Is George W. Bush the worst president ever?
Last updated at 11:27am on 4th November 2006
Worst president?: George Bush
The end of the Bush presidency begins next week. That's what the opinion polls predict, with hints of a political tsunami on Tuesday.
Voters all across the United States are expected to deliver a wholehearted kick in the teeth to the Bush administration and the Republicans at the mid-term elections, in which both the Senate and Congress could fall to the Democrats.
Mr Bush and his advisers know he is in deep political trouble. Within the White House this weekend they fear that the Bush presidency could unravel. George W. Bush, after 9/ 11 the most popular president in American history, may serve out two more years in office, but will perhaps no longer hold power in any meaningful way.
He famously described himself as the 'war president' and now he could spend until January 2009 as a lame-duck president, fighting off an aggressive Democrat-led Congress determined to investigate why the Iraq war has gone so terribly wrong and demanding — among other things — the head of the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
Of course, many have written off George Bush before, only to find that they have underestimated him (or as Mr Bush might say, 'misun-derestimated' him). Yet many here in Washington — Republicans as well as Democrats — believe we really are entering the twilight of the Bush presidency.
Some go further. They cheer what they hope is the beginning of the end for what they see as the worst president in American history.
If the Democrats do gain control of Congress, they will launch a blizzard of inquiries over the profound failures of American foreign policy. It won't be like the Hutton or Butler inquiries in Britain; it will be more like a re-run of Watergate. A primitive tribe will demand a blood sacrifice because things have gone terribly wrong. And they have.
In my lifetime, I have never experienced around the world and in Britain such loathing and contempt for America. It's as if the only acceptable racism in 2006 is to be anti-American.
A friend making a TV documentary on stand-up comedy told me that the one thing which unites comedians from Birmingham to the Balkans to Bombay is that wherever jokes are told, you always get a laugh at America and President Bush. Always.
The fat, lazy, stupid American caricature never fails to have audiences rolling in the aisles.
At a local school in London, I gave a talk recently on world affairs to a group of clever kids ranging in age from 14 to 18.
When I mentioned that I was concerned about a possible war with Iran over the Iranian nuclear programme, more than half the pupils said they were more likely to believe the Iranians than the Americans. Can it really have come to this?
In the sixth year of the Bush presidency, do we in Britain now have a generation of young people so contemptuous of George Bush that they are more likely to believe the Islamic fanatics in Tehran, who speak of wiping Israel off the map, than the leader of the world's most powerful democracy? Sadly, yes.
One opinion poll published yesterday found that Britons now believe George Bush poses a greater danger to world peace than either the Iranian fundamentalist leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator who has plunged the world into a new nuclear arms stand-off.
American diplomats — patriotic and hardworking folk — privately are desperately worried that their country's image has never been so low among people who, even during difficult political times, usually respect America and like the American people and culture.
So where has it all gone so wrong? How could one man, one president, seemingly have destroyed the reputation of perhaps the greatest nation on earth?
Everyone associates George Bush with one phrase, summing up his foreign policy objectives. He told the world he would confront the 'Axis of Evil'. His phrase. His Axis. His Evil.
He named North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Judging Mr Bush by that standard, Americans are worried he has failed to achieve any of the major objectives he so publicly set himself.
North Korea has the atomic bomb. It has even exploded one in a test. And if this basket-case dictatorship is ever brought to heel it will not be by American diplomacy, but by the leadership of the Chinese communist party.
Then there's Iraq. What more can one possibly say? A bestselling American book describes the boldest gesture of the Bush presidency with one word: 'Fiasco.' President Bush appeared before a banner reading 'Mission Accomplished' a few years ago, but Washington's open secret — though Mr Bush will not admit it until after Tuesday's U.S. elections — is that the Bush administration is about to change course on Iraq radically.
The pragmatic American people — rather like many British people — do not spend a lot of time worrying about whether the war in Iraq is legal. They worry why it has not been won.
