The central Point of Divergence of this scenario, which would change the course of U.S. history from 1981 to the present, is that Reagan died as a result of injuries sustained during his shooting by John Hinckley Jr. in March 1981.
In turn, this would created another set of altered events, including:
- 1) Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, would have been badly weakened by the Iran-Contra scandal of 1987-88 (in a way his "teflon" predecessor never was).
- 2) Mario Cuomo, sensing the vulnerability of Bush's Vice-President and heir apparent, Robert Dole, would have entered, and in all likelihood won, the 1988 elections.
- 3) Cuomo's unpredictability, notorious "thin skin," and known tendency to shy away from the opportunity for a higher profile would have led him to not seek a second term in 1992, thus essentially abdicating in favor of his more energetic Vice-President, Bill Clinton. Sagging poll numbers, ambivalence of his family (and especially his wife) about the presidency, and the attractive prospects of a more sedate and private life as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court (in place of the retiring Thurgood Marshall) would have figured prominently in his decision.
- 4) Without the unhappy experience of his father's selection of Dan Quayle in 1992 as Vice-President (which would not have happened if Bush had retired as a virtual 2-term president in 1988), George W. Bush would not have selected Dick Cheney as his running mate in the 2000 elections, opting instead for the more unknown evangelical activist Gary Bauer.
- 5) Gore would have narrowly won the 2000 elections, carrying Florida. There would have been no interference from a Supreme Court dominated by Democratic appointees.
The consequences of all this would have been a Democratic control of the White House for most of the post-1981 period, with attendant changes in the Supreme Court, national attitudes, and foreign policy aims.
The Death of Ronald Reagan
On March 30, 1981, Ronald Wilson Reagan had been President of the United States for 70 days. Elected by a landslide over Jimmy Carter in 1980, the 70-year-old Reagan had already had a big success when the Americans held hostage in Iran were released minutes after his inauguration. Reagan, a former actor and Governor of California, was looking to become a much-loved American leader and to have a profound impact on America. He did have that impact, but probably not in the way he'd expected.
On that day, Reagan left the Hilton Hotel after an appearance there, with his Press Secretary, James Brady, in tow. A young, Jodie Foster-obsessed man called John Hinckley Jr, fired six shots from a revolver at the President. Brady was critically wounded, a secret service man was killed, and Reagan was rushed to hospital unconscious. He was operated on upon arrival, but had lost too much blood internally. He was pronounced dead, assassinated by a disturbed young man. Tecumseh's Curse had struck again - every US President elected in a year ending in 0 had died in office, from Harrison to Reagan.
Vice President George Bush was summoned, informed what had happened and, after flying in from Texas (where he was at the time), promptly took the oath of office. His first action as President was to launch a full investigation into the Reagan assassination. No conspiracy was revealed and Bush attracted criticism for politicizing the death of his predecessor.
The George H. W. Bush Administration (1981-89)
Next on the agenda was choosing a new Vice President. Bush thought of selecting Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, a former White House Chief of Staff and four-star general. However, Haig was unpopular in Congress (as attested-to by his difficult confirmation as Secretary of State), and had quickly made many enemies even within the Reagan administration. His apparent power-grab ("I am in control here!") in the hours following Reagan's shooting, when Bush was away, did not earn him high accolades from Reagan insiders, nor from the Vice-President. In addition, as the man who had protected and may have negotiated a presidential pardon for Nixon during the Watergate scandal, Haig had earned the unswerving enmity of many a Democratic member of Congress. Thus, Bush opted for Senator Robert Dole of Kansas -- like him, a former military hero -- who was confirmed by both Houses of Congress in record time. Reagan was dead and the brief Reagan era a memory as President Bush and Vice President Dole got on with the job.
