America - Andrew Stephen sees the end of US unilateralism

With the November elections looming, the administration suddenly cares about what other countries sa

How we all wept . . . not, as American seven-year-olds everywhere say. Even a friend who worked closely with the Reagans and liked them - loved them, even - conceded that the funereal week arranged for the old Gipper's farewell was over the top. I would add that it was a peculiarly American brand of self-regarding mawkishness, combining treacly sentimentality with militaristic overtones (continual foot-stomping, flag-clutching guards of honour, military escorts, US air force flyovers, and so forth). We are told that Reagan himself planned the week with Nancy many years ago, and I'm afraid it showed.

The surprise of the week was that George W Bush, with the exception of a eulogy at the main funeral, kept largely out of it; perhaps he feared adverse comparisons with the Great Communicator himself, whose bons mots were played and replayed on television all week. Instead, Bush immersed himself in the G8 summit at Sea Island in Georgia, and showed how sea changes have overtaken his administration's foreign policy in recent weeks. Pragmatism rules, and to hell with principle.

On the Wednesday of the summit, for example, Bush was saying that "Nato ought to be involved in Iraq". Jacques Chirac immediately said he didn't think so, as did the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Next day, in the pattern of frenetic practicality that is engulfing his administration, Bush reversed course: "I don't expect more troops from Nato to be offered up," he said. "That's an unrealistic expectation. Nobody is suggesting that." Tony Blair bleated his agreement, as ever. Meanwhile, back at the United Nations in New York, the French were asking that reference be made high up in the UN resolution on Iraq to a need to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. "No problem," was the reaction of the suddenly all-obliging Bush administration.

It is not just me who thinks all this, either. In the words of Gerhard Schroder: "There has been a remarkable change in the American foreign policy." And of Chirac: "I must say the Americans truly understood they needed to play the game, and they did."

The great unilateralist administration that showed its contempt for international agreements - be they about greenhouse gases or the Geneva Conventions - has suddenly seen the advantages of falling in with international opinion. Now Bush is caught in a spiral of capitulation to the French, the Germans, the UN, and practically everybody else: principles he once supposedly held dear, particularly over Iraq, are speedily jettisoned.

We need not look far to find the reason for all this: the 2 November presidential election, on which Bush is utterly fixated. He is obsessed with the notion that he must not be thrown out after one term, like his father. That means keeping the saucepan lid firmly shut on the Iraq quagmire at least until then: all the supposedly high-minded concepts of bringing democracy to Iraq are being quietly dropped to that end. A recent Pew poll showed that 42 per cent of Americans are now in favour of bringing US troops home immediately, and even Colin Powell has said that US troops will leave Iraq if they are requested to do so by the new Iraqi government ("please, please ask us to withdraw" is the unspoken mantra in the corridors of the White House). Given the overriding need to win on 2 November, the prospect of the US actually abandoning Iraq to its fate is one that now seems at least conceivable.

The era of would-be high-minded principle on Iraq is over: whatever will get Bush back to the White House for a second term is his administration's official policy. To that end, Bush must be temporarily acquiescent to the international community - though it must not seem like that to the American people. The unquestioning coverage of the US media sees to it that he thereby acquires the trappings of a world statesman to the electorate at home. Thus the New York Times will report (as it did a few days ago, about the UN resolution) "a substantial diplomatic victory for Mr Bush".

The arrogance in international affairs which the Bush administration hitherto practised was neatly illustrated by the way it ignored the Geneva Conventions and assumed that the US could torture at will those whom it captured - which it proceeded to do in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. Vice-President Dick Cheney, slowly emerging as the most malign influence in the administration, said on 16 September 2001: "It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective." Wink wink, nod nod.

Indeed, the Bush administration's lawyers contended only last year that the US president was not bound by laws that prohibit torture - and that those Americans who tortured prisoners could not be prosecuted by the justice department.

Now we can trace orders allowing torture to the offices of the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the even more unappealing attorney general, John Ashcroft; I would be very surprised if Bush himself, as well as Cheney, did not give the nod as well.

We also know that the most senior US officer in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, approved the use of dogs on Iraqi prisoners and the imposition of temperature extremes and what is delicately known as "diet manipulation" (that is to say, bread and water). Sanchez also gave orders that one tortured prisoner be hidden from International Red Cross inspectors, and his name not be kept in any records.

But now the wretched Sanchez has gone, and the administration, chastened by the international exposure and what it means to the image of America worldwide, is desperately trying to erase the scandals of Abu Ghraib. In an entirely new deference to overseas views, it is trying to turn over a new leaf - all part of the changes in US foreign policy. Hundreds of prisoners were released by US forces from Abu Ghraib last Monday, for example. The likes of Rumsfeld are meanwhile lying low in Washington; no amount of bluster can erase the knowledge that their insouciant actions of the past three years laid the groundwork for the current humiliation of the United States. You can almost hear the frantic backtracking and cover-your-assing in Washington.

I first pointed out the dramatic changes in US foreign policy after noticing how Bush kept invoking the name of Lakhdar Brahimi (until days ago the UN envoy to Iraq) when he held a Rose Garden press conference with Blair in April. I was there, and you could almost see the Bush mind working: let's dump Iraq into the lap of the UN, and then we can blame them and the impossible Iraqi people when the country falls apart.

We have seen almost four years of unprecedented American arrogance and bull-headedness in foreign affairs. However, as the Bush team themselves have discovered, that era is finally over.