Two and a half years ago I predicted George W. Bush’s victory in the 2004 elections as well as the subsequent ruin of his political fortune. “Many will be the night during his second term,” I wrote in August 2004, “that Bush will wish he were still in Texas, and still drunk.” [1]

Here is a follow-on forecast: brother Jeb, about to step down as governor of the state of Florida, will be elected president of the United States in 2008, thanks in large measure to the rebound of the current president’s standing. In fact, I have no idea whether this will occur. But I raise the prospect to show why it could occur.

Of George W. Bush apres elections, one must ask: “If he so dumb, how come he ain’t poor?” Financial markets do not think the world is at great risk. America’s stock market gained about 14% in price during 2006, and the US economy ended the year on a positive note. The price of oil has fallen by roughly a quarter from its July peak. The world continues to throw US$800 billion a year – the savings of Asia and then some – at America’s capital markets. Asians cannot earn money to be saved without selling to the American consumer, and they cannot invest their savings except in United States. Clueless as US policy might appear now, regaining the initiative is a far simpler matter than it seems. The US needs the help of Russia, China and India among others. But it can offer prospective partners enough of what they want to obtain what it requires.

For all America’s embarrassment in Iraq, none of its fundamental interests is impaired by Iraq’s misery. Almost a year ago, I made this argument under the rubric The case for complacency in Iraq:

“As usual, I find things there amiably awful!” Mephisto retorts when God chides him for caviling about evil circumstances on Earth. After two years of predicting civil war in Iraq, Mephisto’s words come to mind now that civil war has arrived. God helps drunks, small children, and the United States of America, the old saying goes. Someone is helping the United States in Iraq, although here it might not be God but rather the other fellow. [2]

The US may not get what it wants, which is to remake the world in its own image, but it well might get what it needs, which is the elimination of the prospect of threats greater than the sort that an aircraft-carrier task force or two can swat down in a few days. Whether the late Saddam Hussein actually represented a potential threat of that sort, or whether bravado and self-delusion inflated an impostor’s efforts at blackmail, historians will debate for some time. But the US (like its European allies) continues to have an interest in preventing a new Shi’ite empire from dominating the Persian Gulf region, especially if such an empire might obtain nuclear arms.

As long as no prospective nuclear power arises to challenge US and allied interests in the Persian Gulf, the United States can declare victory and go home, leaving the unfortunate Iraqis to their own devices. The US might simply begin aerial bombardments of Iranian nuclear-weapons-development facilities, although the cost of such action would be much higher oil prices and economic instability. China would suffer the most under such a scenario and understandably wants no such thing to occur.

Last year I forecast (wrongly) a US strike against Iran by year-end. [3] I had given too much credence to widely circulated reports that Iran might be able to deploy a nuclear device by mid- to late 2007. US and Israeli military estimates today give Iran a minimum of three years, and more likely five years, to build a deployable bomb. There simply is no reason to take preemptive military action in the immediate future, and no responsible power would employ this option unless it were quite necessary.

There may be other ways to skin the Persian cat, particularly if Russia and China choose to cooperate in the exercise. Iran’s exportable oil surplus may disappear during the next decade, according to recent estimates. [4] If Saudi Arabia makes good on the threat offered by Nawaf Obaid in the November 28 Washington Post to sink the oil price, Iran’s capacity to subsidize its increasingly indigent population will vanish.

Securing Russian and Chinese cooperation with US strategic objectives, I believe, is a far simpler proposition than is portrayed in the myth of US imperial decline. The challenge to US power in Asia, as M K Bhadrakumar reported on December 23 on this site, [5] comes from Russia, China and a number of Central Asian republics through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Washington persuaded the Shanghai group to reject Iran’s application for full membership, but the risk remains that a Sino-Russian agreement to side with Iran might seriously damage US interests.

There is no point negotiating with the present regime in Teheran, which knows better than outsiders that it has barely a decade to stake its imperial claim in the region before economic and demographic factors push it into inevitable decline. With President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has sublimated decline of Iran’s position in the real world into an apocalyptic fantasy, there can be no debating. One has to drive a stake through his heart.

There is a great deal for the United States to negotiate with China and Russia, however; and the terms of negotiation appear so simple and lucid as to make a successful outcome likely enough.

What does China want? The world’s most populous country and soon-to-be-largest economy wants many things, but all of them hinge upon achieving what President Hu Jintao calls the “harmonious society,” addressing, that is, the skewed distribution of rewards to different sectors of Chinese society. China must settle perhaps 15 million rural migrants in cities each year, while building infrastructure and employment in the interior and correcting urgent environmental problems. To do this, China requires stability and predictability in its foreign economic relations.

