The Lone Ranger


In his 2007 State of the Union address to Congress, President Bush concentrated on the economy, which was going well, not the war in Iraq, which was going badly.

In his 2008 address delivered yesterday however, he claimed the war was going better, but not the economy. No one listened to the alleged good news on either occasion, being too worried about the bad. Indeed, Bush will leave his country in a mess both domestically and internationally.

Over the many years I worked with them, American diplomats impressed me with their cheerful resourcefulness in defending US foreign policies – even bad ones involving gunboat diplomacy, double standards over nuclear issues, selective support for despotic regimes, or economic agendas that undermined poor countries.

Since the advent of George W Bush, however, the task of State Department bureaucrats has become increasingly onerous and thankless, particularly in defending the invasion of Iraq, resisting world opinion on climate change, and coping with anti-American views, particularly in Latin America.

The planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001 generated enormous sympathy for America around the world. But Bush quickly squandered the good will. Congress’s War Powers Resolution gave him a blank cheque to go to war with anyone involved in the attacks – in any country, without regard to long-term US foreign policy or national security or economic interests. But Congress failed to see through the arguments that President Bush used to justify the brutal and illegal war in Iraq. His Coalition of the Willing – a lose appellation given to the few countries that willingly joined the illegal US invasion or were bribed or coerced into it – fell away as leaders who had supported Bush were voted out of power.

The erosion began in March 2004, when Spain’s conservative government was defeated three days after the Madrid terrorist bombing and Spain’s 1300 soldiers came home. It continued in May 2005, when the Italian Government of Prime Minister Silvio Belusconi was thrown out of power and 3000 Italian troops came home. It accelerated in June 2007, when Tony Blair relinquished the British prime ministership to Gordon Brown, who promptly declared that the remaining 5000 of 45,000 British troops would be home by the end of 2008. In October, Poland’s premier lost power to another party whose platform included the withdrawal of Poland’s 900 troops. The leaders of Hungary, the Ukraine, Norway and Slovakia soon followed suit. So did the Koreans.

And in November last year, Prime Minister John Howard also paid the price for so stubbornly backing a war that many Australians had opposed from the start. This week Foreign Minister met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to confirm that Australian troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the middle of the year.

Overlapping the Iraq debacle has been growing international disaffection with the United States over climate change. It reached critical mass at the Bali Climate Change summit in December last year, where seven years of American stone-walling of the Kyoto Protocol culminated in keeping a key scientific document by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change off the agenda. Most of the 10,000 delegates from 180 countries were furious.

American diplomats, led by Under-Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, were booed and jeered from all sides. The Papua New Guinean delegation leader, Kevin Conrad, publicly mugged Dobriansky in the broad daylight of the plenary: "We seek your leadership," he said politely. "But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way." An electric hush followed, then spontaneous applause. The Americans capitulated, a deal was done, and an agenda for a further conference to approve a following agreement was arranged for 2009 in Poland.

Then there is Latin America. Once the Caribbean was an American lake under the Monroe Doctrine, (with the honourable exception of Cuba), an influence that extended all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Regimes could be changed at Washington’s whim. As author Naomi Klein has written, Washington’s methods usually took the form of corporate-friendly emergency economic measures like large-scale privatisations, and deep cuts to social spending that debilitated states in the name of free markets.

But there is growing resistance to such treatment. The American con that Democratic Socialism in Latin America is really Communism or Stalinism or Marxism in disguise is increasingly disbelieved. Klein traces the erosion of support for the Washington consensus. In 2001, Argentina erupted against IMF-prescribed austerity measures and forced out five presidents in three weeks. In 2005, the working-class Evo Morales in Bolivia became the first indigenous President of a Latin American country. In 2006, Hugo Chavez, running on a platform of ‘Twenty-First Century Socialism’ was re-elected for a third term as President of Venezuela. In Uruguay, the Left-wing coalition party, Frente Amplio, was elected. In Brazil, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva was re-elected in what was really a referendum on privatisation. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, former head of the Sandanistas, was re-elected. In Ecuador, the 43-year old Left-wing economist Rafael Correa won the election from a Right-wing banana tycoon. And in Chile, Michelle Bachelet, a prisoner under Pinochet, won office. The US is now on good terms with only a handful of Latin American leaders.

We tend to be distracted by the sound and light show of the primaries leading up to this year’s Presidential election, and diverted into speculating on how Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain would handle the swing against the United States in world opinion, because so far none of them have really made their positions clear lest they be wrong-footed by opponents.

In the meantime, however, George W Bush is still President of the United States, and Dick Cheney is still his Vice President, and they, together with some surviving neo-cons and a few senior officers in the Pentagon, still call the shots. So the frustration of specialists in the State Department who know a lot more about the issues than most of the above will continue as they are overridden and ignored.

Now would not be a good time to join State as an ambitious diplomatic trainee. Maybe in January, 2009.

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