Max Hastings

We want to see the back of Bush

Most Britons see George W. Bush as brash, ignorant and recklessly simplistic, says Max Hastings; but they should not believe that all will be well if John F. Kerry replaces him

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The word ‘hate’ should be used cautiously, but most British people seem to hate George W. Bush. The Spectator’s YouGov poll this week — see panel opposite — suggests that only 11 per cent of British voters and about 13 per cent of MPs would welcome a Republican victory in the presidential election. A convincing 53 per cent say they would be either ‘unhappy’ or downright ‘miserable’ if the incumbent renews his tenancy of the White House.

There is exceptional British interest in this contest. About a quarter of poll respondents say they do not care about the outcome, but that leaves almost three quarters who profess to mind a good deal. There is no great enthusiasm for the challenger, simply a visceral belief that a world run by John Kerry would be a slightly less dangerous place.

Most of our rulers share this view. An overwhelming majority of MPs is rooting for Kerry, including apparently all the LibDems and Nationalists. The 71 Labour MPs who responded unanimously in favour of the Democrat do not include Tony Blair and his closest acolytes. For them, the departure of Bush would create wholly unwelcome uncertainties and embarrassments.

Yet who can be surprised by the Labour backbenchers’ view? Politically, the Iraq engagement and its accompanying deceits have been a disaster for their party. These have gravely damaged confidence in their leader, and involved the government in an unpopular entanglement of which no end is in sight, and which must cost votes in a British general election.

Students of American domestic policy might express surprise that Labour MPs are so unimpressed by this US administration’s profligacy, worthy of their own government. Bush has displayed a remarkable willingness to pour taxpayers’ money into social programmes, some of a most unconservative kind. Since foreigners do not benefit from this largesse, however, and indeed are largely unaware of it, most Labour MPs judge Bush exclusively by his foreign policy.

The split among Tory MPs reported by YouGov seems to reflect reality in the party. We will leave aside the two flat-earthers who profess support respectively for Ralph Nader and A.N. Other. A solid body of Conservatives respects the clear direction of Bush’s policies on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, as well as on taxation. Even some Tories dismayed by the administration’s clumsy handling of Iraq are fearful that a Kerry presidency will prove a mandate for hesitancy and drift.

They would argue that, in the age of international terrorism, this is no time to change US leaders, to put the White House in the hands of a man who seems weak rather than open-minded, uncertain of his purposes rather than open to consultation with allies.

Yet only a small minority of the House of Commons espouses this view. Most British MPs, like the British public, perceive Bush as brash, ignorant, and recklessly simplistic in his assertion of American universalism. The distinguished American Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis observed earlier this year, in his book on post-9/11 US policy, Surprise, Security and the American Experience: ‘Within little more than a year and a half, the United States exchanged its long-established reputation as the principal stabiliser of the international system for one as its chief destabiliser. This was a heavy price to pay to sustain momentum [in ‘the war against terror’], however great the need for it may have been ...good strategists know when to stop shocking and awing.’

Here is the basis of the European animus towards Bush. The scepticism of most of our politicians, diplomats, intelligence and defence chiefs about the conduct of US foreign policy and the personal judgment of the President is endorsed by the man and woman in the street.

We know that terrorism, notably Islamic terrorism, poses a threat to Western security which is likely to persist for many years. Most thoughtful people believe that it must be addressed not by firepower but through a subtle blend of politics, diplomacy, intelligence, bribery, police work and special forces strikes. Large-scale military operations were justified in Afghanistan, but are otherwise seldom relevant. Bush’s crude one-fits-all view of terror, coupling the Chechen rebels with the Palestinian militants, the Iraqi insurgents with the perpetrators of 9/11, causes foreigners to respond with disbelief and alarm.

The President has no credible foundation for his repeated assertions that what is happening today in Iraq has anything to do with global terrorism, save its fermentation. Tony Blair diminished his office when he declared at a joint press conference with Bush after the bombing of British institutions in Turkey in November last year, ‘This goes to show why we are right to be in Iraq.’

