The Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang was filled with pride as he reported to Chinese mission control from his space capsule. It was Saturday, Sept. 27 and Zhigang was about embark on his first space walk, marking a breakthrough for the space program of this rising power in the Far East. President Hu Jintao looked jubilant in the live television broadcast. With its successful excursion outside the space capsule, the People's Republic, as a nation in space, drew level with the United States and Russia in one important respect. Indeed, Beijing is already discussing a manned expedition to the moon. Once exclusively American, the Earth's biggest satellite may soon become Chinese as well.
Almost at the same time, at a point halfway around the earth, a finance minister was doing something highly unusual: falling to his knees in a gesture of desperation. The Republican Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson was kneeling before the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, begging her to do everything in her power to make sure that the $700-billion bailout package for the US economy was passed. Paulson's unmistakable message was that the United States was on the brink of an abyss.
Meanwhile, the White House, the center of power in this superpower, seemed oddly abandoned, as if no one were at home. As if 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., were temporarily closed for renovations. It wasn't, of course, but amazingly enough, had it been, hardly anyone would have noticed. The master of the house, certainly, would be missed by only a few. Bush did address his fellow Americans to talk about the financial crisis, but he seemed oddly disinterested. And even in these dramatic times, hardly anyone was listening. He may still be the president, but is he no longer shaping policy.
"The fundamentals of our economy are strong," the president said in August. But what could be more disconcerting than to be told by George W. Bush that everything is going to be alright?
US in Deep Decline
Rarely has the decline of a nation -- and the soaring success of another -- been so strikingly documented as it was by the almost simultaneous events in Beijing and Washington at the end of September. Of course, the bailout package has since been approved (although Paulson revised the conditions attached to it based on the European model and it was coordinated with Beijing) and, of course, China has also been hard-hit by the worldwide financial crisis (although its economic growth, after "declining" from almost 12 percent last year to an estimated 8 percent this year, remains impressive against the backdrop of the American recession).
But none of this changes the fact that the United States is in deep decline, in the wake of the dramatically ruinous policies of George W. Bush, 62, and his administration. That decline begins at home. Never before have such low approval ratings been measured for a US president than for Bush in his last few months. They are currently at between 19 and 20 percent. More than four out of five Americans believe that the nation is "headed in the wrong direction." And the image and reputation of this dominant Western nation has also declined to a new low in the rest of the world during the two terms of the 43rd US president.
In Western Europe, the US's popularity has declined by almost half, and in Turkey by 75 percent. The numbers are even worse when it comes to Bush himself. Even the citizens of the two neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, consider George W. to be about as likeable -- and as dangerous -- as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to a recently published BBC poll, a majority of people worldwide believe that Washington's activities have in fact strengthened the al-Qaida terrorist organization. Absurdly, al-Qaida has a better image than the United States in Egypt and Pakistan, two countries that are the recipients of especially generous US financial assistance.
How could it have come to this? What is the legacy of the Bush era? And can a new man in the White House turn the tide?
Avoiding Bush Like the Plague
In the twilight of his presidency, George W. seems markedly relaxed among friends. He has built himself his very own Bush World, where everything has its place. There is no such thing as failure in this world. It serves as protective armor for Bush. It is a cosmos, a virtual, Manichean cosmos in which everything is clearly delineated between good and bad, perpetrators and victims. And, in this world, anyone who is not "with us" is branded a contemptible enemy.
When someone like journalist Bob Woodward approaches Bush with critical questions, he suddenly becomes forgetful. When asked about the notorious and decisive memo leading up to the Iraq war, the war president pleads overwork -- Oh, there was so much going on at the time, and it isn't much better today: If you only knew how much work there is to do here. And if the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist presses him for an answer, Bush can quickly become curt, the man of the permanent smile turning into the impatient that's-it-end-of-story president.
After seven years of Republican dominance in Washington, Bush's fellow Republicans now avoid him like the plague. Republican presidential candidate John McCain gave Bush all of 14 seconds of public togetherness, 14 seconds on the tarmac in front of Air Force One, on a day in May 2008. An armored black limousine pulled up to the plane, Secret Service agents opened the doors of the car, Bush and McCain came together briefly in a carefully choreographed moment in front of cameras that had been set up in advance, the president pinched the candidate's wife on the cheek and shook hands with his fellow Republican, but then McCain turned away, as if fearing pursuit. Bush jumped up the steps to the waiting aircraft, and the 14 seconds were up.