In U.S. warfare, winning is not the most important thing. It is the only thing. Calling yourself the 'war president' and then failing to win the war is a political error without parallel in recent American history.
Then there is Iran. An Iranian friend of mine — who despises the regime in Tehran — said to me sardonically a few months ago: 'How much do you think the Islamic Republic of Iran has paid George Bush?'
'What do you mean?' I asked.
'Well,' my friend responded, 'Bush has done more to help the regime achieve its foreign policy objectives than anyone else in 27 years.'
From the moment Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1989, after the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic regime has wanted a few simple things: to destroy Iraq's military power, to get rid of a dangerous rival in Saddam Hussein, to extend the Shia revolution, to expand Islamic fundamentalism, and to make America look bad, as 'the Great Satan' in the Middle East.
In the course of his presidency, Mr Bush has accomplished all those goals for them. Perhaps it should be the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who should be posing in front of a banner with the words 'Mission Accomplished'.
And so if the Democrats do win control of either House of Congress on Tuesday, all these perceived failures will be opened up to scrutiny.
The guts of the Bush administration will be laid bare on television night after night as, for the next two years, two questions dog the President: What did he know and when did he know it about Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction? And why did he prepare so badly for the aftermath of the war?
Meanwhile, with Republicans questioning the patriotism of the Democrats over the war issue, the political atmosphere in Washington has never been more toxic. Some highly partisan Democrats, who have never forgiven Republicans for what they see as the witch-hunt against Bill Clinton, will respond in kind as Bush faces his darkest hour.
Dave Gergen, a mainstream Republican who served Republican presidents and also Bill Clinton, said recently that in his long experience he has never witnessed such tribal hatreds in Washington.
Until now, the political genius of George W. Bush has been to hold together a powerful coalition of religious conservatives, economic conservatives and what could be called 'libertarians' — Americans who don't much like any kind of government interference in their lives.
All three groups now have reasons to be unhappy. True, taxes have come down under George Bush, and the stock market is racing ahead. But house prices are in trouble and 55 per cent of Americans told a recent poll their wages are not keeping pace with inflation.
The budget deficit is the highest ever, an enormous black hole that is worrying global economists. Libertarians worry about the increased size of the American government and — with the monitoring of telephone calls, military tribunals and other Big Government measures — the growing intrusions into private lives.
Even loyal religious conservatives have had their political faith shaken by sex scandals within the Republican party and the contempt with which some on the religious Right are apparently regarded within the White House.
I should, in all this, declare a bias. Not political, but personal. I have Republican friends and Democrat friends. But my bias is that I have always loved America. I grew up with Americans. As a child, there were American children in the small village in Scotland where I was raised, the sons and daughters of U.S. service personnel who — I was repeatedly told — were helping defend us from communism.
Unlike the Scottish sandwiches of the day — thin, almost transparent ham in tasteless white bread — the American sandwich had lettuce, bacon, tomato, pickles and cheese and was more than an inch high. For me — and millions like me — America has always been that gigantic sandwich, the dream of a ten-year-old boy.
I'm confident therefore that the genius of the ordinary American people will somehow win through whatever political troubles lie ahead. But I also remember how the whole world reacted to the atrocity that was 9/11.
Nato said it was prepared to go to war. Even Yasser Arafat — though it was a convenient photo opportunity — gave blood to show his solidarity. The Queen ordered the American national anthem to be played by guardsmen at Buckingham palace. Some wept at hearing it.
An American friend, Warren Hoge of the New York Times, told me of a stiff old Englishman who, hearing his American accent on the streets of central London, gave him a thoroughly uncharacteristic embrace, declaring: 'We're with you Yanks, yet again, whatever it takes.' And as a nation we were. But are we with them now?
On Tuesday I will be in Washington DC watching the U.S. election results and reporting for News-night. Personally I don't care whether the Republicans or the Democrats lose the House or the Senate. But I do care very much about why America has fallen so low in the eyes of the world.
And for that, one man may well be held accountable next Tuesday as his nation heads for the polls.