Bush’s successor may have a softer bark, but the bite will be the same

AGAINST my better judgment, I have started Christmas shopping. Wandering aimlessly around Easons the other day, they seemed to be doing a brisk business in Bush countdown calendars. A variant on the traditional Advent calendar, it enables you to tick off the remaining days until a new US president is elected next November and Dubya leaves the White House in January 2009.

I guess one of those calendars will find a welcome place in the stockings of some of the great and the good — or the plain rich — who shelled out €1,600 each to attend a 20-minute, off-the-cuff speech by former President Bill Clinton in Dublin earlier this month with contributions going to his wife’s campaign.

Post-Good Friday, the Raglan Road socialites were paying for the chance to say they were hobnobbing with Slick Willie, not to bend the ear of the possible first First Gentleman. Still, it’s a fair bet that the guests — mainly Irish, some American — will be hoping for a major reorientation in US foreign policy in 2009.

From every corner of the earth, a collective sigh of relief will be heard when the sun finally sets on an American presidency reviled more than any other in living memory. US east coast liberals who perceive Texans as vulgar, ‘Old Europeans’ whose impotence was revealed when the troops went into Iraq, most of the State Department, the vast UN bureaucracy and the ranks of Middle Eastern dictators are just some of those who cannot wait to see the back of a president who has singularly failed to deliver the “humbler” America he promised back in 2000 — until very recently anyway. The rhetoric of “you are either with us or against us” has — not before time, many would argue — given way to more conventional diplomatic expressions of encouragement for peace in the Middle East.

The Iraqi quagmire from which the US has only just begun to emerge, thanks to the much-vaunted surge, has taken its toll not just in terms of lives, but politically as well. Since last autumn’s congressional races, the White House has been shedding key staffers at an alarming rate.

Most of those who provided the administration with its distinctive foreign policy vision have, some more willingly than others, found jobs in the private sector or have retired. Diminished, depressed and deflated, the Bushies have allowed policy to drift. Much of the fight has gone out of them.

Take a few key examples. Who would have imagined a year or so ago that Iran would have been able to defy western demands regarding its nuclear programme quite so flagrantly? The chances of military action against the Teheran regime seem to have decreased even since the summer. North Korea too seems less of a priority while, almost inconceivably, the theory of man-made climate change has gained a measure of acceptance on Pennsylvania Avenue. Many in “Old Europe” feel their long-held views on the virtues of multilateralism have been vindicated.

Therefore, with the 2008 elections and the subsequent removal of the bogeyman that is George W Bush, many believe — or, at least, pray — that transatlantic relations will begin to settle back to the cosy position they were in before the hated neo-cons were given their head.

The new administration, Democrat or even Republican, will surely be keen to distance itself from such an unpopular administration which — according to the conventional wisdom — has forfeited America’s good name by abandoning the rule of international law and opting for military force as the first option, not the last.

There is something in this thesis. Name a leader who does not come to power promising change. But those counting down the days until January 2009 would be wise not to get carried away. There will be no revolution in American foreign policy doctrine. A softer, more contrite tone than that previously associated with George Bush, yes, but a wholesale rejection of the policies he has pursued, no.

Actions really do speak louder than words, and no matter whether the next leader of the free world is Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson or Barack Obama, the 2009 presidency will not be the break with the past many on this side of the pond earnestly desire.

It is all too easy to confuse personality with policy. The incumbent might lack tact and verbal dexterity, but the so-called Bush Doctrine was never about pursuing radically different foreign policy goals from those of his predecessors.

Spreading American values abroad by both humanitarian and economic means is a staple. Whether some people like it or not, so is a willingness to act unilaterally, sometimes with military force, when the US feels its interests are threatened. Ask any old foreign affairs hand and he or she will tell you it would be naive in the extreme to imagine that a change in president will alter these fundamental American principles. The US didn’t suddenly become an awkward customer at the UN the day Bill Clinton left office. America never paid its dues on his watch either.

The Bush Doctrine was a statement of intent that was missing following the end of the Cold War. That is not to say Mr Clinton should be blamed for taking a holiday from history. True, there were straws in the wind such as the bombings of American installations in East Africa, but few people believed then that Islamic terrorism constituted a strategic threat. It took the toppling of the Twin Towers to bring that home. Ireland, alone in Europe, declared a national day of mourning after that heinous crime but, unlike Americans, our memories have faded.

THE Bush Doctrine in substance, if not in name, will remain. Because of our histories, Europeans are used to terrorist attacks on our territories and have, on some level, accepted them as a fact of life. Americans have not, and both Clintons know it, even if Bill occasionally pretends otherwise.

All of this is going to pose an interesting dilemma for European leaders, who have some hard choices ahead. Do those governments which barely concealed their antipathy to Bush continue to shun the US unless there is a huge reversal in American policy? Hardly. Even in the European institutions in Brussels, where anti-Americanism is rife, no one seriously proposes disengagement from the States. Bluntly, Europe’s own defence capacity is woeful. EU threats to recalcitrant regimes lack credibility when not backed up by America’s hard power.

Of course, the new US president will pay lip service to renewed multilateralism, but it will be hard to mask the huge differences that are likely to persist not just over Iraq and Afghanistan, but Iran and Russia, and the infamous ‘unknown unknowns’.

Irish people with the money to sip champagne with Bill Clinton are entitled to spend their cash how they like. They are certainly entitled to toast his assistance during the dark hours of our peace process. But they have been easily parted from their money if they pretend that the next Clinton presidency — should there be one — will be a rerun of the last. Bill Clinton had the likes of Slobodan Milosevic to deal with, not the Russians or the jihadists. Hillary will not be so lucky.

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