Bush did not attend the Republican Convention in September, instead delivering an address via satellite. Another hurricane threatening New Orleans required the president's presence in the disaster zone. But he was not missed by his fellow Republicans. The only person who had more than a few friendly words to say about Bush in St. Paul was his wife Laura.
Self-doubt is anathema to George W. He hates pity. And why should anyone pity him, pity the man with the "best job in the world," the job that, as he says, hasn't brought him challenging or satisfying experiences, but "joyous" ones. Only minor details suggest that his presidency is coming to an end. "You can hear his Texas accent creeping back into his voice rather than the I'm-the-president, no-accent kind of voice," a Bush confidant told the New York Times Magazine recently. Although the friend claims that Bush cares very little about his disastrous approval ratings, it is hard to believe George W. Bush when he says that he is not interested in his legacy.
A biography of Winston Churchill is on his night table, and a bust of the British statesman stands in his office. Churchill, consistent and ruthless and farsighted in his battle against evil, is Bush's political role model. In the United States, Bush likes to compare himself with Harry Truman who, despite his unpopularity, would not allow himself to be deterred from the course he believed was the right one and who many today consider rehabilitated, long after his death, because he kept a steady hand in the Cold War.
George W. would like to be remembered as a second Truman. "His view of leadership is defined as doing the right thing against pressure," Michael Gerson, a former Bush advisor, told the New York Times Magazine. The president himself was less eloquent when asked by Bob Woodward about his legacy: "History? We don't know. We'll all be dead."
'A Gambler Who Bet Everything on Iraq'
But the verdicts are already coming in. In a new survey of 109 historians, 107 call his presidency a failure, while 61 percent see George W. Bush as the worst president of all time. "We've never seen a presidential meltdown like this . This is a terrible loss, and a dangerous one, for the whole world is watching," writes Peggy Noonan, the speechwriter for former Republican President Ronald Reagan. According to historian and author Douglas Brinkley, Bush's "legacy is disastrous. He is a gambler who bet everything on Iraq."
"Gambler" and "Iraq" are the key terms in the life and work of George W. Bush, and they will likely remain so for eternity.
Iraq is the gaping foreign policy wound, even if the level of violence in Baghdad and some provinces has declined. The war violated international law, divided the allies and wounded the Americans in terms of their value system and self-respect. Over and above the enormous financial cost, the war has been the source of great human tragedy. More than 4,000 American soldiers and an estimated more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died, while more than four million Iraqi men, women and children have been forced to flee their country.
There will always be debates over whether it made sense to bring down the brutal regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with military force and become an occupying power. There is much to suggest that it was the wrong choice. It undermined America's political standing (while bolstering Iran's influence as a regional power) and, even among US allies, fueled the suspicion that Washington was solely interested in oil and military bases.
The answer to another, equally critical question is already beyond debate. There is "no longer the slightest doubt," writes The New Yorker, that the Bush administration lied to and manipulated the American public to gain support for the invasion of Iraq. It is also considered indisputable fact today that the conduct of the war was incompetent. It was a mistake for the Pentagon, but also a case of serious mismanagement by the White House, which talked itself into a euphoric state of victory. "One big problem with the war was the president himself," says George Casey, the former commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq.
Another ugly blemish on the Bush administration is the disgrace of human rights violations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The administration bears responsibility -- as it does for the scandalous weakening of prohibitions on torture, a move that is simply incompatible with a country based on the rule of law. The man in charge at the White House is believed to have directly approved the practice of waterboarding, which simulates the sensation of drowning in its victims.
Although the constitutional institutions in the United States have continued to function -- the free press has remained critical and the US Supreme Court has ruled twice that the Bush administration violated the Constitution, forcing the Bush team to make changes to its policies -- the world still sees the United States in moral decline.
The loss of trust in the United States as a superpower is reinforced by its undisguised contempt for international organizations like the United Nations and for agreements like the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as its relative unwillingness, as the world's biggest air polluter, to take the pressing problems of climate change seriously.
The domestic consequences of the Bush years have also been catastrophic. The national debt has almost doubled, to an inconceivable $10 trillion (€7.75 trillion). The number of Americans without health insurance rose by over eight million to 47 million, while the number of those living below the poverty line grew by almost six million. Bush's tax breaks for the country's wealthiest citizens have made America's already extreme social disparities even more glaring. Every week, the top 1 percent of US income earners becomes an average of $1,000 (€775) richer, while those in the lower fifth on the income scale see only an additional $1.50 (€1.17) in their wallets.
