The world has fallen out of love with America since the ‘war on terror’ declared by President George W Bush. Much of the sympathy and popular support witnessed after the 9/11 attacks have faded away, overtaken by stories about Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition. It is surprising how soon the goodwill capital, and a strong economy, can be squandered.
True, the events of 9/11 had forced the world into an extraordinary security environment. But respect for the rule of law, the principle that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, above all proportionality in the use of force were bound to become core issues for many people. Today, America continues to be admired all over the world as a land of freedom and opportunity, scientific and technological advances and its capacity to do good. However, its policies generate strong opposition and apathy, creating waves of anti-Americanism.
What has gone wrong? The answer: America under the Bush presidency suffers from serious contractions between what it stands for and its actions in three major areas.
The neoconservatives who came into the administration with President Bush in January 2001 were staunch believers in America’s military power and in using it to impose their will elsewhere in the world. America is a hyperpower, but the Bush administration’s determination to rely primarily on America’s military strength has proved disastrous.
The order should be the reverse of it – soft power to be backed by hard power when necessary. Over the last seven years, we have a damaging mismatch with regard to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea. As it became obvious very quickly, even a hyperpower has its limits and can overreach. And then, there is loss of control, with haemorrhaging of political credibility and economic assets.
Gap between principles and conduct
Historically, America has stood for certain core values: democracy, individual freedom, human rights, open market and free trade. Inconsistencies are there in all administrations. But the problem is acute with the Bush administration and it appears to know only one way.
The neoconservative agenda was to impose democracy, but, as it turned out, only in those countries which they did not like. The list includes Afghanistan, Iraq and, if they had not made a mess in those countries, then Iraq and Syria. What about Saudi Arabia – one of the most repressive countries in the world? Besides, the biggest base of Al Qaeda is Saudi Arabia. But it is an ally and happily sells much of oil America needs – so different rules apply. In Pakistan, democracy is a good idea, but not when parties opposed to military win elections.
The Bush administration kidnaps suspects from anywhere in the world and sends them to detention centres like the one in Guantanamo Bay. There is no discussion of Saudi Arabia being a major hideout for active and potential Al Qaeda members. On the other hand, Iran is reviled as one of the countries in the ‘axis of evil’, for sponsoring terrorism and running a secret nuclear program. Well, Iran does support militant groups abroad, but is not a leading backer of Al Qaeda. The Bush administration tolerates lack of democratic rule, human rights and growing militancy in countries it likes. It saves criticisms and aggression for others.
When the burden of double standards becomes too big, erosion of moral and real authority follows. There has developed a wide gap between America’s core values and the conduct of the Bush administration. The perception of double standards has never been stronger, with a consequent loss of America’s image.
Difficulty in dealing with unpleasant legacies
The United States took more than two decades to come to terms with the experience of Vietnam. The process was helped by the ending of the Cold War. Now, dealing with the Iranian legacy is hard. It reminds Washington that the current lot that rules Iran overthrew America’s ally, the Shah, in the 1970s. In a region of great strategic importance, Iran is a major regional power – its status enhanced, thanks to Washington’s mistakes in Iraq. Iran is a difficult country to deal with. But the US attitude is uncompromising, aggressive and unhelpful.
As the race for the White House narrows down to between Barack Obama and John McCain, whoever succeeds President Bush will need to reposition America to dispel doubts in its leadership. It would be preferable for America to revert to greater use of soft power, to show greater willingness to work through international organizations and respect for human rights and international law. And, above all, to be selective in the use of coercion.
The above commentary was published in the Online Journal on May 12, 2008.