It is often said that the shocked psyche of Americans since 9/11 demands a simple, strident, vigorous response from any US leader who wishes to sustain the trust of his own people. An admirer of Bush, Gerard Baker, wrote the other day that we should recognise in the President the virtues which still recommend him to at least half the American people — moral strength, resolve, clarity.

Yet, in the eyes of many of us, these qualities become liabilities when applied to so many ill-judged purposes, rather as Moltke warned against officers who are both stupid and energetic. John Lewis Gaddis, in his book mentioned above, remarked that in the wake of the Cold War many people feared that the world would resist the hegemony of the United States as the only superpower. Yet, to a remarkable degree, until the invasion of Iraq Washington’s leadership was accepted and even welcomed, because the broad polity of the United States was perceived as benign. Today, this acquiescence has been forfeited, at least temporarily.

Neoconservatives demand, ‘But is it not a just and worthy objective, to bring democracy to nations bowed by tyranny?’ Indeed it is. But it is possible to respect some of the objectives of George Bush, while recoiling from the incompetence with which his administration has pursued them.

Let us pass over familiar examples, and notice a marginal, less remarked one. In the aftermath of the coalition’s capture of Baghdad, American Christian fundamentalists were permitted to enter Iraq and set about proselytising and distributing Bibles. How could a ruling power with any thought for the sensitivities of Islam, never mind the practicality of winning Iraqi hearts and minds, permit such a thing ?

Likewise, there is deep dismay in Europe about Washington’s policy towards Israel, on which Christian fundamentalist influence is not negligible. No US administration has displayed the stomach seriously to contest Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank. Yet George Bush has gone much further than any of his predecessors, describing Ariel Sharon to a disbelieving world as ‘a man of peace’. A great many people outside the United States fear that US passivity in the face of Israeli expansionism will cost us all dear in the decades ahead.

Soon after Bush assumed office, I remember a British diplomat in Washington saying hopefully, ‘Of course the rhetoric is awful, but there is a huge residual sense and stability in the machinery of the US government, which should result in actions much less alarming than the President’s words.’ At the time, I wrote an article citing such views and urging that Bush deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Such optimism was confounded, of course, just as Tony Blair was confounded in his hopes that if Britain fought in Iraq, Bush could be persuaded to do something for the Palestinians. Those of us who were fiercely critical of Bill Clinton’s cynicism in office have been obliged to recognise that it is preferable for the world to be in the hands of a pragmatist than those of a true believer. When Bush first gained office, it was said to be patronising to denounce him as an ignorant man who understood nothing of the world outside his own ghastly gilded Texan goldfish bowl. Today, experience seems to support such a view.

If I was a Bushie reading this, about now I would wag a finger at the British in general and me in particular, observing, ‘If you think life would become a global party under John Kerry, forget it. You might be surprised by how much would stay the same.’ This is valid.

It would be rash to imagine that we are ever likely to have a US leader wholly to the taste of Europeans, never mind that of the United Nations. No president could achieve office who did not pursue policies designed to suit the demands of his own people, to reflect the confidence conferred by their society’s awesome wealth and success, rather than to defer to the desires of the rest of us. Bush’s shameless trade protectionism, for instance, could well get worse under Kerry.

When Ray Seitz was US ambassador in London, I once lamented to him the lack of modern American statesmen with the wisdom and global vision of Dean Acheson. Ray responded sardonically, ‘Dean Acheson never achieved an elective office.’

The British people and their MPs are probably right in supposing that John Kerry would be less likely to indulge in spectacular lunges of folly than George Bush. But we shall never escape the difficulties of establishing a comfortable relationship with a superpower whose culture is much more different from our own than we sometimes recognise.

There will be plenty of disappointments and frights ahead, even if Bush is evicted from the White House. He is unlikely to be the last US president who finds it irresistible to use his country’s overwhelming military might to crush its foes in a fashion that weaker foreigners deem inappropriate. The Bush-haters may get their way on 2 November, but we may like what would follow such an outcome less than we suppose today.