America Unplugged - The presidency of George W. Bush is failing

By Peter Zeihan

The presidency of George W. Bush is failing.

Love him or hate him, Bush has had the most dramatic international impact of any U.S. president in a generation. But as Bush's fortunes ebb, his ability to control events in Washington and much further afield are fading as well. Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and there is no shortage of players hoping to profit from the political equivalent of U.S. self-flagellation.

American Paralysis

In August, we wrote that the United States was beginning to move "Beyond the War on Terrorism." We argued that the United States had achieved the bulk of what it had set out to do in first containing, and then pursuing and dismantling, al Qaeda.

We put forward that Iraq was a central feature of that plan, and that despite the ongoing horrors there, the broad strategic goals that the United States set out to achieve had indeed been accomplished. Saudi Arabia, Syria and -- to a lesser extent -- Iran were all cooperating with the United States in destroying al Qaeda as a strategic threat. The organization's offensive abilities degraded, from the ability to pull off a Sept. 11, 2001, attack that reshaped the world, to a series of metro bombings in London that did not even produce a glimmer of consideration within the U.K. government that policy should change. Terrorism, of course, continued to occur around the world, but its ability to dictate U.S. foreign policy had largely evaporated. All that was left was some hardly insignificant cleanup, and the United States could then get around to the serious work of dealing with the real issues: boxing in China and boxing up Russia.

But Iraq has not flowed gently into epilogue, and the final agreements that seemed so tantalizingly close in August remain elusive. In the interim, the American citizenry has grown weary of the conflict -- in which the number of American dead has now passed 2100 -- and Bush's popularity has suffered as a result.

But the real inflection point of this presidency was not Iraq; rather, it was Hurricane Katrina. Rightly or wrongly, Bush was perceived not just as unprepared for a major hurricane strike, but also as oblivious to the seriousness of the humanitarian disaster in New Orleans. This perception solidified the opposition of the U.S. left, denied the president any help from the American center and cracked the heretofore unified American right. The result was a president in danger of losing his core supporters, without whom no president can effectively rule. Similar circumstances condemned past statesmen such as Wilson, Truman, Johnson and Nixon into the unenviable company of failed presidents.

Since Katrina, the Bush administration's fortunes have only slid further, with three critical defeats standing out most glaringly. First, its primary congressional ally, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, has been indicted for fundraising improprieties. Second, the administration's efforts to shuttle Harriet Miers into the Supreme Court resulted in a break within the Republican Party. Third, the vice president's chief of staff -- Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- has been indicted for disclosing the status of undercover intelligence officers to the press, a charge that may well be pressed against political mastermind Karl Rove, and perhaps even the vice president himself.

What this amounts to is that the Bush administration has alienated the Republican Party's religious wing and those who value national defense above all else. Between that and the loss of DeLay, the president's star has fallen so far that he can no longer demand meetings with key legislators; he must negotiate for them. His foreign policy agenda is weighed down by the albatross of Iraq, and since congressional Republican leadership is keeping its distance from the president, his legislative agenda has not so much as budged in months.

Even if Bush manages to recover, we are eyeing what will be at least six months of extreme administration weakness. If Bush does not recover, however, stretch that out to until Jan. 20, 2009. A lot can happen in three years.

And, as chance would have it, the United States is not the only power currently facing a crisis of confidence and capabilities.

European Paralysis

The failure of the Dutch and French referendums on the EU constitution during the early summer was more than simply the failure of a vote; it signaled a failure of the very idea of Europe as a supranational entity. Ultimately, the European Union institutions as we know them today are a result of France's efforts to transform the countries of Europe into a platform over which it could rule and from which it could project power. France has always wanted to be able to punch above its weight in the international arena, and Europe was to be its vehicle for achieving that goal.

Yet in May, the French rejected the EU constitution -- and with it, the French vision for Europe.

In large part, the French rejected that vision because they realized it had become unachievable. The other European states were not willing to become French vassals, and once the French realized that they were merely another member in -- and therefore merely another subject of -- European institutions, French nationalism trumped the French desire for French Europeanism. As the union expanded, part of being European came to mean that France does not always get its way. Ultimately, that is something that the French found unacceptable.

And this was hardly the limit of what has gone wrong in Europe recently.

The British enjoy a rebate from the EU budget for the years in which they contribute more to the EU than they receive back (which is every year). The French, who convinced the Germans to back them, are guaranteed a full quarter of all EU agricultural subsidies even though they are among the union's richest members. With the addition of 10 new -- poorer -- states into the EU in 2004, the two standing policies are now in direct financial conflict.

Put another way, for the French to continue to enjoy their gravy train, either the British have to give up their rebate or all those new poor states need to give up some of the EU development funds -- the one part of the EU budget that is actually productive. Family spats over money are always the most vitriolic, and this one has reopened issues about the fundamental nature of the EU as well as discussion over the benefits and problems of enlargements, both past and future.

With the very idea of a European entity with a global reach DOA, the ability of "Europe" to act abroad becomes limited to the capabilities of its constituent powers. And in addition to these powers' lacking Washington's normal reach, they are nearly as politically truncated as the United States.

As France reels from the EU constitution defeat, it now also has to deal with the cultural, political and economic aftermath of three weeks of race riots. The United Kingdom's position on reducing the EU budget has radically reduced its influence within Europe. But more importantly, the Blair government recently lost its first Parliament vote -- typically an early sign that a prime minister is about to attach an "ex-" to his title.

Finally, there is Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has just wrapped up her first full week on the job. The new chancellor has more of a chance than any other European leader to get a fresh start, by seeking a rapprochement with Europe's smaller states as well as the United States. Yet even if she is wildly successful in her foreign relations, and even if her awkward left-right coalition is not sunk by inter- and intra-party bickering, this will still take a great deal of time. No, Europe is as out of the international picture as the United States is for the moment.

Of Absent Cats and Busy, Busy Mice

The result is an unfettered international system.

The world has been gradually sliding toward true unipolarity for the past 15 years. France's view of the European Union was one attempt to stem that evolution, as are China and Russia's on-again, off-again attempts to forge an unwieldy coalition of powers that contains states such as Brazil, India or Iran. Ultimately, however, geographic location dictates that all such attempts will fail.

The European Union could never be a political superpower because the British, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Italians, Dutch, Danes, Swedes and Finns really see no point to letting Paris or Berlin dictate their domestic economic or foreign security policies. The idea of a multipolar world is similarly unworkable. Adjacent land powers are only able to ally when both face imminent destruction or one is in a clearly subordinate position -- something that makes us watch Chinese-Russian relations with increasing interest -- while a quick glance at the trade flows of states like Brazil and India clearly show that any political ambitions for setting up an anti-American alliance are limited predominantly to rhetoric. It often does not take a great deal of effort for the United States to use these characteristics to prevent such alliances -- geographic features alone nearly assure an American preponderance of power -- and so, since the end of the Soviet Union, U.S. power has increased step by step relative to other powers.

But what happens when that dominant power finds itself engrossed by internal developments? When this happened to Russia during President Vladimir Putin's first term, Central Europe was swallowed by NATO and the European Union; the United States moved troops into Central Asia; China -- not Russia -- got its fingers into Kazakhstan's energy resources and encouraged a thousand migrant feet to bloom in Siberia; and color revolutions broke Moscow's grip on Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

But now the United States -- indeed the entire West -- is in a world of its own.

Eventually the period of inattentiveness will end, even if it takes until the next election, so time is a precious commodity. The question dominating the thoughts of national leaders who often find themselves at loggerheads with Washington is: How do I maximize my position before Washington stops staring at its own navel?

Down in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has always done his best to take advantage of Washington's short attention span, and the next few months will be no exception. For him the mode is the Bolivarian Revolution -- and using his ample oil revenues to extend his political reach by manipulating elections in Bolivia and Honduras, supporting indigenous movements in Ecuador, and likely funding Colombia's new united left wing, the Democratic Alternative Pole. Across the border in Brazil, President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva is far less ambitious, but he is certainly reaping the rewards in terms of public popularity by killing U.S. efforts to create a Western Hemispheric free trade area -- the keystone of Washington's Latin American policy.

In Asia, Pyongyang has got to be wallowing in glee. Anytime the United States is distracted, North Korea tends to be able to foment crises that get concessions from its neighbors. Beijing, while undoubtedly equally happy, will be far more circumspect in its efforts. For China, a U.S. disengagement allows it more time to whip its economy into shape. That means slowing efforts to amend its currency policy; the yuan peg will remain, and China need not worry overmuch about the United States taking advantage of the social unrest that Beijing's softly-softly economic reforms trigger.

Across the Middle East, where U.S. foreign policy has been most active since the Sept. 11 attacks, the effect will be far more noticeable among enemies and allies alike.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have no reason to do more than give the occasional polite nod to American requests, allowing him to impose his own version of a final settlement on the Palestinians; it will be one they do not much care for. Pressure on Saudi Arabia and Egypt to amend their political systems will either evaporate or be waved away. Syria has just got ten the diplomatic equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card (and thus has largely gotten away with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and the maintenance of its position of superiority in Lebanon). And if you thought the Iranian nuclear program issue was agonizingly annoying before, just wait.

There is the very deadly possibility that Iraq will go from bad to worse. With American pressure ignorable, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have little reason to cajole groups to come to the table and every reason to manipulate events to their own likings -- which, in all cases, involves making the American experience miserable. U.S. power can no longer guarantee that the Kurds, Shia and Sunnis will meet, much less hammer out a workable power-sharing accord, leaving Washington -- still -- holding the bag and handing out concessions to prevent the situation from degrading further still. And of course, Iraqi guerrillas are hardly finished.

Although it may be out of the headlines, the United States is still pursuing the al Qaeda leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, which is extremely difficult without the active participation of Pakistani forces -- forces that in the best of circumstances need to have their feet held to the fire to ensure cooperation. Without some robust American arm twisting, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has little incentive to pursue a policy that could well bring his government down around him -- not to mention put a bullet in his head.