Continues to Shape Him
George W. Bush can endure this because his value system is one that allows him to be at peace with himself. The man who his father (and predecessor in office) declared a failure more than once, who was an alcoholic and then rehabilitated himself after becoming a fundamentalist Christian, clings to his faith and the conviction that "the guy upstairs" is giving him the right advice. With God on his side, Bush compensates for his addictive behavior -- but in reality it continues to shape him.
"He's the first one to admit that he has an addictive personality, and he has to channel this addictiveness to constructive things," his friend Dan Bartlett told the New York Times Magazine.
Like a man possessed, Bush ignored all warnings on the subject of the Iraq War. Like an addict, he now clings -- during the worst financial crisis in the last 50 years, which ought to consume all of his attention -- to sports. He spends hours riding his bike, taking ever longer and more difficult routes. He is suddenly deeply involved in opening ceremonies for local tennis, baseball and softball events.
Bush is a man on the run -- from himself and his legacy. And he looks on, apparently in disbelief, at how the world loves to hate him, and how even close friends are leaving the sinking ship he still claims to be steering.
The scene is a book unveiling in Washington, DC, in May 2008. The author is a professional. His name is Scott McClellan, he was the president's press secretary, and he was considered a loyal representative of the White House and a staunch advocate of the policies of his boss. But today he is no longer praising the administration's achievements. Scott McClellan, 40, is settling scores with his former employer -- with the verve and toughness and relentlessness unique to spurned lovers.
His book is titled "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." On the day of its publication, it is already clear that it will be yet another heavy blow for the president, who praised McClellan when he resigned from his job at the White House in 2006 as one of the "best of our country" and as someone who "handled a challenging assignment with class and integrity." The attacks on Bush could hardly hit any closer to home. According to a White House insider, the president, stunned, read the words on the jacket and angrily tossed the book into a corner.
Too Gullible and Insufficiently Critical
"Scottie" McClellan has known Bush since their days together in Texas. He still admires him, says the former press secretary at his book unveiling. He adds that he does not consider George W. to be a bad person, only a weak one who is and was easily manipulated. McClellan concludes that his former boss has an extreme aversion to analysis and is the victim of self-suggestive wishful thinking -- that "his leadership style is based more on instinct than deep intellectual debate," as McClellan wrote in his book.
It was only gradually, says Bush's friend of many years, that he realized how policy was shaped in the White House. All too often, according to McClellan, the goal was that of "manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage." Not without a healthy dose of chutzpah, Bush's former spokesman accuses the American media of having been too gullible and insufficiently critical.
This is the sort of accusation that causes journalists to sit back and take a deep breath. Is this man a Judas who trims his sails to the wind and an opportunist hoping to make a few bucks with his revelations? Or is he a truly disappointed man, an upstanding conservative who is criticizing the failings of the Bush administration out of conviction and a sense of moral dilemma?
The reviews have been overwhelmingly negative. Commentators note sharply that McClellan was surprisingly good at hiding his doubts and keeping his true feelings hidden from everyone else. Nevertheless, hardly anyone questions the veracity of McClellan's account. A few weeks after the publication of McClellan's book, it is already at the top of the bestseller lists. McClellan himself is considering a career in politics, or perhaps in journalism. And just recently, he endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
It has become a popular game to use Bush as the punching bag, to blame him for everything and to paint him as an object of hate. And yet, say many experts, Bush has changed during his second term. The man who once insisted on waging US wars with ad-hoc coalitions -- and without his reluctent allies -- was again making overtures to the international community.
It Wasn't Just the President Alone
There were the negotiations with North Korea, together with the Chinese, Russians, South Koreans and Japanese, which led to the extremely wobbly Pyongyang promise to halt its nuclear weapons program; the cautious agreement with European negotiating partners on the question of the Iranian nuclear program, and even the first direct diplomatic contacts with adversaries in Tehran; the late -- far too late -- diplomatic initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the abandonment, albeit only verbally so far, of a hard-line position on climate protection -- aren't all of these things signs that George W. has become more refined, at least a little?