What does Russia want? Stability on its borders, often at the expense of the aspirations of peoples who have the misfortune to occupy the Russian near abroad, and a free hand in arranging the economic affairs of the Russian state. Moscow wants no disruptive “color revolutions” to its immediate west and south, and no challenge to its authority from the so-called oligarchs who inherited the commanding heights of the economy from the defunct Soviet state.

Fostering democracy in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia and other venues was the silliest undertaking of US foreign policy of all time. Americans enthusiastically kill people who threaten them, and they do not mind too much the loss of American soldiers in the cause of US security, but they rise up in anger at the sacrifice of American lives.

I expect Washington to take the opportunity of the next moonless night to bury the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan, the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, and other exercises in shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. By promoting democracy through the so-called color revolutions, the US State Department merely succeeded in diversifying the composition of the oligarchs who exploit the fragments of the former Soviet Union.

Cruel as it may sound, the United States has no interest in Ukraine, because the Ukrainians have no interest in Ukraine. Through immigration or infecundity, Ukraine has the hideous distinction of the world’s fastest rate of population decline (tied with Moldova). The number of Ukrainians will fall by half as of mid-century. There simply won’t be any Ukrainians to oppress a hundred years from now, and there is no point wasting powder on the place.

America’s tender concern for democracy in the European nation least likely to succeed has been a major source of annoyance to Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with the proliferation of US bases in other former Soviet republics. What the US hopes to gain from such exercises is obscure. What it stands to lose in the Persian Gulf, however, by antagonizing the Russians is quite tangible.

In a rational world, Bush would call Putin and say more or less: “Listen, Volodya, I have to admit that some of the inmates at the State Department overstayed their passes out of the asylum in the matter of Ukraine. I have reviewed the matter and decided that the United States has no interests whatever in Ukraine – nor for that matter in Georgia, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. But you also must understand that we have some quite serious concerns about Iran, and we expect your help.”

It goes without saying that Washington will put the problems of Chechnya at extreme length as part of the bargain.

Reaching an understanding with China is a simpler matter, for China’s concerns are univalent. China’s concern for internal stability (“harmony”) outweighs any conceivable foreign-policy issue. The US president has it within his power to make the job of the Chinese government much, much easier. Bush should say more or less the following to Hu Jintao: “We understand and support your ‘harmonious society’ program. China’s stability and prosperity are essential to the world’s stability and prosperity. We understand that in the present economic transition, it would be of great help to China to eliminate the uncertainty associated with the value of the dollar against the yuan. Without publicizing the matter, we propose to keep the yuan-dollar exchange rate stable during the next two years.”

Of course, Bush would explain to Hu that the United States expects China to understand that it must protect vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

Once the America’s mission changed from the delusional goal of promoting democracy in Iraq or Lebanon, to the achievable one of eliminating threats to the US and its allies (in this case Saudi Arabia and Israel), foreign policy would be fun again. I use the word “fun” advisedly. What does Turkey think of all this? Is Turkey’s Islamist drift a concern? In that case, will Washington support an independent Kurdistan, the bane of Turkish policy? Will the US shift resources to Sunnis to combat Iranian-allied militias in Iraq? Will Saudi Arabia crush the price of oil temporarily to discomfit Iran? Will Russia help twist arms in Tehran to avoid the use of the oil-price weapon against Ahmadinejad?

There is no point gaming such scenarios in advance. The point is that the US holds all the options (in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense) and thus benefits from uncertainty.

A year is a lifetime in US politics. After the first Iraq war, George Bush pere ran a 90% approval rating and appeared unbeatable, yet beaten he was two years later by the obscure governor of Arkansas, an unimaginable result in 1990. Bush fils suffered an even more extreme turnabout of fortune. Under the circumstances, I do not think it would be very difficult for Bush to recover. He must make clear to the chastening public that he has learned his lesson. He well might become so popular as to make his brother the logical successor. It will not hurt Jeb Bush, either, that he is married to a Mexican and speaks fluent Spanish.

[1] Careful what you Bush for, August 3, 2004).
[2] The case for complacency in Iraq, February 28, 2006.
[3] Bush’s October surprise – it’s coming, April 11, 2006.
[4] Civil wars or proxy wars?, December 5, 2006.
[5] The Great Game on a razor’s edge.

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