Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bush; The Lord North of Today

Business Times - 22 Nov 2005
Bush: the Lord North of today
SINCE I've been spending so much time in recent months reading and writing about US President George W Bush, his neoconservative advisers and the mess in Iraq, I decided to take some time off these current topics and read a very well-written and very well-researched life history of one of America's Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
But I had to read only a few pages of the massive biography by Ron Chernow (Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Books, 2004) before I was transported from the late 18th century to the start of the 21st century, to Bush, the neocons and Iraq.
Here is how Hamilton, in an impressive and shrewd insight into the psychology of power, described the futile efforts by the then British prime minister, Lord North, to suppress the insurgency by the American colonists against the occupying imperial power: 'The premier has advanced too far to recede with safety; he is deeply interested to execute his purpose, if possible - in common life, to retract an error even in the beginning is not an easy task. Perseverance confirms us in it and rivets the difficulty - to this we may add that disappointment and opposition inflame the minds of men and attach them still more to their mistakes.'
As Hamilton saw it, the punitive measures taken by the British could not defeat the scrappy and opportunistic strategy pursued by the insurgents. 'The circum stances of our country put in our power to evade a pitched battle,' Hamilton advised his American compatriots. 'It will be better policy to harass and exhaust the soldiery by frequent skirmishes and incursions than to take the open field with them, by which means they would have the full benefit of their superior regularity and skills.'
We know how the American Revolution ended. The British continued to dig themselves into a deep hole from which they were able to extract themselves only after a long and costly war. It's not surprising that historian Barbara Tuchman in her classic work The March of Folly illustrated the tendency of governments to act stubbornly and perversely against their own interests by using the loss of the American colonies by the British as a case study.
What was amazing about the entire situation was that the British Parliament had many opportunities to defuse the situation before independence became a rallying cry of the Americans. Out of ignorance and arrogance, and despite the warnings and advice of any number of competent men on both sides of the Atlantic, the British leaders refused to do so, and thus the colonies were lost.
Indeed, as the Bush administration's effort to 'stay the course' in Iraq is demonstrating once again, to 'retract an error even in the beginning is not an easy task' and the disappointments that the administration has been experiencing in Iraq almost on a daily basis as well as the growing opposition to the war at home only seems to 'inflame the minds' of Bush and his aides and 'attach them still more to their mistakes'.
Losing confidence
Indeed, amid turmoil in Washington over Iraq and a dramatic erosion in the support of the American people, Bush vowed over the weekend that 'we will stay in the fight' until victory in Iraq, rejecting critics' calls for a troop pullout timetable and insisting that 'progress' was being made in Baghdad.
Bush's remarks amounted to a response to one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha, who urged the administration last Thursday to pull out US forces as soon as it could be done safely, estimating that it would take about six months. At the same time, there were also growing indications that many Republican lawmakers have lost their confidence in the administration's strategy in Iraq and were worried that the rising costs of the war, in terms of life and money, would make it difficult for them to win re-election in the mid-term Congressional elections next year.
One leading Republican, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam War veteran, has blasted the administration's policies in Iraq and has called on the White House to admit its mistakes there and take steps to retract them.
Hagel, it should be noted, is also considering running for the White House in 2008 and he seems to believe that the anti-war stand could help him strengthen his political and electoral base.
Murtha was dismissed by the White House as a liberal like Fahrenheit 911 moviemaker Michael Moore. But if anything, Murtha projects all the characteristics of a public figure with whom voters in Red States should fall in love: a conservative nationalist and a war hero who feels most comfortable drinking beer with a bunch of swearing blue-collar workers.
That someone like him is willing to challenge War President Bush and to call for a withdrawal from Iraq reflects the political problems that the White House could face in the coming months.
'Iraq can't be won militarily. It's got to be won politically,' Murtha told CNN.
But Bush and his aides were continuing to describe Iraq as a pivotal battle in the war against Islamic radicals who, they say, want to use Iraq as a launching pad towards a totalitarian empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia.
Moreover, pointing to the coming Iraqi elections in December, Bush was insisting that 'Iraq is making amazing progress from the days of being under the thumb of a brutal dictator'. But that is clearly not the view of the American people and large segments of the political elites.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll last week said 63 per cent of Americans oppose Bush's handling of the Iraq war, and 52 per cent say troops should be pulled out now or within 12 months. Moreover, most Americans now believe that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake.