By the time of the 1984 Presidential election, President Bush had seen a slump in popularity. Unable to capture the hearts and minds of Americans as Reagan had, Bush dropped from a 76% approval rating just after the assassination to just 52% in January 1984. A nagging recession in 1981-83 did not help matters. However, the economy began to recover and Bush pressed on with re-election. He and Vice President Dole were re-nominated for their positions. The Democrats nominated former Vice President Walter Mondale for President, with Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro his running mate and the first woman nominated by a major party for Vice President.
The campaign was not seen as a juggernaut, and the voting public at times seemed disinterested. While military spending had increased under Bush, he was having a hard time selling economic programs and was widely seen as uncharismatic. Nevertheless, he managed to attract enough support to win re-election. Bush won 53% of the popular vote to Mondale's 46% and 419 electoral votes to Mondale's 119.
Bush's second term was at first characterized by the continuing recovery of the economy and the warming of relations with the Kremlin as a result of Gorbachev's policy og glasnost and perestroika. later on, however, the administration was engulfed in the largest political scandal since Watergate, namely, the Iran-Contra scandal. Rumors and allegations started to surface in 1985 that the government had traded arms for hostages in Iran and used the money to finance the Contras, the opposition to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The scandal rocked the Washington establishment. The man at the center of the affair, Oliver North, wrapped himself in the flag and pleaded anti-communism. The National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, and North were indicted and tried. President Bush denied all knowledge, but nobody believed him. It was clear to everybody that the President had authorized everything, including breaking U.S. law to fund the Contras. Still, a warming of relations with the Soviet Union following the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, and the prospects of a resolution to the Cold War solidified a base of support for the embattled president.
On December 19, 1987, the U.S. Congress began impeachment proceedings, charging President Bush with "gross misconduct" in the Iran-Contra scandal. Without hard proof, however, this did not constitute grounds for outright removal from office. In addition, Republican leaders and grass-roots organizations succeeded in mobilizing the Republican base and others in opposition to Bush's removal, often invoking the memory of the slain former President Reagan. In any case, there were only a few months left to Bush's administration, and Congress eventually settled for a mere "censure" of the President in exchange for a promise that he would retire and not seek re-election in 1988 (he had served almost 2 full 4-year terms already).
The President was left with little choice, and on January 16, 1988, admitted to the nation some unspecified degree of complicity in the scandal, although his intentions were good. At the same time, he announced he would not seek re-election that year. The mantle of presumed "heir apparent" immediately passed on to Vice-President Dole, who began to campaign in earnest. Meanwhile, the presumed Democratic candidate, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, surged ahead of the rather uncharismatic Dole by ten points in the polls. In November, Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, were defeated by the strong Democratic ticket of Cuomo and the young Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton (then 42 years old). They brought with them sweeping victories for the Democrats in Congress. The Republicans were tainted with the stench of corruption -- first Watergate, then Iran-Contra. It would be sixteen years before they would return to the White House, in 2004.
Key members of the George H.W. Bush administration were:
- Secretaries of State: Al Haig (1981-82); George Schultz (1982-87), James Baker III (1987-89)
- Secretaries of Defense: Caspar Weinberger (1981-85); Frank Carlucci (1985-87); Richard Cheney (1987-89)
- Secrearies of the Treasury: Donald Regan (1981-85), James Baker III (1985-87), Nicholas Brady (1987-89)
- National Security Advisor: John Poindexter (1981-1986) Colin Powell (1986-89; post-Iran-Contra Scandal)
- White House Chief of Staff: James Baker III (1981-85), Donald Regan (1985-87), Howard Baker (1987-88), Kenneth Duberstein (1988-89)
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell (1989-93)
The Mario Cuomo Administration (1989-93)
With the 1988 election wide open as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal, a large number of Democrats sought the nomination, including Senators Gary Hart (Colorado), Paul Simon (Illinois), Joe Biden (Delaware), and Albert Gore Jr. (Tennessee), along with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The most popular Democrat of his day, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, entered the contest late (sensing the vulnerability of the Republican ticket after 8 years of Republican control of the White House) and quickly won the support of the voters. He went on to win the nomination. Dukakis was runner up to Cuomo, but the latter surprisingly selected the young Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, as his running mate, creating an instantly attractive ticket based on the premise of "change." The Democrat's counterpart was Vice-President Robert Dole and his running mate, Congressman Jack Kemp of New York. In the end, the Cuomo-Clinton ticket won the election with 55% of the vote to Dole-Kemp's 43%. Thus ended eight years of Republican control of the White House, in a context of voter hope as a result of the clear turning point in East-West relations. Cuomo also relied on widespread support from Catholic voters, becoming the first Catholic President since John F. Kennedy (and the first Italian-American).
