By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 15/05/07):
American accusations that European countries have ganged up against the Bush administration in the Paul Wolfowitz row hide a deeper worry: that the rapidly declining power at home of the most unpopular, least respected president since Richard Nixon is encouraging multiple challenges to US authority and interests around the world.
Washington’s insecurity is rooted in the collapse in George Bush’s domestic support and an apparent accompanying failure of national confidence. The president’s approval rating hit a new low of 28% earlier this month, according to a Newsweek poll. His aggregate figures have been stuck at 35% or less since last autumn – far below the norm for an incumbent half way through a second term.
The “badness of King George”, as Mr Bush’s fall from imperial grace has been dubbed, is creating a power vacuum around the White House. The earliest ever start to the election campaign to replace him is now being matched, according to many commentators, by the longest ever “lame duck” presidency.
“The country doesn’t believe George Bush, it doesn’t trust him, and with 19 months to go it’s only going to get worse,” said Ed Rollins, a famed Republican strategist, speaking to US columnist Albert Hunt. “There is nothing the president can do to get his numbers back up.”
The deepening gloom around Mr Bush is largely attributed to the Iraq quagmire, though domestic policy failures and continuing security worries also play a part. And the depression may be catching. According to an AP-Ipsos poll this week, 71% of Americans believe their country is “on the wrong track”. Only 35% believe the Democrat-controlled Congress, elected last November, is doing a good job (mostly because it has failed so far to force a change of course on Iraq).
But veteran political analyst David Broder, quoting a poll undertaken by the Third Way thinktank in Washington, detects a broader, more internationally significant shift in American public thinking.
When in his second inaugural address Mr Bush committed the US to “support the growth of democratic movements in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” the entire country seemed to back him, Mr Broder told the Cincinnati Post.
Now the majority takes a more chastened, pragmatic view, with 58% agreeing that: “it is a dangerous illusion to believe America is superior to other nations; we should not be attempting to reshape other nations in light of our values”.
By a margin of almost three to one, those questioned believed “the main goal of American foreign policy should be to protect the security of the United States and its allies, rather than the promotion of freedom and democracy,” Mr Broder said. And according to the same poll, majorities also opposed forcible regime change; said the terrorist threat had increased since 9/11, not decreased as Mr Bush claims; and felt the Iraq intervention had made them less safe.
Dented national confidence and lowered ambitions evidenced by these polls suggest a turning away from international challenges by many Americans. At the very least, a period of growing political distraction and introspection seems likely to characterise the two years until the next president can make his or her mark.
But any perceived American diffidence or weakness is certain to be exploited, diplomatically or otherwise. Russia is already testing US resolve on numerous fronts, ranging from Kosovo’s proposed independence and energy security to planned missile defences in eastern Europe.
The failure of Washington’s latest drive to reboot the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its sudden willingness to talk to Iran and Syria about Iraq are other indirect consequences of the Bush administration’s fading strength.
Hazards abound as US power slips and shifts. One danger is that Tehran, sensing a loss of focus, may overplay its hand in the nuclear dispute or in Lebanon. Another is that inattention by the “indispensable nation” may mean that international crises such as Darfur continue to drag on unresolved.
At the same time, the Bush malaise could provide a pick-me-up for Europe, encouraging it to show a lead and push an agenda on issues such as climate change previously blocked by Mr Bush, a senior European official said: “It’s not a question of US weakness. It’s a question of Europe not being strong enough.”
More determined European leadership would be forthcoming across the board and rather than look for conspiracies, the Americans should welcome it, the official said. And, he added, for the record: “There was no European ganging up on Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz is the victim of himself.”