The bursting of the Bush bubble


Financial Times

Published: October 25 2004

The US presidential election is the most closely watched since at least 1980. Now as then, the choice is between two candidates with sharply different governing philosophies and views on the exercise of American power in the world. The outcome will determine whether the radical, faith-based politics of President George W. Bush triumphs, or whether Americans opt for the shift in course represented by Senator John Kerry.

Mr Bush entered the White House in January 2001, having won a narrow election victory, courtesy of the US Supreme Court. He pledged to be a conciliator. He talked about uniting Democrats and Republicans at home. He promised to pursue a humble foreign policy abroad. His record shows that he has done neither. He has been a polariser, exploiting the War on Terror to cow domestic opposition and divide the world into Them and Us.

Mr Bush can argue that events dictated his actions. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the world changed, at least in the eyes of suddenly vulnerable Americans. The need for strong presidential leadership was imperative. Mr Bush had already inherited a sharp economic slowdown and a stock-market slump. The 9/11 attacks shattered business and confidence. Thanks to generous tax cuts and the Fed's cheap money, a relatively robust recovery is still under way.

This short-term economic fix could turn, however, into long-term disaster. Mr Bush has yet to veto a single spending bill in Congress. His pledge to make the tax cuts permanent is reckless. Only on trade has the administration behaved with restraint. Unlike the 1980s, when Republican administrations played to anti-Japanese sentiment, the White House has avoided stoking popular fears about China's economic power.

But it is on foreign policy that Mr Bush will ultimately be judged. From his first day in office, Mr Bush has pursued a political agenda guided by ideology. Acting on principle is not necessarily a weakness, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan demonstrated during the cold war. Mr Bush's flaw is his stubborn reluctance to admit mistakes and to adjust personnel and policy. Blind faith in military power as a tool for change has too often influenced decision-making.

Over the past three years, the gap between ambition and reality has created what could be termed a "Bush bubble". It began after September 11 when the president united a stricken nation behind the struggle against radical Islamist terrorism. Yet success bred excess. Mr Bush launched a pre-emptive war against Iraq on a false prospectus. Few would dispute that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, but the weapons of mass destruction cited as the casus belli appear a figment of the imagination. Mr Bush's vision of spreading democracy in the Middle East is a noble one, but the execution has been execrable. The occupation of Iraq looks like a rallying-point for the Islamic fundamentalists who are the real enemy.

The US needs allies in the struggle against terrorism but Mr Bush's crusading moralism has alienated the rest of the world, and a large constituency at home already fearful about the influence of the religious right. The scandal of Abu Ghraib has stained America's reputation for a generation. The administration's disdain for international law has shaken faith in American values. Overall, the US-led war on terror misreads the battle against al-Qaeda as a clash of civilisations rather than a battle within the Muslim world.

Mr Kerry understands such nuances. He also understands that American power depends on American credibility. The pre-emptive war against Iraq will make it harder to rally international (and US) opinion in future crises dealing with aspiring nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea.

Mr Kerry has, of course, been on the wrong side of history in the past. He was in favour of a nuclear freeze during the cold war. He voted against the first Gulf war. But after being tested in the crucible of Vietnam, he has learnt that revisiting certitudes can be a virtue.

On domestic policy, the senator still has much to prove. He appears more serious about deficit reduction but, like Mr Bush, is unwilling to have a serious conversation about the long-term impact of Social Security and Medicare costs. On trade, he risks being captured by trades unions worried about the outsourcing of jobs. A President Kerry would probably revert to the fiscal responsibility of the Clinton years, particularly if forced to do so by a Republican majority in Congress. Coupled with the need for international economic policy co-operation, notably to manage a future decline of the dollar, this could be a recipe for success.

There are those, particularly in Europe, who would like to turn back the clock to before 9/11. They pine for the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years. Mr Bush recognised the world had changed. But he has taken the US in the wrong direction. As a candidate Mr Kerry often fails to inspire. He owes his rise more to opposition to Mr Bush than loyalty to his own cause. But on balance, he is the better, safer choice.