America's allies, to be sure, no longer had to read the papers to learn about the president's decisions during Bush's second term. It is also true that, now that the financial crisis is turning into an economic crisis, Washington may even be more willing to engage in real international cooperation than Berlin. But it is also true that one man -- the president himself -- disavows these changes. The New York Times Magazine recently reported on a conversation between the military historian Max Boot and the president, in which Boot asked Bush about changes in White House policies during his second term. But Bush, clearly irritated, replied: "That's ridiculous. That's not true. I've been fighting for this (freedom agenda) from Day One. It's part of everything I do."
And it wasn't just the president alone. His entire team felt bound by this agenda and bears its fair share of the responsibility for the crumbling of America's unique position of power. It is the team that formed in his initial years as president: Richard Cheney, the vice-president; Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense for many years; Condoleezza Rice, the former national security advisor and current secretary of state; and Colin Powell, Rice's predecessor at the State Department.
Religious Convictions and Messianic Eagerness
Cheney, 67, has something in common with Bush. He too had problems with alcohol as a young man and, like his later boss George W., was arrested for drunk driving and lost his driver's license. But Cheney, who comes from a middle-class, white-collar family, did not have a prominent über-father. He fought against his weaknesses with an iron will. He was interested in big business and politics, and in combining them in ways that were as lucrative and career-promoting as possible. He was always a man of few scruples. He met Rumsfeld, who was of similar makeup, in the 1960s. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
After holding a series of high-level positions, first in Washington and later in the oil industry, Cheney joined George W. Bush's campaign team in 2000 to head his vice-presidential search committee. He cleverly played off all the potential candidates against one another and neglected to mention his serious heart condition, so that, in Bush's eyes, there was only one possibly candidate left for the job of vice-president: Cheney himself. Vastly superior to the president intellectually and always ready to outwit cabinet members, "Dick" became the most powerful vice-president in US history -- and, with his talent for currying favor and his calculating assertiveness in the White House, probably the most powerful man in the United States.
If religious convictions and a messianic eagerness to export democracy played a role in Bush's decisions -- political scientists call it "well-meaning imperialism" -- Cheney was a supreme expert in power politics. Pipelines, oil reserves and military bases were his maxims, and expanding American power at all costs his ambition. He lost all restraint after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will," he told Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press," five days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. "We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world...and use any means at our disposal." This meant, as it turned out, the torture and the kidnapping of suspects, among other things. Cheney consistently treated the US Constitution as a document to be interpreted broadly. His nickname is Darth Vader, the character representing the Prince of Darkness in the "Star Wars" films.
Cheney's friend Rumsfeld, 76, a former navy pilot, a hawk and a proponent of preventive war, was considered a star in Bush's cabinet for some time. He was quick-witted, funny and cynical. But then the mismanagement of the Iraq war came crashing down over his head, and he was also held politically responsible for the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison, even though he never actually admitted to that responsibility. By November 2006, Rumsfeld had become too much of a liability to be kept on as defense secretary. At Rumsfeld's farewell ceremony, Bush praised the outgoing defense secretary as a "superb leader during a time of change," and as a man who made the "world a safer place."
Since then, internal memos have been dug up in which Rumsfeld dictates his instructions to his staff. "Keep elevating the threat," he wrote, as the Washington Post reported a year ago. "Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists." He showed his contempt for Muslims by noting that they avoided "physical labor." His creed was: "People are looking for leadership. Sacrifice = Victory."
But there is little in the way of personal sacrifice in the life of "Rummy." Since being forced to step down, he is often flown in a private Learjet to his 50 acre ranch in New Mexico, where he likes to hunt coyotes and cut down trees with a chainsaw. Otherwise, the former Pentagon chief lives in Maryland, just around the corner from Cheney's estate. Cheney is the only former colleague Rumsfeld still sees today.
Two Puppet Masters
Rumsfeld, busy writing his memoirs, has no regrets or trouble sleeping. He ignores the protestors who refer to him as a "war criminal" and demand to see him tried before the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, even when they demonstrate near his ranch. "It's a free country," he says. "People can say whatever they want."
Cheney and Rumsfeld never completely trusted Condoleezza Rice. She was simply not invited to some meetings, and Rumsfeld was often absent at meetings she asked him to attend. On one occasion, Rice was so upset that she burst into tears according to a new Cheney biography by Barton Gellman called "Angler." She was kept in the dark about an intelligence unit at the Pentagon that, circumventing the CIA, was to provide the hardliners with reasons to justify going to war with Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to treat Rice as their equal, despite the fact that she had Bush's ear and was just as adept on matters of intelligence as the two puppet masters were.