The Russian Moment

But by far the country with the most pressing need to act -- and coincidentally, the most room to act -- is the one that the United States has been pressing the hardest: Russia.

Unlike U.S. efforts to contain Venezuela or block a rising China, with Russia the United States is playing for keeps. The Soviet Union was one of only three states that have ever directly threatened the United States -- the other two being the British Empire and Mexico. The Soviet Union also came as close as any power ever has to uniting Eurasia into a single integrated, continental power -- the only external development that might be able to end the United States' superpowership. These little factoids are items that policymakers neither forget nor take lightly. So while U.S. policy toward China is to delay its rise, and U.S. policy toward Venezuela is geared toward containment, U.S. policy toward Russia is a simple as it is final: dissolution. Ergo Russia's string of deep and rapid defeats.

But suddenly, the pressure has evaporated.

We are sure to see much more traditional Russian thinking in efforts to construct a multipolar world: attempts at hiving France and Germany away from the rest of Europe; heavy diplomatic engagement with would-be powers like India, China and Venezuela; a resumption of technical efforts with Iran's nuclear power program; reinsertion of Russian influence into North Korea and Syria. But ultimately all of these strategies represent old thinking. What concrete results does Russia really get from having a "strategic partnership" with India, aside from some arms sales? Political hegemony in places like Syria reduces Russian strategy to the diplomatic equivalent of a monkey wrench. The threat to Russia is far deeper, and so if Russia is to use its breathing room to achieve anything of lasting use, it needs a change of mind-set -- and that is precisely what is under way.

On Nov. 14 two men -- Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov -- were promoted to deputy prime ministerships. Both are extremely canny politicians and have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to think outside of traditional Russian paradigms. For them, the pre-eminent concern is forestalling further Russian losses and resurging Russian power. Stymieing U.S. initiatives -- the default position for most Russian authorities who have been in positions of power since Soviet days -- is only of high priority when those initiatives actually affect Russia.

Put another way, the new deputy prime ministers think that Russian policy should be a bit more thought-out than simply shouting "nyet" whenever the Americans are up to something. For them issues such as North Korea, Syria, India, Brazil and even Iran are of much lower priority. The real issues are items closer to home: Uzbekistan, Ukraine, the Baltics. It is less about attempting to maintain the long-outdated international balance of the Cold War that Russia's nationalists crave, and more about more traditional Russian concerns of securing the borders by expanding them -- or at minimum expanding Russia's "zones of comfort."

And so it is in these borderlands where Russian efforts will intensify in the months to come. A key tool in the Russian advance will be Gazprom, the state natural gas monopoly, which incidentally boasts one Mr. Medvedev as its chairman of the board. On Nov. 29, Gazprom's deputy CEO announced sharp price increases for a range of former Soviet states, including the Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia. In the case of Kiev, such hikes will likely rip the bottom out of the Ukrainian basket.

A number of politicians throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States are in the process of discovering that not only is the Bear not asleep, but the Eagle is too preoccupied to help shield them from its prowling. In some places -- such as Poland and the Baltics -- where progress away from Russia is an established fact, this will only deepen animosity toward Russia. But in others where the situation is much more tenuous -- most notably Ukraine -- it is leading to efforts at accommodation and will result in a resurgence of Russian influence.

While the economic stick is the order of the day in the western reaches of the former Soviet Union, the southern flank is seeing primarily the military carrot. Central Asian states are many things, but "stable" and "politically inclusive" are certainly not on that list. In a region where Islam is the dominant religion and Afghanistan is but a short walk -- literally -- away, the result has been a government demonizing of militant Islam as a justification for authoritarianism.

Yet efforts to maintain authoritarian control have reduced the options of any opposition forces to one: operating outside the system. Imagine the shock in Central Asian capitals when their policies gave life to the fears buried within their rhetoric. Islam is now a bastion of political -- and sometimes militant -- opposition, and a few sporadic Islamism-inspired attacks have shaken Central Asian political establishments to their core. Suddenly the United States' "revolution" efforts have gone from being perceived as an interesting side note to a deadly threat, and Russia is happy to pick up the pieces of Washington's post-Sept. 11 Central Asia security policies for itself. U.S. forces have already been ushered out of Uzbekistan, and a U.S. diplomatic and economic presence is really only welcome in Kazakhstan -- and even there only on specific terms.

What is particularly notable about this renewed Russian push is how much room there is for progress. American policy in Russia's near abroad has largely been dependent upon the border states' natural antipathy toward Moscow, and not on building stable institutions or links between these regions and the wider world. This makes vast tracts of territory easily accessible to the Russians, whose infrastructure remains hardwired into the entire border region. Without consistent Western attention, geographic realities can easily reassert. Ukraine -- unlike Romania -- is simply on the wrong side of the Carpathians for it to be otherwise. Send questions or comments on this article to analysis@stratfor.com.

Informant: Milo


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