The inauguration of George W. Bush as US President marks the return of the Republican Party to the White House after the eight year Clinton interlude which history will judge to be the years when a ’60s Generation playboy ran the most powerful country in the world.
While President Bush’s critics point to the fact that he did not win a majority of the popular vote, and won the Presidency only by the narrowest margin in the state of Florida, the new President’s media critics rarely mention that Bush’s victory was confirmed by the US Supreme Court, nor that Clinton himself received far less than 50 per cent of the vote to win in 1992.
In that year, the Republicans lost because of a split in their vote between George Bush Snr. and billionaire Ross Perot, who garnered the votes of disillusioned Republicans.
George W. Bush does not pretend to be a great communicator like Ronald Reagan, nor does he have the intellectual pretensions of his flawed Rhodes Scholar predecessor, Bill Clinton.
President Bush is pre-eminently a team man, rather than a loner, and we must therefore look to the members of his team to anticipate the direction of his Administration.
The speed with which Bush’s transitional administration has put in place his Executive team owes much to the new Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who unlike the new President, is a seasoned Washington power-broker, having been Defence Secretary in the Reagan Administration.
From an Australian perspective, the most important questions are: who will run the Bush Administration’s defence and foreign affairs portfolios, and determine its environmental, social and economic policies.
While President Bush has limited knowledge of foreign policy issues, both Cheney and the new Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (who served as Defence Secretary in an earlier Republican Administration) are well versed in foreign policy issues, and regard Australia as a key to the stability of the South Pacific.
Both have commented favourably on Australia’s role in East Timor, and will favour close defence co-operation with Canberra. They are certain to put pressure on the Howard Government to lift Australia’s military commitment to the security of this region.
More problematic is Colin Powell, named as US Secretary of State, and the man most responsible for US foreign policy. Powell was the first black American to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had a key role to play in the Gulf War, which wrested control of Kuwait from the hands of Saddam Hussein some ten years ago.
While militarily a formidable achievement, one key outcome of the war was the ceasefire ordered by General Powell, leaving Saddam Hussein in control in Iraq, where he remains one of the key destabilising forces in the world – a threat not only to his neighbours, but to the world supply of oil, and the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction.
As Attorney-General, Bush has nominated John Ashcroft, a social conservative Senator and State Governor, who will have a key influence on future appointments to the US Supreme Court.
This may allow a reversal of the disastrous judicial activism which, since the historic Roe v. Wade judgment on abortion in the early 1970s, has made the US Supreme Court more influential that the US Congress or State legislatures in determining social policy in America, a trend which has been followed by the High Court of Australia.
On economic policy, the top members of the Bush team all have close ties with corporate America.
Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, ran Alcoa, and Commerce Secretary Don Evans is a former Texas oil industry executive. Their appointments mean that the new Administration will be more pro-business than its predecessors, and will continue to promote the international interests of corporate America, particularly in trade.
Along with the new US Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, and Interior Secretary, Gail Norton, they will ensure that the United States does not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which would impose massive environmental burdens on developed nations such as the US and Australia in limiting Greenhouse gas emissions – while leaving Western Europe, and major polluters such as Russia and China untouched – on the unproved assumption that gases such as CO2 are causing adverse climate change.
In relation to US agricultural policies, the new Agriculture Secretary, Ann Veneman, worked in the previous Bush Administration, and can be expected to ensure the continuation of policies which promote US agribusiness – regardless of its effects on other countries, such as Australia.
In summary, while the new Presidency will be friendly to Australia, we can expect few special favours under the new Administration. However, if the Howard Government had the political will, it may be able to use Australia’s important strategic position to negotiate on behalf of embattled Australian farmers.