Rice, 53, brilliant, goal-oriented and as well-versed on nuclear issues as she is in classic diplomacy, is nevertheless -- or perhaps precisely because of her qualifications -- one of the biggest disappointments of the Bush years. She looked up to the president without voicing her criticism, instead of waking him up from his dangerous dreams. She fed Bush talking points instead of correcting him.
The United States could not wait to be attacked by its enemies, she said. Referring to the risk of Iraq obtaining a nuclear weapon, she said: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," and she characterized the invasion of Iraq as "anticipatory self-defense." She exculpated the United States, the world's number one polluter, by called the Kyoto climate protocol "dead on arrival." She spent time with her boss at family events on his ranch, went fishing with him and helped him complete crossword puzzles, and even sang hymns with him on board Air Force One. But when push came to shove, she said nothing and nodded. She proved ultimately incapable of standing up to the president. Only in the last few months, when it was already too late, did she gain some stature in the Middle East with her sharp criticism of Israel's settlement policy, which is in violation of international law.
Bush on Trial?
Colin Powell, 71, was the biggest loser on the Bush team, and yet he could still end up being the biggest winner. As Rice's predecessor, he was a paragon of weakness and misunderstood loyalty. Although he was the only member of Bush's inner circle to argue against the Iraq war, Powell, ever the military man accustomed to obeying orders, had the president's support at the critical moment. The man who helped President George H.W. Bush win the first Gulf War over Kuwait, a war approved by the UN, accepted the unilateral American invasion in 2003. And, in February of that year, he argued the case for the war with an impassioned speech before the UN Security Council.
None of the "evidence" of weapons of mass destruction Powell presented to the international community held up to closer inspection. It was a house of cards constructed of lies. Powell later referred to his appearance at the UN as a "blemish" on his career and said that he felt used. Only when his resignation could no longer have any effect did he draw the necessary conclusions. He wrote bestseller memoirs, gave talks and appeared to have removed himself from active politics -- until two weekends ago, when he dropped a bombshell: Powell, a Republican and successful African-American, endorsed Barack Obama, a Democrat and successful African-American. Because everyone knows that Powell has been friends with McCain for decades, the endorsement was especially significant.
In explaining his decision, the general said that Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is not ready to be vice-president, criticized McCain's response to the economic crisis and praised his opponent as a "transformational figure."
Always an Option
Is Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, who was national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and one of the Republican Party's leading figures, about to embark on a new career in a Democratic administration? Obama has not ruled it out, while Powell remains reticent on the subject. But he also appears to be enjoying the personal settling of scores for countless humiliations he suffered under Cheney, Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. None of these men is truly among the ranks of the powerful anymore, but Powell still is.
While Powell exacts his revenge on George W. with political finesse, others want to see Bush put on trial -- always an option in the "Land of the Free."
The creases in his suits are as sharp as the furrows in his hawk's face and his gift of gab. This man, the Hollywood archetype in the fight against crime, is not someone one would want to be up against in a courtroom. He has prosecuted 21 murder cases -- and he has won all 21.
Vincent Bugliosi, 74, is considered a legend in American criminal justice. He put Charles Manson in prison for life in 1971, even though the Satanist did not kill Sharon Tate himself. Now Bugliosi wants to see a new spectacular case go to trial. He wants to prosecute George W. Bush -- for committing murder thousands of times. Is he serious? Or is it just a PR gag to help him work his way through the talk shows and feed his ego as he promotes a highly provocative book?
Anyone who meets Vincent Bugliosi quickly notices two things. First, the man is not a stranger to vanity. He knows how to capture media attention for himself and his cases. After the Manson trial, Bugliosi wrote "Helter Skelter," the highest-selling nonfiction crime book in history. But, all commercial ambitions aside, the second thing about Bugliosi is that he is angry and determined, out of deep conviction, to conduct a crusade against George W. Bush.
If the president had started the Iraq war to avert an imminent threat to the American people, there would be no "case," Bugliosi argues in his book, "The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder." But, as the legal expert argues, because Bush concocted an imminent danger posed by Saddam Hussein and led the nation into a "criminal war," he should be held responsible. And that responsibility, in Bugliosi's view, extends to the death of each and every one of the 4,000 US soldiers killed in Iraq.
