OPINION

Bush carves out his legacy in Asia

George Bush … contemplating a far more ambitious legacy.

George Bush … contemplating a far more ambitious legacy.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: AP

M.K. Bhadrakumar

Quacking and quacking, George Bush is waddling towards sunset with an aura of success that he hopes balances out his horrific sins in the Middle East.

A long time ago we heard U.S. President George W. Bush had become a lame duck. In April 2005, Craig Crawford, Washington TV commentator who famously distilled the 25 rules for survival in the brutal and manipulative world of American politics, felt certain “signs abound that the Bush presidency is winding down.”

The news coming in from Iraq was real bad. Four months later, with Hurricane Katrina swamping New Orleans, Jim Lobe wrote in September, Mr. Bush was “looking like a ‘political lame duck,’ struggling hard to stay afloat on a rising tide of pessimism and political discontent.” Lobe could never get things wrong. Indeed, the polls were showing stunning drops in public confidence; moderate Republicans were said to be deserting Mr. Bush’s camp.

Mr. Bush nonetheless carried on. His approval rating today is dismal. The campaign to find his successor is well under way. He is embattled by the Iraq war. Mr. Bush fits the textbook definition of a lame duck. Worse still, as James Forsyth of The Spectator magazine points out, even “Bush-hatred, like the president himself, has become a lame duck.” There were hardly any public protests during Mr. Bush’s European tour last month.

Mr. Bush is undeterred. He meant what he said during Christmas 2006, “I’m going to sprint to the finish.” Free of electoral pressures and the tyranny of popularity rating, the sprinter is gaining in velocity. Just as experts began concluding Mr. Bush’s missile defences were dying with his presidency comes the news from Washington last Tuesday regarding the U.S.-Poland deal for a future missile shield. The U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, will be arriving in Warsaw this week for follow-up. Not only that. The U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, revealed that Lithuania had agreed to consider hosting a missile interceptor base if the U.S. deal with Poland fell through. Now, that is how legacies are planned — tenaciously, silently, prudently — until the scaffolding gets removed.

What appears unthinkable, however, is that Mr. Bush’s finest legacies may yet be coming — from Asia, the continent that is “reshaping our world today,” to use Ms Rice’s recent words. Ms Rice’s speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC on June 18 gave away that the Bush administration was working hard. Ms Rice underlined, “United States, contrary to much of the commentary, is actually in a stronger position in Asia than at any other time.” She counted the calming of tensions across the Taiwan Strait; reaffirmation and “modernisation” of traditional alliances with Japan and South Korea; recasting of relations with China and Russia; and, finessing of a new global security agenda with Australia and an “enhanced partnership” with ASEAN as major diplomatic gains of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy in Asia.

Ms Rice said the U.S.’s “strategic accomplishments in Asia” also included “partnerships with a newly democratic Afghanistan, a democratic Pakistan, and an historic transformation of our relationship with the rising democratic power, India”. But the bulk of her speech related to North Korea problem, underlining Washington’s expectation Pyongyang will soon make a “verifiable, complete and accurate” declaration of its nuclear programmes, facilities and materials so that Mr. Bush claims a legacy.

As Mr. Bush heads toward Japan for the G8 summit in Hokkaido, he anticipates wrapping up two Asian legacies — and if luck holds, three. Beware the lame duck. As the Washington Post summed up, “George W. Bush’s presidency seems exhausted and irrelevant, but that’s a dangerous illusion. The Decider remains in command….” Clearly, North Korea has begun disabling its plutonium production facility at Yongbyon under the watchful eyes of U.S. inspectors. Ms Rice’s consultations in Beijing last week galvanised the process. The White House announced that Mr. Bush proposed to attend the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics.

Second legacy

Meanwhile, a second Asian legacy for the Bush era is also gaining traction. On Wednesday, on the sidelines of the G8, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will inform Mr. Bush New Delhi has decided to give the final push to the nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. The Indian deal goes way beyond Kim Jong il’s “denuclearisation.” It is a major non-proliferation move. India will surrender its right to test nuclear weapons; India’s nuclear programme will come under U.S. monitoring and control; and India’s capacity and will for augmenting its weapon stockpile will remain under U.S. scrutiny.

