Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Tough task for America´s next president
Exame - June 2007

We are in a post-ideological age. Unlike during the Cold War, there are no longer any easy labels to attach to ourselves, or with which to describe other people: left or right; socialist or capitalist; labouring class or ruling class; pro-Soviet or pro-American. Yet in recent years, one old label has returned to widespread use, and has become an easy source of popularity. It is the label of being anti-American.

            All around the world, the quickest way to gain applause is to attack America, and especially George Bush. The opinion polls show it clearly: even a communist dictatorship such as China, which locks up tens of thousands of political prisoners, is given higher ratings in such polls than America. We all know why: the debacle in Iraq, blended with the repeated signs of incompetence and stubbornness of the Bush administration. But the interesting and more difficult question is: What can a new American president do about it, when he or she is elected next year? That may sound premature: there is still almost 18 months to go before the election. Yet it still needs thinking about, for the underlying issue matters so much. It is the issue of whether America’s decline in worldwide influence and prestige is temporary or permanent.

            Whoever that new president is who enters office in January 2009, whether it is Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Al Gore on the Democrats’ side, or John McCain, Rudy Giuliani or some outsider on the Republican side, they will have one undoubted advantage: that they are not George Bush. They will enter office with many other leaders around the world breathing a sigh of relief that the Bush administration is over. That will be helpful but will not be enough. For the first year of the new president’s term could well be the most difficult first year that any new American president has faced since Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861 while the southern states were seceding and the American Civil War was breaking out. And meanwhile all over the globe, but especially in Africa and Latin America, influence will be continuing to flow towards China, attracted by that simplest of lures: a generous cheque-book.

            The first year will be hugely difficult because the new president will immediately face the task of withdrawing from Iraq. That is easy to talk about on the campaign trail, but perilously hard to do: hard to avoid causing more bloodshed in Iraq when American forces leave; hard to convert a signal of weakness, of defeat, into something positive; hard to avoid the withdrawal serving as a temptation to opponents elsewhere in the world to exploit that weakness.

            That difficulty is why it cannot in fact be certain that the new president will withdraw American troops from Iraq straightaway. The candidates differ in how soon they promise a withdrawal, ranging from more or less immediately in the case of Mr Obama to much later in the case of Mr McCain, who has supported Mr Bush’s current “surge” of extra troops in Iraq. All claims should, however, be placed alongside an old military saying: that no war plan survives the first engagement with the enemy. No candidate’s promise will survive the first encounter with global realities when he or she enters the White House.

            So what can the new president hope to do? Their objective must be to get out of Iraq while avoiding new trouble, and rebuilding America’s position in the world; but meanwhile their underlying objective will be to ensure re-election for a second term in 2012. Here are some likely elements of a resilient war plan.

            The first is that the new president will surely try to create strengths, or successes, to neutralise the weakness or defeat that the desire to withdraw from Iraq will create. One obvious candidate lies in Israel and Palestine: the new president must show that a settlement in Palestine is a top priority, and prove it by immediately seeking to convene a peace conference. That will offer a chance of gaining support from Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for goodwill from all of those will be crucial in making a stable withdrawal from Iraq possible.

            A second element could well be a renewed focus on pacifying and rebuilding Afghanistan, which would bring with it two big potential gains: fresh support from America’s traditional allies, such as France and Britain; and the chance to reinforce the pressure on Pakistan to quell the jihadists that now use that country as their base and to track down and arrest or kill Osama bin Laden. This would signal that the new president is not just dealing with Mr Bush’s legacy by ending the war in Iraq, but is also doing what many say Bush should have done instead of invading Iraq, namely finishing America’s legitimate post-9/11 business in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

            There would be a further advantage from such a move: it would cement America’s ties with India, the country which, thanks to the 2006 civil nuclear deal with the United States, is one of the few in which anti-American feeling has not grown in recent years. That nuclear deal is facing problems thanks to domestic politics in both countries, and could collapse or be watered down during the coming months. There could be no better way for a new president to follow up Mr Bush’s generally successful diplomatic courtship of India than to immediately put the squeeze on India’s bete noire, namely Pakistan.

            A strategic partnership with India is crucial for America if it is to prevent China from emerging as the dominant power in Asia during the next decade. China’s growth cannot and should not be blocked: it is in America’s own interests to have a healthy Chinese economy and it cannot want a confrontation. But the political impact of China’s rise will be easier to deal with if it also has other, also rising, countries to deal with in its own neighbourhood, for it will then be forced to compromise more readily.

            That is also why a new American president’s plan should include another element of Mr Bush’s own policy, but with added seriousness. In advance of the G8 summit of rich industrial countries in Germany on June 6th-8th, Mr Bush announced a new position on global warming. He proposed that a group of 15 countries, including China, India and Brazil as well as the G8, should meet to agree upon targets for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. His proposal did not sound serious because he offered no opinion about what the targets should be, and appeared simply to be circumventing the United Nations process that was established by the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

            Yet although Mr Bush handled his proposal badly, as usual, it is not a stupid idea. A new president should make clear that America planned to rejoin and reinvigorate the UN process. But the president could also seek to promote that reinvigoration by opening their own direct talks with the main developing countries, about how to deal with global warming.

To do so would be an acknowledgement of the way the world order has already changed: the big developing and middle-income countries need to become part of the main group discussing solutions for global economic problems. Perhaps the best proposal of all for a new American president to make would be that such a new group should replace the G8 altogether. It would give China and others an immediate jolt of responsibility, from having to deal publicly with global issues. Such an idea would also show leadership as well as realism. It would do a great deal to restore America’s worldwide reputation.


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