George W Bush versus the world?

“We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a part of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a part of Europe.” Governor George W Bush Jr

On January 20, George W Bush was inaugurated as the President of the United States. Although he gained fewer votes than his rival Al Gore, Bush won through the quirks of the electoral college system and controversial Florida result. But what will a Bush Presidency actually mean for the rest of the world? Nick McKerrell investigates.

Socialists will be aghast at Bush’s elevation to such a powerful position; although Gore would have provided little substantial difference. Indeed, many potential Gore electors chose to support Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who stood on a radical programme.

During the terminally dull Presidential debates last autumn George W Bush, desperately trying to distinguish himself from Al Gore, attacked the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, saying that they intervened overseas far too often. Under his leadership, he claimed, intervention would be “based on a strict definition of vital national interest”. Ominously for European leaders he said he would “very much like to get our troops out” of the Balkans and would work with the European allies “to convince them to put troops on the ground”. Playing to domestic fears of committing American troops abroad, Bush seemed to hint that the U.S. would be withdrawing partially from its role of policing the world.

Ironically, it was Bush’s own father who proclaimed after the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ‘New World Order’ led by America. Bush senior nevertheless lost the 1992 election to Clinton, who emphasised domestic policies with his slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. The Democrats successfully portrayed Bush as standing aloof from the recession in America while flying around the world. However Clinton’s presidency maintained the same approach to the rest of the world. America intervened across the globe, from Haiti, to Somalia, to Colombia, to the murderous sanctions against Iraq, to the bombing of Serbia, Afghanistan and the Sudan.

The rhetoric changed marginally. Each intervention was defended in high moral tones: America was helping democracy, defying dictators or even in the case of Serbia preventing genocide. Even some people on the left argued that American intervention was not always a bad thing. Clinton also attempted to take personal charge of the so-called peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. So does Bush being in power mean that those days are over and America has retreated back to defending its own interests? The Bush administration did not send one representative to the recent Davos conference, an annual event where most of the major capitalist strategists gather.

Both Clinton and Gore had visited in recent years. One European commentator, Dominique Moisi, stated: “It looked as though the Bush administration was moving from moralism abroad and cynicism at home to cynicism abroad and moralism at home.”(CNN website, January 26, 2001) Much of what Bush has said could probably be put down to electoral rhetoric. saying one thing before an election and acting another way once in power. This is what Clinton did after his attacks on Bush senior’s foreign policy in 1992. But he did really disagree with some of Clinton’s interventions, which were unpopular, resulted in attacks on US soldiers and largely failed in their intentions. Moreover, when Bush’s appointments to the key positions of Secretary of State, National Security Adviser and Defence Secretary are examined, a clearer picture emerges.


Bush, who in many ways is politically incompetent and inept, will be heavily reliant on his advisers and Cabinet. This is particularly true for foreign affairs. Bush has rarely travelled abroad. Questioned during the election by journalists about the governments and leaders of other countries, he quite clearly did not have a clue. One of his key advisers will be his Secretary of State General Colin Powell, an almost mythical ‘American hero’. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he rose through the army to be National Security Adviser and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although always close to the Republicans, he considered running for President in 1996 but decided not to. Clinton asked him to be Secretary of State in 1994 because of his popularity, but Powell refused. Bush has tried to portray Powell as a softer face in his administration. He is nominally in support of affirmative action programmes for minorities in America and pro-choice in the abortion debate. But the reality is that Powell has been knee-deep in US imperialism’s activities over the last thirty years. He worked in Reagan’s White House and was directly involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 80s. Working under Defence Secretary Weinburger, he issued the order to ship arms to Iran in violation of America’s own blockade. He was also one of the main contacts with the bloody right-wing death squads of Nicaragua, the Contras. In his autobiography he claims “during the Cold War you worked with what you had”.

Powell oversaw Bush senior’s invasion of Panama which cost the lives of several thousand Panamanians. He came to international prominence during the Gulf War in 1991. He oversaw the attack on Iraq, the re-taking of Kuwait and the massacre of 100,000 Iraqis, many of whom were surrendering, on the bloody road to Basra.

So Powell has been a loyal servant of US imperialism. But he has also been criticised by some representatives of American capitalism for being too cautious. He argues troops should only be engaged when there is a clear reason and an exit strategy.

For this reason he initially opposed going to war over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, saying: “We can’t make a case for losing lives in Kuwait.” (Economist, Dec 21, 2000) He is on record as opposing the bombing of the Serbs in Bosnia in 1995: “nobody really thinks [the West] has a vital interest [in Bosnia].”

This approach would seem to overlap with Bush’s own position and on balance it seems that there will be an immediate reluctance to get involved in overseas campaigns: unless of course the needs of imperialism demand it, as happened over the ‘war for oil’ in the Gulf despite Powell’s worries.

Certainly there will be no repeat of the interventions in Somalia or Haiti where American troops were put in place with no clear mandate. Another critical role will be played by Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, an African-American academic who was adviser to Bush senior on Russia. She echoes the views promoted by Bush - in reality he is probably echoing her: “Foreign affairs will also proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interest of an illusory international community.” (Financial Times December 19, 2000)

Apparently the idea of withdrawing from the Balkans came from her, although she prevented Bush giving a specific date by which American troops would be withdrawn.

The Republicans clearly feel that by placing two African-Americans at the centre of the administration they can appeal to the American Black community, which if it voted at all overwhelmingly opposed Bush. However, Black or not, both are extremely wealthy right-wing representatives of US imperialism.


Another significant figure in American imperialism’s strategy will be Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who already held this position under Gerald Ford in 1974. He is very close to the Vice -President, Dick Cheney.

His importance is due to his advocacy of a new National Missile Defence (NMD), a system labelled “Son of Star Wars” after Reagan’s ill-fated scheme in the eighties to attack Soviet missiles.

This scheme would counter any ballistic missile attack on America by activating a satellite defence network. It is aimed, in Bush’s words, to counter “rogue states” like Iraq, North Korea and Libya. Like unimaginative Hollywood action directors they have to go to bizarre lengths to think up new baddies to fight. Rumsfeld himself compiled a report in 1998 for Congress stating that since the Cold War ended the US was more susceptible to ballistic missile attack! Such reasoning is spurious to say the least and the whole NMD scheme has more to do with giving work and money to the powerful military-industrial complex which has had to face cut-backs throughout the nineties. As both the Republicans and Democrats are basically spokespeople for American big business the scheme can be assured of political support.

However this scheme threatens relations with Russia and has even heralded talk of a new Cold War. As Russia and to a lesser extent China are the only countries that could feasibly be capable of launching a missile attack on America they view these plans as an attack on them.

President Putin has stated that the deployment of an NMD scheme would do “irreparable damage to the architecture of international relations”.(BBC News, January 26, 2001) It would also be in direct breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which attempted to balance power between America and the Soviet Union in the days of the Cold War. But Rumsfeld has clearly been brought in with the purpose of introducing the scheme.


For Marxists the role of individuals is usually secondary to that of broader economic and social forces, but in the new Bush administration this particular collection of individuals represents an important strain of American imperialism. It encompasses both the arms industry and a section of American capitalism who, perhaps aware of the prospects for the US economy, are wary of expensive adventures overseas.

In a sense the Rice / Powell / Bush approach to foreign affairs is a more brutally honest one. We will only intervene if our (i.e. capitalism’s) interests are threatened. This is not simply a geographic approach, as it would include for example the oil-rich Persian Gulf which is hardly next door to America.

It specifically excludes the poorest continent on the planet, as Bush has stated explicitly that we “have no vital national interests in Africa.” (BBC News, December 14, 2000) This is in contrast to Clinton’s adventure in Somalia which was nominally to help the introduction of democracy, but really to increase American influence in Africa. It failed on both counts and turned into its opposite with the population turning against the ‘occupying army’.

Bush and his administration are clearly turning their back on that and in effect ignoring the biggest continent in the world as it is torn apart by war, ethnic division and crippling poverty. The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, put into the spotlight recently with the murder of Laurent Kabila, involves eight different countries and has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. But this is of no interest to Bush and Powell because their vital interests are not affected.

This approach is reflected in the way the US is trying to dictate the conditions of world trade. This was one of the reasons why they failed to get a settlement in the WTO talks in Seattle. Already there is talk of a trade war between the European Union and the United States, which already took place under Clinton. Thus world trade must also reflect ‘America’s national interest’. To an extent this has always been the case, regardless of the political leadership, but it will become markedly sharper under a Bush administration, particularly if the growth experienced in the US economy for most of the nineties begins to fall and create a recession.


However, regardless of Bush’s sentiments, it would be impossible for the United States to withdraw unilaterally from all corners of the globe. It is already inextricably involved in a number of countries and areas of the world. It is worthwhile to examine several of these.


In Colombia, the ‘war against drugs’ was funded by Clinton under the title Plan Colombia. He pledged $1billion in aid, 70 per cent of which was military. Behind the cover of a war on drugs, it is actually a war on the left-wing guerillas of the FARC who control much of the South where most of the farms growing coca, which is needed for the production of cocaine, are based. Tens of thousands have been killed, mostly by the right wing death squads funded by the Government and indirectly by American imperialism. It is estimated that throughout 2000, 70 people were killed every day.

Military equipment, including helicopters, is being supplied. Chemical warfare is being used to burn the coca fields, with a devastating effect on the environment. Senior American army personnel are being brought into the conflict, which has echoes of Reagan’s campaign in Central America in the eighties and even Bush senior’s invasion of Panama which was also nominally against the ‘drug baron’ Noriega.

George W Bush has also publicly stated his support for the campaign in Colombia. So despite his rhetoric we cannot rule out an escalation of American involvement in this conflict in the next few years or even months. Indeed Latin America as a whole could provide a problem for Bush as there has been a wave of uprisings and the overthrow of corrupt US-backed leaders in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.


The Middle East is another area which Bush cannot ignore given the amount of aid America gives, particularly to Israel. Clinton, desperate to leave a historical legacy apart from the obvious domestic one, tried to secure a settlement in the last days of his Presidency. It is extremely unlikely that Bush will act with such vigour, but he may lay down the law to the Israeli state. It was during his father’s term of office that the Middle East peace process began in Madrid in 1991. This owed much to the fact that Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker put major pressure on the right-wing Likud leaders. If Sharon, also a right wing Likud leader, is elected as seems likely, the same process could occur.

The other onoging problem for Bush is Iraq, where Saddam Hussein remains in power despite a decade of brutal sanctions and a continuing bombing campaign by the American and British military. The USA is quite isolated with its sanctions regime: only Britain supplies the slavish support it needs, but it would be unlikely that Bush would be prepared to lift sanctions. Again, regardless of Powell’s rhetoric, a military escalation leading to further involvement in Iraq - particularly if Saddam defies the American forces in some way - could not be ruled out.


European leaders view Bush with particular trepidation because of his desire to withdraw from the Balkans and his position on international trade. They have also raised criticism of the National Missile Defence System, although Blair has said New Labour are keeping their options open over whether or not to back it as it will require support of British military bases in the North of England.

Some have raised the concept of a European based military force which would prevent complete reliance on American force particularly through NATO.

Withdrawal from the Balkans would be particularly significant if it were carried out, given the way America intervened to provide a ‘solution’ to Bosnia in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Settlement and its leading role in the bombardment of Serbia in 1999, although US military support mainly took the form of aerial bombardment.

There are 10,100 American troops in Bosnia and Kosovo (out of a total NATO force of 63,100). As a proportion this is not very significant, but their withdrawal would be a statement of intent, on American imperialism’s part its unwillingness to get involved in complex national conflicts, particularly where there is no economic interest.

This is further emphasised by Bush’s statement that he will cut significantly the economic aid given to Russia, a key element of Clinton’s foreign policy.

This approach was also part of American thinking in the early years of the Bosnian war from 1992-95 when American involvement was pretty minimal. It has been hinted that Bush will pay an early visit to Europe to counter these fears. (Guardian, January 4, 2001)

The position of Blair in Britain is particularly problematic. He was a close of Clinton, politically and personally, but he needs to maintain the strong ties the British state has to American imperialism. Robin Cook has already publicly stated that nothing will change with the election of Bush.

George W Bush almost stumbled into the White House, such was the closeness of the vote. His lack of a mandate may circumscribe the attacks he makes domestically on reproductive rights, welfare and public spending, though this might not be possible if there is a major downturn in the American economy.

Ironically it is in the field foreign affairs that he seems have clearer policies, largely because of his team of advisers. His move towards a more isolationist position is reflective of uncertainty about the American economy, a caution inherent in American imperialism since the debacle of the Vietnam War, and to lesser extent some of Clinton’s interventions overseas, particularly in Haiti and Somalia. However even this could be cast aside given American involvement in a number of flashpoints around the globe.

What is certain is that Bush and his advisers will be loyal representatives of imperialism and capitalism, red in tooth and claw.

Back To Contents