Equally, there is an enormous business spin-off. The U.S.-India Business Council estimated the downstream business to be in the region of $150 billion. It isn’t merely pork-barrel politics. Washington’s influence on the making of Indian economic policies will greatly increase. Then, there is the foreign policy spin-off. The deal becomes a powerful tool for the U.S. to encourage Delhi to continue to harmonise its foreign policy with the U.S. global strategies.

The deal leads to the dismantling of U.S. embargoes on transfer of military technology to India and the “interoperability” between the armed forces of the two countries becomes realisable. Most important, India will join the U.S. missile defence programme, which Delhi sees as vital for neutralising China’s strategic capabilities. Thus, from the U.S. perspective, Delhi is taking a decisive step toward a congruence of objectives with Washington where the principal elements are: a) making U.S.-India strategic partnership irreversible; b) seeking U.S. good offices as a facilitator in the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations; c) ensuring U.S. support in standing up to Chinese “hegemonism”; and d) availing of U.S. backing for India’s emergence as a world power.

No wonder, while paying lip service to the deal as critical to India’s energy security, Washington left no stone unturned for months ensuring Delhi didn’t develop second thoughts on the deal.

The big question now is whether Mr. Bush’s gargantuan appetite for Asian legacies would still be satiated. The indications are Mr. Bush is contemplating a far more ambitious legacy — India-Pakistan relations. Just think of two nuclear adversaries reconciling so that the world can sleep peacefully. There will be a lot on Mr. Bush’s mind following his meeting with Dr. Singh on Wednesday. He has three weeks to mull over before he hosts Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for lunch at the White House on July 28. Like his Indian counterpart, Mr. Gilani is also not the real power centre in Islamabad. Mr. Bush knows they are malleable individuals but he prefers to deal with them, since their desire for a legacy can’t possibly be any less than his. It is what the Chinese call a “win-win” situation.

A lot of back channel activity has been going on between Delhi, Islamabad and Washington. Nine-tenths of the way to a framework agreement on Kashmir have been covered. Much credit goes to Pervez Musharraf, but there is a broad consensus among Pakistani politicians for normalisation of relations with India. As for India, the ruling Congress party hopes to reap political dividends, as India-Pakistan relationship is an emotive issue for the Indian Muslim. If a rapprochement with Pakistan becomes possible and Dr. Singh visits Islamabad, the domestic political resonance will be such that in the 2009 parliamentary elections, Congress can tap the 130-million Indian Muslim community for a renewed mandate to rule.

From Washington’s perspective, harmonising India-Pakistan relations makes the U.S. the predominant power in South Asia. It has serious implications for Asian security as well as for the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. The fallout on Afghanistan can only be helpful. The U.S. diplomacy will become optimal. It makes a fine legacy.

It is extraordinary Mr. Bush’s finest legacies are to be found in Asia. He embarked on the presidential odyssey in 2001 with the promise to focus on his Latin American backyard. But his attention soon wandered to the Middle East. Mr. Bush had very little time to devote to Latin America. Meanwhile, his Middle East strategy lies in tatters. His “war on terror” stands discredited. And it is in Asia, where instead of the U.S. being rendered a sub-theme to China’s historic rise, Bush era is totting up success stories. Ms Rice said at the Heritage Foundation that when the Bush administration began, “it was a bit rocky in Asia.” But, as the Bush era draws to a close, a new strategic foundation for U.S. influence in Asia has been laid, “a platform of partnerships that will enable America to advance its interests and its values in this dynamic region for years to come.”

At a corresponding point in the Bill Clinton presidency, the beleaguered president, shaking off the Monica Lewinsky scent, sought a peace deal in Kosovo, but the mindless NATO bombardment of Serbia took the shine off it. Then he arranged peace talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, but they failed to culminate in a deal. Mr. Bush is a lucky man. Quacking and quacking, he is waddling towards sunset with an aura of success that he hopes balances out his horrific sins in the Middle East. There won’t be any tearful farewells on January 20, but he may at least slink home to Texas with a fine legacy or two — thanks to those inscrutable Asians.

(The writer is a former ambassador belonging to the Indian Foreign Service.)

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