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

Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 9

or my entire journalistic life, the most salient political and cultural fact has been the rise of the American right. It is not just that the US has been governed by Republican presidents or by Bill Clinton within the penumbra of the conservative intellectual and cultural ascendancy; it's that the conservative victory in the battle of ideas in the US has had a spill-over affect on the rest of the West.

It is no accident, for example, that the election of Ronald Reagan launched a fivefold increase in the numbers held in US prisons or that the profound growth of inequality also began with him. Whether it's criminal justice or tax policy, Britain and the industrialized West have been profoundly affected by the retreat of American liberalism.

Would Britain, for example, have so readily retreated from its long-held view that prison is essentially a last resort and that rehabilitation of offenders must be the centerpiece of any penal policy, if it had not been engulfed by the US conservative view that both propositions were wrong?

Equally, would our readiness to stand by progressive taxation have been so weakened without the view from the US that high rates of income tax on the rich are morally and economically wrong?

The UK had prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but her dominance in British politics would arguably have been less secure had it not been for the succor she took from US policies and conservative ideas. Britain is not a slave to US influences, but it cannot ignore the international common sense which the US more than any other nation shapes.

Britain may have elected two Labour governments in succession, but the extraordinary caution of New Labour in championing even a modest social democratic program is itself tribute to how difficult it is to declare independence from the international consensus.

Progressive politics in Britain will gather no momentum until that begins to change -- and that requires change in the US.

Which is why this year's presidential election is so important, not just for the result but for the way the underlying argument is developing. Bush's strategists thought it would all be sewn up by now; they would have defined Democrat challenger Senator John Kerry as a flip-flop, ultra-liberal senator who was unsound on the war against terrorism.

Two-term US presidents have habitually established an unassailable lead over the summer before the November election; the Bush team had hoped to achieve that by now with Kerry. Instead, they are involved in a pitched battle with a growing possibility that they might lose. The Democrats are daring to hope and the Republicans are testy and on edge.

On trust, on economic competence, on approval ratings and on whether he is best for America, Bush's poll ratings are poor and falling. In the majority of so-called "swing" states across the Midwest that Kerry must win, he is registering small but consistent leads; and despite spending a record US$80 million on attack adverts, Bush is trailing Kerry nationally, albeit by a small and fluctuating margin.

Bush is enduring the most wretched months of his presidency. The furore over the maltreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib; the continuing loss of American lives in Iraq and the sense, despite the handover this week, that the US has lost control of events; the charge by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the US that there was no evidence of a collaborative relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam have all badly wounded him.

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.

It is not just US politics that could be transformed by Iraq, but British and world politics as well. To believe in universal rights and fair societies might become respectable again.