/ 15 October 2008

Bush’s dog days, his enemies’ glee

United States administrations typically suffer temporary loss of international influence as their time in office draws to a close.

But rarely has Washington’s global prestige and leverage fallen so low as in the dog days of George W Bush’s eight-year reign. This debilitation is a source of concern for the US’s friends — and a dangerous opportunity for its enemies, who hope such weakness can be both exploited and made permanent.

The US-triggered economic crisis has reinforced hostile perceptions of American vulnerability. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gleefully invited Iranians to listen to the sound of global power crashing to the ground. And Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, senior adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a prayer meeting that Bush’s reported refusal to back an Israeli military strike on Iran was another sign of failing American will.

Nateq-Nuri claimed Washington’s ”retreat” showed overall US and European support for Israel was diminishing. Seen from Washington, this interpretation of events looks patently absurd. Yet the fact that a highly placed figure in Tehran apparently believes a future attempt to destroy Israel would meet with reduced resistance from the Western powers is deeply worrying.

Vladimir Putin is also aggressively exploiting Bush’s lame-duck troubles in his bid to reassert Moscow’s great power status. Analysts suggest Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August was based in part on calculations, vindicated by events, that Bush would be unwilling or unable to react forcefully.

Now Russia’s prime minister appears to be threatening Ukraine, accusing President Viktor Yushchenko of sending weapons and military personnel to help Georgia. ”When people and military systems are used to kill Russian soldiers, it’s a crime,” he said last week. The US Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, is warning that Putin is encouraging the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine’s Crimea region to break with Kiev. But at present the US is mostly a spectator.

Russia’s President, Dmitri Medvedev, is meanwhile busily rubbing American noses in the financial dirt — and pointing to long-term strategic consequences of the crisis. ”The times when one economy and one country dominated are gone for good,” Medvedev said. To American ears his words uncomfortably echoed Germany’s Finance Minister, Peer Steinbruck, an ostensible ally, who predicted ”the US will lose its superpower status in the world financial system”. Americans have been reminded that schadenfreude is, after all, a German word.

Some countries are seeking shorter-term advantage from US troubles. North Korea may be counting on a new, possibly Democratic, administration to gain a more favourable nuclear disarmament deal. Similar considerations have helped freeze the Middle East peace process.

But uncertainty over the US’s — and its allies’ — will to win in Afghanistan, and over how quickly the US will get out of Iraq, is affecting longer-term political calculations in Islamabad, Kabul and Baghdad. It may also be encouraging the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their escalating campaigns of violence. They read the newspapers and the internet, too. And with the US’s purse strings tightly stretched, they must wonder whether a new administration can afford the tens of billions of dollars needed to pursue two unpopular wars.

In the US’s backyard, ideological enemies such as Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader, are hoping for a permanent shift in power in a region historically dominated by the US. ”The world will never be the same after this crisis,” Chávez said during a visit to Brazil. ”We are decoupling from the wagon of death.” His host, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, complained bitterly that Washington spent years telling Latin America how to get its economic house in order — and then ignored its own advice.

Yet despite all the weaknesses, it would be foolish to start writing obituaries for US power. The former Bosnian war peacemaker Richard Holbrooke, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, suggested the US’s ambition remains undiminished. The next president, said Holbrooke, who is tipped as a possible secretary of state in an Obama administration, would also inherit ”a nation that is still the most powerful in the world — a nation rich with the continued promise of its dynamic and increasingly diverse population, a nation that could, and must, again inspire, mobilise and lead the world”. –