The honeymoon is over, Mr Bush
11 September - Hit by financial scandals and a weakening economy, Americans are losing pati
The first phone call President Bush received from a world leader following the 11 September atrocities was from Vladimir Putin, boss of the country considered the US's main enemy for half a century. As millions of Americans flew flags and Bush's popularity soared into and beyond an unprecedented 80 per cent, Le Monde - not known for its pro-Americanism - declared emotionally on its front page, "We are all Americans". By the time he spoke to a joint session of Congress on 20 September, President Bush was basking in a welter of goodwill, domestically and internationally: the superpower leader for whom all of America and much of the rest of the world would do anything, following the battering the country received on 11 September.
One year on, Bush has squandered much of the sympathy and goodwill that were his in those early days following the terrorist attacks. The foreign policy on which he was (just about) elected - to restrict US military involvement overseas and to avoid, at all costs, "nation building" - has been overturned into a series of confused, inchoate policies that has virtually cut his secretary of state, Colin Powell, off from his vice-president, Dick Cheney, and defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and alienated much of the rest of the world. Domestically, there is increasing opposition to his USA Patriot Act, which was rushed through a month after the attacks and gave the authorities swingeing powers of surveillance, trampling on civil rights here, there and everywhere.
I wrote here long ago that George W Bush hailed from a strange generational blend of Connecticut preppie privilege and Texan would-be machismo: together, that made him, I argued, a Reaganite by instinct rather than a Bushite. Now we are seeing deep fissures opening up within the Republican Party, which, broadly speaking, consists of the final break of the Reaganites from the Bushites. The Reaganites, led by gung-ho cheerleaders such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, want to see war against Iraq, and fast; the Bushites, typified by General Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker (George Bush Sr's national security adviser and secretary of state, respectively), are urging a more cautious and rational approach. Powell, caught in a nightmarish middle, is letting it be known that he will stand down when Bush's first term of office ends in 2005 (following the 2004 elections).
That Texan side of Bush gives him the swagger and arrogance of one who believes that the US can and should act unilaterally, whether those damned foreigners follow his lead or not: it is an attitude that quite needlessly has forfeited so much of that bank of goodwill in Europe and elsewhere. The Connecticut side of him may end up listening to the likes of Scowcroft and Baker, whom the Reaganite right already scorn as traitorous wimps. But there is every sign that Bush has lost control of the situation, and that the hawkish views of Rumsfeld and Cheney will prevail - and that, with or without UN support, plans for war against Iraq will go ahead (their argument, incidentally, is that they would not be starting a new war requiring congressional ratification: that the congressional resolution that led to the Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 still holds fast today).
That bloodlust for revenge was only partly assuaged by the attacks on Afghanistan; there is still a sense that revenge has to be sought against someone, and if it can't be against the elusive Osama Bin Laden, then who better than Saddam Hussein? As Bush Sr knows, there is nothing like an apparently successful war to boost a president's popularity. But, as both Bushes also know from experience, that base can quickly erode away into defeat. The latest polls show that 56 per cent of Americans favour war against Iraq, down from 69 per cent in early August; if it were to involve "significant US casualties", support dips to 51 per cent.
Most worrying of all for Bush is that the economy rather than war is increasingly taking over as the key domestic issue. Forty-four per cent of Americans believe the Democrats would handle the economy better than the Bush administration.
With mid-term elections coming up in November - 435 House members will be elected along with senators in 34 states and governors in 36 - the polls show that Bush is squandering the domestic support he once enjoyed.
Among Democrats, especially, Bush is fast losing support - showing that politics is back to normal and bipartisanship is all but dead. Forty-five per cent of Democrats view the economy as "fairly" or "very" bad; just 18 per cent believe that Bush has a clear policy for dealing with the economy, compared with 72 per cent who say he is just reacting to events. So while Bush's personal ratings remain high (but not as high as they were), his actual political position is slipping.
The arrogance of the administration in not consulting allies applies domestically, too: Bush has angered congressmen and women on both sides of Capitol Hill by failing to treat them with the respect they think they deserve. Humiliatingly for 17 senators from both parties, the FBI has requested they hand over their phone records and diaries for 18-19 June, when the White House believes reporters were tipped off that prior warning had been received by US intelligence on 10 September but was not translated into English until 12 September. When senior senators on the Senate select committee on intelligence are treated in this way, it puts their backs up very speedily indeed.
So how are we left, one year on? The country probably would rally around the president if war started against Iraq tomorrow, but it would be support of the kind that would quickly erode if things did not go the US's way. Internationally, Israel and Australia - with Britain a distant third - are the only allies on which the US can now count. And yet, this time last year Silvio Berlusconi was declaring on behalf of Italy: "I love America. I am on whatever side America is on, even before I know what it is." Pro-American sentiment among ordinary Russians was 74 per cent positive a year ago, but that goodwill has now sunk to 48 per cent.
It all begs the question nobody quite likes to put: where would George W Bush be without 11 September? With the country slipping towards recession, the chances are that he would be in what his father liked to call deep political do-do; there are few signs that George W is an experienced politician. He would not have been granted the leeway that he has been allowed since 11 September. The country, to say nothing of the international community, would be far less forgiving of his inability to find the right words to suit such an occasion (one of his earliest post-11 September gaffes was to say he would get the "folks" who did this - that was the genteel, Connecticut side of him peeking out for a moment).
Meanwhile, in this land of the free and home of the brave, two US citizens have been arbitrarily designated "enemy combatants" and are being held indefinitely without being charged with a crime or allowed access to a lawyer. Yasser Esam Hamdi, born in the US of Saudi parents, and Jose Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican, are each being held without trial in a navy brig in South Carolina. The courts have no role in intervening in their situations, argues the administration, because to imprison them was an inherently military decision - one the Constitution empowers the White House to make.
This 11 September, Messrs Bush and Cheney will join in a private ceremony at the Pentagon (where 189 people were killed) and then attend a service in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed with the loss of 44 lives. But most of the eyes of the world will be on New York, where 2,823 people perished. This has been a deeply painful year for America, and the pain is by no means over yet; it will require deeply sensitive handling by those at the top. But does the America of September 2002 have such leadership skills when they are most required? In the coming year, we will see.
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis