By Jonathan Power | July 9, 2004
THERE IS A tendency these days -- and I share it -- that urges one on to hit George Bush while he is down. But before he goes, permit me a word in his favor -- or, more accurately, his regime. Briefly put, the world is more at peace than when he came to power. The big powers have never been so relaxed with each other since the late part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, and the number of small wars -- ethnic disputes, tribal conflicts, and territorial disputes -- has been going down every year.
Through all the vicissitudes of Iraq, the Bush administration has managed to keep relations with Russia at their calmest and most fruitful since before the Russian Revolution. Despite the earlier tensions over abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bush appears to have won the trust of President Vladimir Putin that he is not up to a game to overcome Russia's defenses against a surprise nuclear attack. Neither has US oilpolitik in the Caspian region proved as malevolent as was first surmised. Bush has leaned over backward -- too far -- to be understanding about Chechnya.
There are great gaps in Bush's Russian policies -- his casual pace on nuclear disarmament and a lack of funds for making safe Russia's old nukes and plutonium stockpiles, which could do more for nuclear proliferation than anything Bush has tried to do with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- but the lack of antagonism in the fundamental US-Russian relationship is remarkable.
With China, after a rocky start, one gets the same sense of cooperative peace. Without turning a hair, the Chinese voted for the recent UN resolution empowering US peacekeeping in Iraq. the Bush administration has prevailed upon Taiwan not to rock the boat, and it seems to accept that China has no great extraterritorial ambitions outside of Taiwan, Tibet, and the mineral riches of the South China Sea, all of which it has decided to manage and live with without overt conflict.
Bush has handled the Turks with adroitness. Surprised at their last-minute refusal to disallow passage of US troops to northern Iraq at the onset of the war, Bush kept his mouth shut and has now become Turkey's main cheerleader for its admittance to the European Union.
With Iran Bush has been right to keep the pressure on the Europeans to be more assertive in persuading it to be honest about its nuclear bomb program. Unlike Bill Clinton, he has taken Russia's commercial interests in Iran's nuclear power program much more into account. And it could well be he will have the success there that he has had in Libya, where Moammar Khadafy has been persuaded to cease bomb research. At last, too, Bush seems ready to compromise with North Korea, which has become a nuclear state.
By contrast, progress in the Middle East on all fronts has been incremental when not counterproductive. Very slowly, Washington has positioned itself as a critic of authoritarian regimes, even though it wants them on the US side. With Israel, Bush has turned back the clock and consequently taken a beating, especially from the Europeans, for being unblinkingly pro Ariel Sharon. But Europe, especially Britain and Germany, seem to forget that they created this problem, and they should look more to themselves and less to the United States to sort it out.
With most of the Indian subcontinent the future has never looked so promising since the British left in 1947. Although there seemed to be no reason go to war in Afghanistan, and the "war on terrorism" would be better left to police work than military action, there is still room for hope -- despite the shortcomings in aid promised to Afghanistan -- that the country now has some chance of escaping from the worst of warlordism and poverty. India and Pakistan look as if both sides are moving toward making peace over Kashmir. India is on the path to becoming a big economic power, even more than China, but it will not be hostile either to the United States or China. The United States, albeit belatedly, has decided unambiguously to be India's friend.
With the UN, despite early animosity, the United States has ended up supporting peacekeeping operations in a sustained way far more than Clinton ever did -- five operations in Africa in just the last year. And it has taken on the chin the recent vote in the Security Council not to acquiesce to the US desire for its troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to be absolved from possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
If Bush loses the election in November, he will be leaving the world -- Iraq and Israel/Palestine apart -- a better place than he found it. Whom to thank? Colin Powell or the left side of Bush's own brain? The historians will have to tell us, since the press has conspicuously failed to keep us informed.
Jonathan Power is a columnist based in London.
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