Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Your time's up, Mr. Bush

No wonder the US president is running scared -- 25 years of neo-conservative ascendancy in the US may be approaching a painful demise

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER , London

There was never unanimity within Republican ranks, let alone within the wider US, that fighting a pre-emptive war of choice without hard justification and international legitimacy, where victory would confer the victors the impossible task of building a nation, was smart politics or even feasible. Now the debate is out in the open.

The risk for Bush is that none of this is going to get any better. Already the neocons are more on the defensive than at any time in the past 10 years. One small sign was the extravagant praise Bush felt he needed to heap on their hate figure, Clinton, at the unveiling of his portrait in the White House.

More substantively, the concessions made to win UN endorsement for the handover and last week's cave-in on the attempt to get a further two-year extension on US troop immunity from International Criminal Court prosecution both highlight neocon weakness. The US is having to accept that it cannot make the international weather as it chooses.

In short, Iraq is emerging as a crucial turning point in the 25-year-long conservative ascendancy. In his important book, After the Empire, French intellectual Emmanuel Todd argues that what has betrayed the US' attempt to sustain a global hegemonic position and win the battle against terrorism is its partisanship and retreat from universalist principles.

Palestinian deaths are not equal to Israeli deaths; terrorist suspects have no right to a fair trial or fair treatment in prison; countries not for the war on terror on the US' terms are necessarily against the US.

It is these attitudes that undermine its moral claims, the "soft power" that hitherto has underpinned its international leadership. Todd believes that this decline of universalism abroad could not have happened without the decline of universalism within the US; that indifference to colossal inequality and differential rights of US citizens, now expressing itself as rising black infant-mortality rates, creates the culture that pursues nakedly unfair policies abroad. The US' failures abroad and at home are umbilically linked -- and the root of both is neo-conservatism.

Few in the US would diagnose the situation in those terms, whatever the underlying truth, but there are signs in Bush's poll ratings that an emerging majority do see that the philosophy underpinning his policies is a dead-end and that change is needed.

Kerry is criticized for not being more tactically aggressive, but his caution is justified.

A 25-year ascendancy does not dissolve overnight; the close network of funders, think tanks, media supporters, corporate beneficiaries and the cultural coalition of anti-gun control, anti-gay and pro-evangelical groups is not going to run up the white flag without sustained resistance.

Events are giving the Democrats the ammunition to make the case that the US needs friends and that to win them means adhering to international law. But the US is not going to undergo a Damascene conversion. Only cumulative evidence will change minds.

But opinion is moving. My bet remains that it will carry John Kerry to the White House -- just. Of equal importance is the fact that neo-conservatism is on the defensive and that US liberalism has its best chance to regain ground for the first time in a generation.

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