Erosion in support
At the same time, a poll conducted by Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations suggest that most Americans think that the US should 'mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own'.
This consensus runs very much contrary to the Bush administration's rationale for maintaining a US military presence in Iraq and the Middle East: the need to spread freedom and democracy in the region.
Some would argue that this erosion in public support for the war and the political concerns in Washington - not to mention the lack of international backing for the project (Korea and Italy are planning to withdraw their troops from Iraq) - should force Bush to retract the Iraq error and change course.
He won't. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney have 'advanced too far to recede with safety'. They know that their historical 'legacy' is tied to the war in Iraq and that to withdraw from that country would be an admission that they failed - big time. So as Hamilton would have predicted, they prefer to continue muddling through in Iraq for another three years even if that means leaving a mess in Iraq to the next president, even if he or she is a Democrat.
Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Bush's trip to Asia: A Diplomatic Dud

Before President George W. Bush had left Washington to attend the leaders summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in South Korea and to visit Japan, China and Mongolia, a top U.S. official had warned American reporters that they shouldn’t expect the trip to lead to major diplomatic breakthroughs. Now that President Bush has returned back from Asia it’s be safe to conclude that as a headline in the Washington Post put it, "Bush’s Asia Trip Meets Low Expectations."
Not only did the U.S. President fail to get a respite from domestic problems during his eight-day Asia tour. He also didn’t have a lot opportunities to demonstrate the energetic leadership upon which he prides himself.
President Bush did have many photo opportunities during the trip and he delivered a few inspiring speeches -- saluting freedom in Kyoto, joining the other APEC leaders in a group photo, attending church services in Beijing, taking part in official festivities in Ulan Bator. But the colorful images and the high rhetoric couldn’t conceal his inability to deliver any meaningful results.
In Japan, President Bush applauded the strong ties that have developed between the United States and Japan during his presidency. But he failed to win Japanese agreement to resume U.S. beef imports and to implement the agreement on the redeployment of U.S. forces. In South Korea, the meeting between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun was followed by a decision by South Korean Cabinet to back a proposal to withdraw 300 of the 3,200 South Korean troops in Iraq. That move was a serious political setback for the American President who has been facing growing opposition in Washington to his Iraq policy. And while the leaders summit of the APEC forum concluded with a declaration of support for a successful World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Hong Kong next month, President Bush and his aides will now be dealing with a more protectionist U.S. Congress as they try to exert U.S. leadership on the trade front in Hong Kong.
But it the stop in China that proved to be the most frustrating to President Bush. The Chinese leader announced during President Bush’s visit to Beijing that they agreed to purchase 70 jetliners from the Boeing company. But at the same time, there was almost no progress on the other issues raised by the American President, including currency, intellectual property, human rights and North Korea.
In fact, the Chinese refused to release political prisoners and openly detained political dissidents, including a Christian during the visit, sending a clear message to Washington that Beijing would continue to oppose in no uncertain terms the Bush Administration’s aggressive program of spreading democracy and freedom worldwide and that they will liberalize its political system at a pace at which Beijing is comfortable.
Some observers have suggested that President Bush’s unremarkable tour of Asia brought with it a sense of declining American influence in the region. But there is another way of appraising the recent Asia excursion. What President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are confronting in East Asia is a geo-political and geo-economic reality that is making it more and more difficult for them to advance their unilateral agenda. A politically weaker President Bush who has been losing domestic and international support for his ambitious plan to transform Iraq and the Middle East, is facing a world -- and an East Asia region --- that is more resistant to Washington’s pressure on a variety of policy issues.
In that context, China seems to be one of those global powers that is insisting it will be ready to cooperate with the U.S. on the diplomatic and trade front and on other issues, like North Korea’s nuclear crisis, but only as part of arrangements that involve both Chinese as well American concessions.
"China is a big, growing, strong country, and it’s very important for me to maintain a good working relationship with the leadership here," is the way President Bush responded to journalists’ question about his approach towards Beijing. And indeed, "good working relationship" with the "big, growing, strong" China as well as with other East Asian countries means that Washington will have to deal with them as equals, by taking into consideration their interests and concerns and by refraining from forcing on them American political values.