islamabad, in fact, acted as its chief mentor and financier. Slowly, but surely, international support led to elections and the establishment of the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. But soon enough, the attention and focus shifted to Iraq and American efforts to dislodge the Saddam Hussein regime.
By going after Iraq, it appeared that Bush had exhausted the international support that the US had gathered after 9/11. The search for Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) led to the bombing of Baghdad in March 2003 and soon US troops were on the ground. With massive firepower, Bush and British PM Tony Blair ended Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. But the aftermath was far from spectacular. The use of American air capability over the skies of Baghdad that commenced on March 20, 2003, was intended to ‘shock and awe’ the members of the Ba’ath regime. But soon, the aftermath of the US invasion would ‘shock and awe’ the rest of the world.
Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the country is unstable, gripped by terrorist attacks, racked by divisions and far from the vision of a democracy that Bush had dreamt up. Along with Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan are sanctuaries for Islamist extremism, mass producing that ultimate weapon: the suicide bomber.
Though the invasion of Iraq eventually received UN cover, the fact that the US and its allies never found any wmds only confirmed that Bush’s idea was simple: regime change in Iraq. Instead, it had a negative impact on the Western approach to Afghanistan. It gave currency to Islamist propagandists that the US and its allies were hitting only ‘Muslim nations’. Never mind that Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein were like chalk and cheese. In these years after 9/11, it’s clear that Bush and the US are seen as partisan figures, unable to win the hearts and minds of individuals in this battle against extremist ideas. The Madrid bombings and the London attacks appeared to be the handiwork of elements dissatisfied with their own governments’ approach to the war. The events over the past five years also lay bare the limits of American power. Neither has Washington been able to stabilise Iraq nor has Afghanistan been able to govern itself.
Unilateralism works within self-defined limits, but its ability to cause unlimited damage to ordinary people’s lives is unfettered and total. If Bush looks lonely, it’s largely because he’s not been able to achieve any degree of success in West Asia — even within the confines of his own agenda. Iran, which faced the prospect of attack, is a much-strengthened nation after Shia ascendancy. Left to itself, Bush and his associates would have liked to re-order Iran as well, but the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have bailed out Tehran. Also, a US National Intelligence Estimate itself judged with ‘high confidence’ that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme in the ‘fall of 2003’; undercutting the Bush agenda for action against Iran even though the drama of sanctions persists.
With the US in election mode, presidential hopefuls like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain will have to take into account the damage done to American power and image globally. First, they must recognise that unilateralism does not yield results. Second, that ‘coalitions of the willing’ can complicate and not resolve issues. Third, empires are not possible in this new, inter-connected world. Fourth, they must learn to work a more inclusive, cooperative international system. Fifth, they must recognise that nationalism still matters. If Bush and Co. had stopped at Afghanistan and not gone into Iraq, one can argue that the Afghans may have been enjoying more peace and prosperity than they are doing today. Instead, Afghanistan has witnessed a seven-fold increase in suicide attacks between 2005 and 2006 — registering even higher levels in 2007.
The choices US Presidents make have a direct bearing on the populations of other countries. Today, the US is stuck both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington doesn’t have the liberty to pull out simply because of the scale of the mess it has created. Best of luck to Obama, Clinton or McCain in prising the US out of this mess. They will need it. A new American President will need company.