It is often suggested that one of George W. Bush’s motives for invading Iraq was to win a war his father muffed the first time around. Now, after his thumping in the U.S. midterm elections and Iraq’s continuing descent into hell, it is clear that George Jr. couldn’t win, either. The made-for-TV execution of Saddam Hussein (if it happens) won’t change that bitter reality.
A second, less obvious father-and-son irony was unfolding the very same day the Democrats won back both houses of Congress. Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s former revolutionary leader, was declared winner of the presidential election in that impoverished nation, on the first ballot.
In this case, George Sr. thought he’d won the first war: Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista movement was voted from office in 1990 (leaving peacefully, despite their caricature as dictators). This followed a multi-year program of destabilization and military intervention initiated by Ronald Reagan (through the infamous Iran-contra connection) and continued by Mr. Bush.
After 15 years of broken promises and economic decline, however, the Reagan-Bush regime change has come undone. Now the Sandinistas are back in: more cautious, and with a stronger democracy to carry on the good things they did in the 1980s (like boosting literacy to 90 per cent from 40 per cent).
In fact, it’s not just Nicaragua that slipped away under George W.’s watch, it’s most of the hemisphere. A left-wing tide has swept Latin America since 2002, when Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva first came to power. (Lula, unlike the Republicans, was just re-elected with a powerful majority.)
Only a few countries in the hemisphere still orbit closely within America’s influence: militarized Colombia, turbulent Mexico (where the rightist party clung to power by a controversial whisker), and (I almost forgot) Canada. James Monroe must be weeping in his grave.
These tectonic shifts are as much economic, as political or strategic. Indeed, it was the profound failure of the “Washington consensus” — a once-dominant doctrine emphasizing free trade, austerity, and financial liberalization — that sparked Latin America’s overwhelming swing back to the left. Economics explains why other continents, too, have also drifted away from American leadership.
For example, as U.S. voters went to the polls, virtually every African head of state was in China for a gigantic summit meeting on Sino-African co-operation. At the summit, China announced $5-billion in new development aid for Africa, a new $5-billion development fund, and several other initiatives. (Despite Africa’s catastrophic economic and health crises, the U.S. — with six times China’s GDP — sends all of $2-billion per year.) China has its own political motives, of course, but the African leaders — thrilled that someone powerful is finally paying attention — were grateful.
Within China and other successfully developing Asian economies (such as India), the influence of the U.S. model is also surprisingly weak. Yes, these countries rely on U.S. markets and investments from U.S. corporations. But in no sense do they follow U.S. policy leadership. Almost all of them do important things that American economists regularly tell them not to do. And due largely to their consequent success, Washington (shouldering its own $3-trillion foreign debt) can’t call the shots any more at the World Trade Organization and other international forums.
As for the Europeans, they couldn’t contain their glee at the U.S. results. Only Britain’s Tony Blair remains loyal — to share Mr. Bush’s lame-duck status, and commiserate on the difficulties of removing troops from places they should never have been.
My point here is not to kick a man when he’s down (although in George W. Bush’s case, this is awfully tempting), nor to suggest that the world will suddenly change with Democrats running things inside the Beltway instead of Republicans. It’s to suggest that something bigger is happening: something more global, and more hopeful, than the extended departure of one failed leader.
When George Bush Sr. was president, the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. was the only superpower, and history was supposed to be over.
Today, as George Bush Jr. exits stage right, U.S. clout has rarely been weaker. The younger Bush’s destructive irresponsibility is one reason. But a deeper one is the utter failure of the whole model he advocates to improve the lives of masses of people — at home or around the world.