US foreign policy Will we see a new Bush?

Jonathan Freedland:

The American weekly satire show Saturday Night Live used to have a neat spin on the last Republican president to serve two full terms. First it showed Ronald Reagan as most people thought they knew him. But then there was a surprise. Live’s Reagan was suddenly revealed as an energetic, high-IQ superman — conversing with Leonid Brezhnev in Russian, scolding the Iranians in Farsi, analysing military data at computer-speed. This Reagan, the TV show suggested, was the real president — hidden behind the bozo exterior.

With Reagan’s heir due to be sworn in for his second term, the men around George Bush seem keen to give him the Saturday Night Live treatment. “Aides and friends’’ revealed to Newsweek that the image of Bush as the lazy fratboy, more at home on the Stairmaster than with his briefing books, is a gross caricature. On the contrary, they told the magazine, he is a “restless man who masters details and reads avidly’’. Chief strategist Karl Rove insists his boss sees the same papers as the rest of the team but “he’ll inevitably have thought about three steps ahead of anyone in the room’’. Even with all that on his plate, Newsweek learned, the president manages to keep up with the latest literary trends, reading Tom Wolfe when he’s not devouring fat tomes on the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Perhaps this is indeed the real George Bush who has, after all, built a career by exploiting his enemies’ tendency to underestimate him. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking, a clue to what kind of president his aides hope the second-term Bush will be. For a second inauguration offers the chance for a new start. Previous occupants of the White House have sometimes used their second bite of power differently from their first - looking to their historical legacy, rather than mere re-election, replacing a narrow, partisan agenda with one that seeks to serve the larger, longer-term national interest.

Might Bush repeat the pattern, leading in the next four years in a strikingly different direction? The sceptical answer is that he’ll be lucky to lead anywhere at all. Recent second terms have been notoriously unproductive, with an uncanny knack for miring the incumbent in scandal before jockeying for the presidential succession reduces him to a lame duck two years before he leaves office. The terrain looks especially unpromising for Bush, whose approval ratings hover just above 50 per cent .

Nevertheless, Bush is ambitious, setting out grand goals, foreign and domestic. The likeliest scenario, at least in the sphere of foreign policy, is that he will use that momentum to serve up more of the same. On this reading, the US will not rush for the exits from Iraq but will, in the president’s words, “stay on the offence’’. Iraqis will vote at the end of the month, but Bush will continue the Iraqification, training the country’s own security forces until, as he puts it, democracy can endure even without the presence of US guns. If that takes years, so be it. It’s even conceivable that Bush will use his new lease on the White House to extend the project.

He speaks with fervour of his mission to democratise the Middle East and there are some logical next steps. Iran would be the obvious new front, which could explain the weekend revelations that US Special Forces have been on the ground in that country, scooping out nuclear sites for future military attack. There are some pointers in this direction. Note how the key hawks are still in place, starting with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Note too the elevation of Alberto Gonzales to attorney general. Meet the new team — same as the old team, with teeth just as sharp.

Republicans, pumped by their November success in the House and Senate, are in confident, aggressive mood. The latest conservative obsession is contempt for the UN, with Kofi Annan firmly in their sights. For all that, it is not delusional to hope that a new Bush could yet surface. The crucial witness is Condoleezza Rice. She is no Colin Powell, but by placing such a close confidante at the state department, Bush has upgraded the status of diplomacy itself. Perhaps just as important, Rice’s deputy is to be Bob Zoellick, a veteran of Bush’s father’s administration. That could augur well for a more engaged, alliance-conscious approach to US foreign policy.

Advocates of this view cite two items of evidence. First, they say that the neo-cons have been discredited: they promised that “old Europe’’ could be ignored without consequences and yet the consequences have been severe, leaving the US alone in its task of Iraqi training, for example, when French or German help was badly needed. Second, circumstances have changed: witness the recent Ukrainian episode, which brought Europe and America together against Russia. If the US does transform itself, the clearest proof will come in the Middle East.

In the first term, Bush kept his distance. Now, with Mahmoud Abbas rather than Yasser Arafat leading the Palestinians, hopes are high that Washington will get stuck in. If that happens, applying pressure to Sharon as well as Abbas, then we will be looking at a genuinely new second act. If, however, the demands are all one way then we will know the script has stayed the same. None of this is entirely in Bush’s hands. If US public opinion turns yet harder against the war in Iraq, he may have to cut and run, whatever his intentions now. The rhetoric will certainly be grand tomorrow, as it always is — but it will be reality that decides. — The Guardian