The situation is as follows. Facing a great terrorist threat, the United States attacked the wrong country, ostensibly to eliminate a nonexistent WMD threat. Over a third of U.S. combat forces are tied down to this mission. Meanwhile, the scourge of jihadi terrorism has entered Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s human rights violations were at a low point during the last decade of his rule and his successors have not improved upon that record. Oil output has not improved since Hussein’s time despite the lifting of sanctions. Iraq’s meager oil revenues have flowed into the pockets of a few well-connected American corporations in return for less reconstruction than Hussein delivered after the previous war. The NATO alliance has clearly deteriorated. American popularity worldwide has plummeted, and that will have long-term material consequences. It would be difficult for any American, liberal or conservative, isolationist or internationalist, to view the main project of Bush’s first term as worth the price.
In the war on al-Qaeda and its allies Bush’s performance has been below what was feasible. He was right to retaliate against the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Bush was successful in bringing a change of direction in Pakistan, but he could have done better had he been a more determined negotiator in the beginning. He let Pakistan out of its financial crisis in return for a middle path between America and al-Qaeda. Eventually, even the middle path was not satisfactory to the jihadis and they turned upon Musharraf, forcing him into a tougher stand against them. Most critically, Bush let Osama bin Laden escape in the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001 by declining to use U.S. ground forces. His homeland security approach is considered excessive, but he did have to take steps to close at least a few avenues of terrorism.
Nonetheless, the deeper question of civil liberties remains. In many countries, governments fear alliances between domestic opponents and foreign enemies. It is this fear more than anything else that has curtailed civil liberties worldwide. In America this fear has been comparatively low since its founding. It is rising now. If there are more al-Qaeda attacks in America the pressure for ethnic profiling will increase. While the Democrats have not shown good leadership on ethnic profiling, whether directed at African-Americans or Muslims, Bush presents an even worse prospect.
Some analysts have justified the rise of torture under the Bush administration after 9/11 by invoking the scenario of a terrorist who knows of an impending attack on civilians. In reality, torture has been visited on numerous wholly innocent Iraqis, and on a few occasions with doctors assisting. The world, including Western countries, will not forget this for years.
The U.S. economy has fared indifferently. There may not have been much that Bush could have done to improve the employment picture in an economy governed more by globalized financial markets than government. But his policies on taxation, health insurance, and social welfare turned a period of stagnation into a much more painful experience for most Americans than it need have been. President Bush?s social policies are to the right of the majority of American opinion.
Despite all this, after the recent Republican National Convention, in the polls Bush has pulled ahead of Kerry, who got no bounce from his own convention performance. This is partly due to the gradual rise of fundamentalist Christianity in America. Sociologists place their numbers at a fifth of the American population at this time. This group is overwhelmingly, but not unanimously, right wing. There is good evidence that Americans with fundamentalist religious views and conservative politics have become more rigid in political and religious stands over the decades. But this group forms less than a third of Bush?s support base after the Republican Convention. Looking at the larger picture, the current phenomenon resembles the campaign of the elder George Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. In that campaign the Republicans were able to use the politics of attack, and the Democrats were not able to reply in kind.
If Bush wins, chances are he will not embark on more Iraq-like attacks. He is himself somewhat chastened by the events in Iraq. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld?s doctrine of using small numbers of U.S. forces with great technological support to impose imperial authority stands discredited. Occupying Iran, for example, would require over double the number of troops as occupying Iraq. The United States does not quite have the requisite number available at this time. Iran appears to be moving resolutely toward nuclear capability, so if the United States does not attack within two or three years, Iran will be able to conduct nuclear tests.
There is no reason to expect any major departures from Bush in economic policy, and the government will continue to promote economic inequality. Meanwhile, a China-driven Asian boom should deliver modest benefits to the U.S. economy.
Relations between India and the United States will not be much different under a Bush or Kerry presidency. If the United States does move to occupy Iran, India is likely to react more sharply than it did to the attack on Iraq. But short of that, India should be able to continue upgrading military cooperation with the United States. Bush is more open to outsourcing than Kerry, but the actual difference is minor. The breakdown of the army?jihadi alliance in Pakistan means that country will be less of a thorn in U.S.-India relations.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.