Bugliosi argues that any of the 50 state attorneys-general "could bring a murder charge against Bush for any soldiers from that state who lost their lives fighting Bushs war." In his book, Bugliosi writes: "Remember, Clinton was impeached for allegedly trying to cover up a consensual sexual affair. What do you recommend for Bush for being responsible for more than 100,000 deaths? Nothing? He shouldn't be held accountable for his actions?" Bugliosi is clearly a show master on a mission.
America is still licking its wounds, is still caught up in an election campaign more thrilling and full of substance than any other campaign has been in decades. But the new man in the White house will inherit two costly wars that are almost impossible to win, a record deficit and a deep recession, all of which will sharply curtail his ability to govern. What options does the next, the 44th president of the United States, have left, and which of the two candidates is better equipped to cope with the challenges?
The United States is in the midst of fundamental change. Everything for which the country was famous is now being questioned, both at home and abroad. The "liberal democracy" based on the Washington model is no longer considered necessarily the best path to guaranteed prosperity, now that the deregulated US economy has experienced its own fiasco and the doctrine of allowing the markets to regulate themselves has imploded. For much of the world, the phrase "exporting democracy" is now synonymous with unilateral military intervention and hegemonic ambitions.
Quietly Slipped Away
Ironically, nations with authoritarian regimes now play, as a result of their large foreign currency reserves and sovereign wealth funds, a key role in shaping the economic future of the United States: the People's Republic of China, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. And Europe, long derided from across the Big Pond as an "economic museum" and a region contaminated by socialism, is now looking much better, writes the International Herald Tribune, "as old perceived faults -- greater state involvement in the economy, taxes on consumption to encourage savings, a broader social safety net in times of recession -- suddenly look far-sighted in the wake of Wall Street's near collapse."
Many of the neocons who supported Bush's course intellectually, like Richard Perle and David Frum, have quietly slipped away. Sorry boys, it was just an idea, seems to be their motto. Only a few staunch American conservatives, like McCain advisor Robert Kagan, still believe that the United States "is definitely still number one." According to the leading voices in the Democratic Party now shaping the political debate, the United States is an empire in decline, at least at the moment. They want to see the country acknowledge this and take advantage of the inherent opportunities in any crisis.
In their view, the American model is discredited, at least temporarily. Many in the Third World are now more attracted to Chinese-style autocracy, a state capitalism that limits the freedom of the individual for the good of the nation. Europeans recognize the deficits of authoritarianism and want to retain a free market economy, while at the same time calling for more government intervention. The well-known British philosopher and author John Gray calls it a "historic political shift" and notes: "The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over."
In a world in which the human pyramid at Abu Ghraib has replaced the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the United States (particularly in large parts of the Middle East), the first task for George W. Bush's successor must be to reestablish America's moral authority. This includes the immediate closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo, an unequivocal termination of CIA practices like the kidnapping of terror suspects and the condemnation of all forms of torture. On the home front, the new president will have to discipline and regulate Wall Street, reform the healthcare system from the ground up, introduce a rigorous energy conservation program and straighten out the tax system so that the very rich are asked to pay their fair share and the middle and lower classes face less of a tax burden.
The Job Ahead
On the foreign policy front, the new US president should commit himself to renewed strong cooperation with international organizations, agree to binding targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions, join the International Criminal Court and refrain from modernizing the country's nuclear arsenal. In terms of international relations, the next president's term could signal the dawning of a new age of diplomacy that requires unusual steps: a speedy withdrawal from Iraq that respects the needs of that country's population; the relinquishment of an American and British special status in the exploitation of Iraq's oil reserves; a strategy for Afghanistan that prevents it from turning into a new base for international terrorism, one that includes both punitive military expeditions and a much stronger emphasis on civilian reconstruction and ventures to take unusual steps, like the inclusion of "moderate" Taliban in the peace process.
In the worldwide ideological contest, there is much to support the idea that Bush's successor in the White House could take Europe's side in the struggle to promote the better system. And that he should use all diplomatic means at his disposal to seek a solution to the Iran conflict that would prevent or at least delay Tehran's plans to develop nuclear weapons.
But this new America could be costly for Europeans. No matter who wins the election next week, the victor will smile and invite the allies to join him at the negotiating table -- and his demands will be considerable: more money for reconstruction in Iraq, and a greater commitment to the war in Afghanistan. Can John McCain, 72, carry out America's Herculean challenges, or is Barack Obama, 47, the better man for the job?
