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George W. Bush had metamorphosed from a non-interventionist in the 2000 election to a hardline foreign policy hawk in 2004, largely as a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Now he ran on a promise to do whatever it would take to make America safer, even if that meant going against the U.N. or recognized tenets of international law. His cabinet choices reflected this tendency: Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense, Richard Perle as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Condoleeza Rice as National Security Adviser, Paul Wolfowitz as Ambassador to the United Nations. Although the moderate Colin Powell was appointed Secretary of State (mostly for cosmetic and electoral purposes), it was Cheney and Rice who in fact conducted foreign policy, along with the President. After concentrating the administration's efforts into securing a dramatic lowering of taxes, Bush went to work to "soften" public opinion in favor of a planned invasion of Iraq. He was convinced the failed and contained but seething Iraqi regime was the "weak link" through which chemical and even nuclear weapons could be passed on to terrorist organizations. Moreover, Bush and his collaborators believed Saddam Hussein had never destroyed his nuclear and chemical capacity, and was in fact reconstituting it under the noses of the United Nations.
The Iraqi diplomatic effort was gearing up when Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2005, devastating New Orleans. The calamity caught the administration by surprise, and its curiously tepid and slow response convinced much of the population that Bush cared nothing for the poorer citizens of the country and only had eyes for his grand foreign policy schemes. Despite this public relations disaster, Bush continued to unfold the "Iraqi" track. General Powell was sent to lobby the U.N. Security Council into authorizing a "regime-changing" invasion of Iraq, alluding to suspect "intelligence sources" that indicated Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. When the diplomatic offensive led to a threat from France to use its veto to forestall the effort, Bush assembled a "coalition of the willing" and prepared to march into Baghdad, alluding self-defense and the right to unilateral pre-emption. As to who would pay the high cost of an invasion and occupation, Bush and Cheney stated that Iraq's vast oil resources would and that, moreover, U.S. troops would be greeted as "liberators" by the Iraqi population.
Having given Saddam and his sons an ultimatum to leave Iraq by March 19, 2006, on that date U.S. and British forces attacked the country from Kurdistan, Turkey, and Bahraini bases. By then, Prime Minister Blair had been brought on board, as had a number of smaller countries, who sent small numbers of troops. The Iraqi military quickly collapsed and Saddam and his top aides fled underground. Following a short-lived euphoria over this "triumph," a massive anti-U.S. occupation insurgency developed in Iraq, causing a large numbers of casualties to coalition troops. Despite Hussein's capture and imprisonment a few months after the invasion, Resistance continued, trapping Bush into refusing to leave lest it be said that his nerve had failed in the face of mounting setbacks. By 2007, the coalition was bleeding troops (lost to both death and injuries by terrorist attack), massive human rights violations were uncovered against Iraqi prisoners under U.S. custody, and Bush's allies in Congress passed astonishingly draconian laws that allowed the President to circumvent the U.S. Constitution in order to pursue what he now called the "War on Terror." Worse, no trace of "weapons of mass destruction" was found in Iraq, embarrassing the administration and causing a contrite Secretary Powell to resign in mid 2007. Condoleeza Rice at that point succeeded him as Secretary of State.
The Iraqi invasion had not gone as planned, to say the least. With the U.S. tied down in Iraq, anti-American forces (terrorist and otherwise) reconstituted themselves, damaging U.S. interests worldwide. The country was now more isolated than ever, with even old allies like France and Spain turning their backs on a regime now widely seen as arrogant, trigger-happy, and out of control. Furthermore, the U.S. economy continued to deteriorate, with oil prices skyrocketing. Bush tried to shift blame to the Democratic policies of the previous 16 years, but most saw this as part of an oil-friendly Bush policy that lowered taxes on oil companies and freed them to seek higher profits without regard for the interests of the consumer. Through all this, government spending continued unabated and the deficit widened to unheard of heights. By the end of 2007 Bush had managed to turn a high approval rating (in the first few months of his administration) into one of the lowest ever registered for a U.S. President, at around 38%.
Unable to withdraw from Iraq and thus lose credibility, Bush stuck with it, further angering the electorate and causing various military leaders to quit as a sign of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war. Defense Secretary Cheney, in particular, was quite unpopular, as was the ultra-hawkish Vice-President, John McCain. Bush refused to fire Cheney, even after the 2006 Congressional elections returned Democratic majority to the House of Representatives, for the first time since 1994. Finally, with the 2008 elections looming near and no sign of improvement in the President's approval numbers, Bush accepted Cheney's resignation in late 2007 (his replacement was the more technocratic Robert Gates), as well as that of his embattled Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. Other cosmetic changes ensued, but the bottom line was that there would be no withdrawal from Iraq.
Facing Bush-McCain in the 2008 elections would be a unified and attractive (not to mention diverse) Democratic ticket headed by Illinois Senator Barack Obama, an African-American, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on New York, the former First Lady. In the middle of the campaign, the American economy suffered massive blows stemming from the collapse of various key financial institutions, which sent ripples throughout Wall Street and caused panic. It was the most serious economic debacle the country had suffered since the Great Depression.
As of October 2008, Obama-Clinton are ahead in the polls over Bush-McCain by more than 10 points, and it is expected that the Democrats will be easily returned to the White House in early 2009.
Key members of the George W. Bush administration:
- Secretaries of State: Colin Powell (2005-2007 - resigned); Condoleeza Rice (2007-09)
- Secretaries of Defense: Richard Cheney (2005-2007 - resigned); Robert Gates (2007-09)
- Assistant Secretaries of Defense: Richard Perle (2005-2007 - resigned); Douglas Feith (2007-09)
- Attorney Generals: John Ashcroft (2005-06 - quit due to health reasons); Alberto Gonzales (2006-2007 - resigned); Mike Mukasey (2007-09)
- National Security Advisors: Condoleeza Rice (2005-07); Stephen Hadley (2007-09)
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