The last address?

On 20 January, US President George W Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress. Hope as one might that this will be his last, opinion polls indicate otherwise. According to the most recent polls, 58 per cent of the American electorate plan to vote for Bush in the next presidential elections. Still, much water has yet to flow under the Bush administration’s bridges before 4 November, and that water is certain to dredge up much more of the scum that lies below the surface. It is not unlikely, therefore, that as more dirt comes to the surface, American public opinion will swing away from Bush, and sharply, if there is a Democratic candidate attractive enough to exert a pull.

Because the American people have made the largest contribution to contemporary global culture, they deserve better than what they got. Hopefully, they will succeed in helping themselves, and the world, by getting rid of that fanatical administration, which is widely perceived as a grave danger to international peace and stability, by electing a new president capable of building the bridges of dialogue and understanding between the world’s peoples and civilisations. Only through dialogue can we make our world more secure, prosperous and less despotic.

Some might accuse me of entertaining pipe dreams based on personal opinions or ideology that have no foundation in reality. After all, American citizens alone have the right to choose their president, in spite of the fact that the actions of the US president have an immediate and potent impact on all the citizens of the world. True, American voters have different concerns and aspirations from other peoples. However, perhaps the events of 11 September have made them more aware of the fact that their fate and that of others around the world are intertwined, that they will not be able to live securely in a world in which the overwhelming majority of people live in abject poverty and in the shadow of despotism and insecurity. Perhaps those events, therefore, have increased the sense of the onus they must bear, on behalf of the world’s "electorate", to vote in a new president who knows how to win the confidence and respect of other peoples and nations, replacing an incumbent who knows only the language of intimidation and terror.

The State of the Union address, with which Bush kicked off his electoral campaign, underscores the fact that this man — with the asinine grin of the perpetual adolescent — epitomises the ugly face of America. Because a steadily growing sector of American public opinion insists that this is not the true face of the US, many political analysts argue that the American public will come to discern and expose the fraud and deceit that overflowed the president’s speech.

It is noteworthy that Bush placed great emphasis on the "achievements" of his global war against terrorism. Clearly, unlike in most previous election years, foreign policy is to constitute a major focus of the forthcoming campaign, all the more so now that many foreign policy issues are more intrinsically connected to domestic issues than ever before. American blood is being shed on distant lands and enormous American resources are being squandered for dubious aims, thus obliging increasing numbers of Americans to question the logic of this ongoing attrition.

It was also striking that in his speech (which sounded much more as a plaintiff’s argument before a judge — the American public — than a briefing by a ruler on the state of his country and people), Bush attempted to win the people’s trust by appealing to their emotions rather than to their stomachs, as is more often the case. He therefore chose security rather than the economy as the platform upon which he defended his administration’s record and touted his successes. Not that there was anything new or unexpected in what he had to say. His logic was simple, straightforward and can be summed up in a few points. American security is in peril — witness the events of 11 September — and any US government is duty-bound to assail the threat by its roots, in order to avert a repetition. Terrorism, aided and abetted by renegade nations that supply terrorists with WMDs, poses the gravest threat to US and global security and only all out war can stop it. The war against terrorism that began in Afghanistan and then swung into Iraq is not over yet. But, it has scored amazing victories in spite of great difficulties: The people of Afghanistan are free from the Taliban and they can now listen to music and send their daughters to school. The tyrant of Baghdad has been ferreted out of that hole he had been hiding in, after the coalition forces toppled his regime and liberated his people and captured most of his aides and accomplices. Colonel Gaddafi has seen the light and repented after having realised that "the US is serious about backing words with action." Finally, the US does not have to, and will not, ask anyone for permission to do what it thinks necessary to safeguard its security. It will press ahead with its wars wherever and whenever necessary. But, in this it is not alone, because it is leading a vast international coalition.

Against this "the cup is half full" reading of the performance of the Bush administration’s foreign policy a growing and increasingly outspoken segment of American public opinion is homing in on the "half empty" portion of Bush’s cup. They argue that security, especially with regard to a threat as nebulous as terrorism, cannot be remedied through military means alone. Rather, the interests of security would best be served if Washington pushed for peaceful diplomatic solutions to the explosive and often chronic crises that breed discontent, such as the conflicts in Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine.

This is something the current administration has failed to do. However, if recourse to military force proves necessary, then that option must be pursued in accordance with universally held legal and moral restrictions and principles, and within the framework of the UN Charter and under a UN umbrella.

Again, the Bush administration did nothing of the sort. Instead, it displayed nothing but contempt for the UN and for global public opinion, including American public opinion, not only by waging a war against Iraq in defiance of the UN Security Council and the international will, but by using false pretexts and forged evidence to justify that war.

As for the countries that entered into a coalition with the US in this war, they represented a small minority of the international community. In addition, most of the countries that entered the coalition did so, not out of conviction, but out of coercion or financial inducement, and apart from Britain, none of the coalition members offered more than a token contribution to the war effort. As a result, almost the entire material and moral onus of the war had to be borne by the American people.

No less significant is the fact that after two major engagements and the so-called achievements Bush talked of, there is nothing to indicate that the fight against terrorism is over or even approaching an end. Indeed, abundant evidence points to the contrary. Bin Laden is still alive and well. Washington’s allies from Indonesia in the east to Turkey in the west are being subjected to acts of violence that underline that the power of terrorism is on the rise rather than in decline. In Afghanistan, the control of the proxy government of Karzai barely extends beyond Kabul, and in both Afghanistan and Iraq the thousands of US forces on the ground are unable to control security and dozens of them are dying by the day. Finally, this camp of opinion argues, what the Bush administration did succeed at was to dissipate the international sympathy the US had enjoyed following 11 September and to augment worldwide hatred for US policies, especially within those countries that the US regards as its friends and allies. The most tangible indication of this is a recent EU Commission opinion poll that revealed that public opinion in most European countries ranks the US and its number one ally, Israel, above Iran and North Korea, as the foremost threat to international peace and security.

I am not suggesting that this view, which contrasts so starkly with the Bush administration’s assessment of its own performance, has come to prevail among the American public. However, there are signs that it is making considerable inroads. It is sufficient to note how Democratic leaders today are speaking out whereas only a few months ago they had avoided criticising the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq for fear of being branded unpatriotic or of endangering the lives of American troops abroad. Take for example General Wesley Clark , a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. Following Bush’s State of the Union Address, Clark accused Bush of creating his own "Axis of Evil": "It’s an axis of fiscal policies that threaten our future … foreign policies that threaten our security … and domestic policies that put families dead last." And here we have Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi reproaching Bush for having pursued "a go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home." The congresswoman added, "As a nation, we must show our greatness, not just our strength. America must be a light to the world, not just a missile…. Instead of alienating our allies, let us work with them and international institutions so that together we can prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and keep them out of the hands of terrorists."

We would be naïve if we imagined that the world will suddenly become a paradise rather than the hell it is now as soon as a Democratic president steps into the Oval Office. However, there is no doubt that the forthcoming presidential elections will bring to loggerheads two antithetical images of America, one a ruthless and arrogant bully, the other an America one can at least speak to, if not necessarily the America one dreams of.