"John McCain is a fighter. In fact, his bellicosity has increased over the past few years as he has discovered his inner neoconservative," writes Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and author of the bestseller "The Post-American World." "He wants to keep the battle going in Iraq, speaks casually of bombing Iran and is skeptical of the Bush administration's diplomacy with North Korea. He wants to kick Russia out of the G-8 and humiliate China by excluding it from that body as well. He sees a "league of democracies" locked in conflict with an alliance of autocracies. This is cold-war nostalgia, not a strategy for the 21st century."
Inventing the Future
And then there is Democratic candidate Obama, who Zakaria sees as a man for a new beginning and as a deeply inspiring figure. "Imagine what people around the world would think if they saw America once again inventing the future," Zakaria writes.
A healthy dose of self-confidence is necessary, because America is in jeopardy of losing its greatest asset: its notorious optimism about the future. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the number of people who believe that things will be better in five years than they are today has dropped to its lowest point since the organization first began asking this question 44 years ago -- and the poll was even taken a few weeks before the Wall Street collapse.
At the World Financial Summit in New York in mid-November, George W. Bush will be the "lame duck" among the leaders of the world's most important nations. It is possible that he will invite his successor to take part in the talks. That would make sense, because any resolutions reached at the summit, while barely affecting Bush's remaining term in office, will critically shape the next administration.
One can characterize it as tragic, comical or revealing that the president, shortly before leaving office, will face the task of participating in a new global economic order that he resisted for so long and that he must now approach in cooperation with all potential rivals in the struggle for international dominance.
Or perhaps it is simply consistent with the personality of someone who is preparing to embark on a new life without saying goodbye to his old life, someone who is only beginning to explore the contours of his life in retirement.
Crawford, Texas, is his adopted hometown, a town profiled in a recent issue of the New Yorker. This is "Bush country." He invites favored heads of state to stay there, and he repeatedly stresses that the place is his source of energy. Crawford, a town of 705 inhabitants and seven churches, is set in the midst of a flat, monotonous prairie. A Bush campaign sign leans against a grain silo on Main Street. The wind has knocked the sign from its frame, but no one has bothered to straighten it again.
There were once seven shops in Crawford that sold Bush souvenirs. Three have gone out of business and business is slow in the other four. The last time anything newsworthy happened in the town was five months ago, when the president's daughter, Jenna, was married. Tourists crowded into the local coffee shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride and her groom. But they went home disappointed, where they could watch the bride, beaming in her Oscar de la Renta gown, and George W. stiffly serving up oysters and crab cocktail instead of steak and pretzels -- on television.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. paid many a visit to his hometown. When he moved into the White House, a citizens' group organized local festivals and fireworks in Bush's honor. Crawford voted almost unanimously for its most famous son, even in his second run for office. In 2005, Cindy Sheehan, the angry mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, temporarily transformed the place into the headquarters of the antiwar movement. The locals were less than amused, and the community became divided.
When Bush gave a campaign speech in Crawford a few weeks ago, barely a dozen journalists showed up for the event, while many locals stayed at home. They will be seeing even less of George W. in the future, as the family looks for a condominium in the city. He plans to write his memoirs and establish a "Freedom Institute" next to his presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The New Yorker reported on his appearance at a Republican fund-raiser in Houston. "Wall Street got drunk, and now it's got a hangover," said an upbeat lame-duck president. "And then we got a housing issue," he said, "not in Houston -- evidently not in Dallas, because Lauras over there trying to buy a house today."
The audience laughed. When someone asked why he wasn't planning to move to Crawford full-time, Bush replied: "I like Crawford. Unfortunately, after eight years of asking my wife to sacrifice, I am no longer the decision maker. She'll be deciding."
And so the small town of Crawford, Texas will like return to insignificance. Rural Texas now faces the same concerns as all of America. Because of high gasoline prices, Franklin Industrial Minerals, the town's biggest employer, is considering switching to a four-day work week. Most people in Crawford are worried about their jobs.
Little remains of the legacy of George W. Bush. Perhaps a few words carved into a slab of granite near a church. The names of Crawford residents who died in past wars are engraved in the shimmering stone. They include native sons Charles Jageler and Tommie Lee Symank, both "killed in action" in Vietnam. There is still plenty of room in the Vietnam list. Below that, the word "Iraq" is carved into the stone.
But there are no names listed under Iraq. Not yet.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan