The political stop-watch in the United States is picking up the pace with the mid-term Congressional elections due in November and the limbo period of the Bush II Presidency looming not far beyond that.
Over the years, it has become almost axiomatic that presidencies suffer electoral losses in their sixth year the notorious ‘Six Year Itch’! At this stage, 2006 promises to be no exception. Indeed with the way US opinion polls are running there is a very real possibility of significant Republican haemorrhaging in both Houses of Congress and in governorships.
Thanks to Sean Leahy.
In reputable polling by the Pew Research Centre, Democrats lead by 50 to 41 per cent among registered voters little changed from last September, when they led 52 to 40 per cent. While retaining a huge advantage in traditionally strong policy areas like the environment and health care, Democrats are also seen as better able to deal with the economy (by 46-36 per cent) and reform of the Federal Government (42-29 per cent). Terrorism and, to a lesser extent crime, remain the Republicans’ only strong issues among 12 tested in the survey .
Significantly, President Bush’s unpopularity has become a drag on his Party’s prospects in November. Thirty-one per cent of registered voters say they consider their vote for Congress as a vote against Bush, compared with 18 per cent who say they see it as a vote for the President; for the rest, it is not much of a factor in their decision. This represents a marked change from a comparable point in the previous mid-term campaign (in February 2002) when 34 per cent of voters considered their vote as one in favour of the President, while only 9 per cent said it was against.
It is too early to predict with any degree of confidence how this will play out in the next Congress, but the present Republican stranglehold on both Houses could well be under threat. It is not surprising, therefore, that introspection is growing among American political commentators sparking a wave of articles and books analysing the Bush II Presidency and what lies ahead for the US and the world at large.
This is not the place to canvass the dynamics of the US political scene against which this critical debate is set but I will flag a few basic facts.
George W Bush and his views do not represent the US as a whole he was elected with the slimmest of majorities in a turnout of only 56 per cent of the voting population. Contrary to much speculation, the political centre in the US has not moved all that far to the Right. The reality is that the Republicans and Democrats each command about one third of the population each captive to a partisan base which is well to the electorate’s Right or Left with the remaining third being Independents.
The Christian Right labelled by some as the ‘theocons’ recently flexed its considerable muscle in overturning Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, but it still represents a minority of voters. And the neoconservatives, so influential in policy formation, have little domestic political firepower in their own right.
The neocons, who George Bush appointed quickly to key positions in his White House, came with very clear policy agendas from various think-tanks and other organisations where they had been gathering during the Clinton Presidency. One of the more important of these organisations was the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which had produced a major manifesto in 2000 setting out how the US should ‘ preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of US military forces.’
PNAC provided not only the likes of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld but also Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, John Bolton (US Ambassador to the UN), and Robert Zoellick (currently Condoleezza Rice’s Deputy in the State Department). They came out of the Washington elite rather than from Republican grassroots. Under George W Bush they developed and implemented the tough, activist policy lines that have come to be known as the Bush Doctrine.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in mainland US, this activism was welcomed by an American public, happy to see signs of political toughness against a frightening new threat one that could clearly not be met by a defence machine developed during the Cold War. In those heady days, there was little room in the US for any equivocating though, even then, there were some early markers of concern about whether the human and economic costs of this activism could be sustained over a long period.
Predictably, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on with no clear end in sight, public support is faltering. No amount of spin doctoring can camouflage the fact that significant, concrete results cannot be achieved in time for the mid-term elections, or probably even the next Presidential elections.
That is why a recent article in the New York Times by one of the best known architects of neoconservatism (and another prominent PNAC member), Francis Fukuyama, merits close attention. The article, called ‘After Neoconservatism,’ draws on Fukuyuma’s latest book, America at the Cross Roads. I n it he argues that the ‘so-called Bush Doctrine is now in shambles,’ and expresses serious concern that this could well herald a return to isolationism in American public opinion.
Recent Pew polling has underlined this concern by revealing that a growing number of Americans feel the United States ‘should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’ Forty-two per cent expressed that view, up 12 points in just three years. In more than 40 years of polling, only in 1976 and 1995 did public opinion tilt this far toward isolationism .
Liberal commentators had already identified a change in US policy away from ‘democracy promotion’ ¾ or the ‘Freedom Crusade’ as it is often pejoratively dubbed.
As recently as mid-2005, Condoleeza Rice was still expounding that ‘for 60 years the US pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Mid East and achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.’ But now, as Fukuyama concedes, there is growing recognition in some senior US policy circles that the US cannot seek to de-legitimise regimes (and make their demise a declared objective) and then hope to negotiate agreements on vital issues with them. Coupled with this, has been the realisation that democracy is an extremely delicate seed to plant and grow.
In fact, in his State of the Union Address this year, Bush himself reflected his concerns that any retreat from ‘democracy promotion’ might lead back into isolationism when he said: ‘Our enemies and our friends can be certain the United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil. America rejects the false comfort of isolationism.’
All of this is playing into the rewrite, now underway in the US, of the basic National Security Strategy Assessment.
Fukuyama rightly sounds an alarm that, in seeking to reposition its policies, the Bush Administration runs the risk of inciting the US public mood into rebounding too far and fueling a return to a more isolationist stance. Growing US isolationism would not be a positive ingredient in the emerging world of the 21st Century, and would certainly be inimitable for the broader Australian interest.
Our close attention should be maintained on the internal pol
icy debates now under way in the United States.
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