The main challenge to the new administration was the state of the U.S. economy, which entered recession in 1989 as a result, among others, of a large federal deficit created by Bush's increases in military spending. Cuomo's "honeymoon" period was therefore rather short-lived, and his own testy relationship with some members of the media did not help him. Then the administration became involved in a couple of high-profile foreign policy crises which led to massive U.S. interventions. The first occurred in Panama in December 1989, when the moralistic and Wilson-like Cuomo ordered troops into Panama to apprehend the narcotics-tainted dictator Manuel Noriega and restore democracy in that country. Cuomo promised, and delivered, a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces. In 1990-91, Cuomo became involved in the U.N.-led effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait (it had invaded it in August, 1990), although with some misgivings. Cuomo let Margaret Thatcher lead the coalition and made it clear that the U.S. was only one of a number of countries participating in the mission, which also had a quick exit strategy, after the restoration of Kuwait had been achieved. These actions earned Cuomo some short-term domestic support (as did the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, both of which happened under his watch) but it was not enough to offset worries about the slumping economy. By late 1991, all poll numbers indicated that the administration was in serious trouble. Many saw Cuomo as aloof, professorial, and often pedantic -- not quite in touch with the attitudes and concerns of the average voter.
In December 1991, right after the announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuomo shocked the nation when he announced his surprise decision not to seek renomination to a second term in favor of his young Vice-President, Bill Clinton. he stated: "I would remain in office, despite its rigors and the express wishes of my family, were I convinced that only my permanence in office could secure the advancement of goals I hold dear, and which I wish to see implented to the benefit of our nation. However, that is not the case. I am convinced Vice-President Clinton is as well suited as I am to carry on those much-needed reforms, and in some instances may be better suited than I am to do so. I am convinced he will win the upcoming election and will reinvigorate our party and government. Therefore, I will not seek, nort accept, the nomination of the Democratic Party to serve another term as President of this great Republic."
The country was immediately thrown into an electoral frenzy, with Clinton pitted against the equally charismatic Congressman Jack Kemp, the Republican front runner. Clinton and Kemp went on to win their respective parties' nominations, with Clinton's attractiveness and political skills managing to turn the polls around in the Democrat's favor, although narrowly. During the campaign, Clinton announced his intention, if elected, to extend to President Cuomo, at the earliest convenience, an appointment to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court. Consulted on the matter, Cuomo was evasive, but nonetheless let it be known that he would seriously consider the offer, always in the name of "advancing the causes I and the majority of our country hold dear." Justice Thurgood Marshall, in turn, confirmed his intention to resign "at some point during the next few months" and made clear his pelasure at the prospect of Cuomo inheriting his seat. The Republicans -- led by Jack Kemp his running mate, Richard Cheney -- denounced the Clinton-Cuomo-Marshall entente at a sinister plan involving unspecified "horse-trading" and sordid quid-pro-quos. This accusation, however, had only a limited effect on the electoral campaign, with both Clinton and Cuomo stating that the Supreme Court appointment was only an idea, and remain to be seen whether it could be carried out -- or indeed, if Cuomo would definititively accept the offer should it be extended.
The unpopular Cuomo's gamble in retiring (to serve, as it turned out) in the U.S. Supreme Court after only one term as President paid off when when his younger and more energetic Vice-President, well complemented by his running mate Al Gore, won the November election with 50% of the vote to Kemp-Cheney's 49%. By then the country had recovered from the 1989-1991 recession and the Democratic administration benefited from it . This making possible the almost miraculous recovery of a Democratic administration that seemed all but beaten in 1991.
Key members of the one-term Cuomo administration were:
- Secretary of State Warren Christopher (1989-93)
- Secretary of Defense Sam Nunn (1989-93)
- Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani (1989-93)
- Secretary of Education: Richard Riley (1989-93)
The Bill Clinton Administration (1993-01)
Clinton started off well, being regarded as something of a political wunderkind for managing to win he 1992 elections. Soon, missed opportunities in the nomination process for cabinet secretaries and a controversial attempt to extend Health Care benefit to all Americans (an effort chaired by his wife, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton) backfired, creating the perception of a man "above his head" for the task. In addition, Cuomo had, in his usual Quixotic fashion, ordered troops into Somalia for "humanitarian" purposes in the waning days of his administration, and Clinton found himself in a civil war-like situation, with the presence of U.S. troops opposed by all sides in the conflict. Clinton added to his own foreign policy woes by ordering American forces into Haiti in 1993 to restore the Democratic administration of President Aristide. It was just another in a long list of Democratic mini-interventions abroad which cemented the Democrat's fame as an interventionist party. Finally, the emergence of a tough anti-Clinton leadership in Congress (led by House minorityLeader New Gingrich of Georgia) chipped away at the President's credibility while building steady pro-Republican support. Manufactured scandals and much rumor-mongering regarding alleged infidelity and womanizing episodes did not help the President either. Thus, by 1994 Clinton found himself exactly where Cuomo had been 4 years earlier: relatively unpopular and saddled by sagging poll numbers. Worse, his miscalculations in Haiti and Somalia led him to become overly-cautious in foreign policy manners; he did not order American troops into Bosnia nor Rwanda to ameliorate very grave genocide-like human rights abuses there (some 800,000 perished in Rwanda alone as a result). As a consequence of all this, Clinton suffered the devastating loss of both houses of Congress to the Republicans in 1994. The new anti-Clinton leaders of Congress, in turn, used their new positions of power to investigate and hound the President on a number of grounds, some valid and some mere acts of political vendetta. They overdid it a bit, however, for the average voter began to sense something rather unbecoming and sinister in the constant bullying of Clinton and his wife (herself despised by the Republican Right). With the U.S. economy booming as a result of U.S. leadership in the computer and telecommunications industries, Clinton entered the re-election year of 1996 polling ahead of his Republican rivals, who began to scramble for the right to challenge him in November.
On the Republican side, 1992 nominee Jack Kemp decided not to enter the primaries, choosing instead to remain retired, as did his running mate Dick Cheney, then CEO of a major oil corporation based in Texas. However, conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan, Governor Pete Wilson of California, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Texas Senators Phil Gramm and Ross Perot and Richard Lugar (IN) entered the race, among others. In a close and often acrimonious contest, it was Alexander -- the plain-talking, plaid-wearing former Tennessee Governor, university president, and Bush cabinet member -- who surprised all the pundits and emerged victorious. He had been seen as the more viable candidate over the polarizing Buchanan, the decidely uncharismatic Gramm, and the controversial Wilson. Desperately needing someone more conservative, younger, and more charismatic than himself to balance the ticket, he had privately selected Governor Wilson of California, but was over-ruled by his staff, which considered Wilson a risky pick (he was widely seen as anti-immigrant, and his pro-choice stance on abortion offended many conservative Republicans). In the end, Alexander tapped the former Senator from Missouri (and ordained Episcopalian minister) John Danforth. Come November, Clinton and Gore won re-election easily, besting the lackluster duo of Alexander-Danforth by 52% to 46% in the popular vote.
Reinvigorated by his 1996 mandate, but chastened by the 1994-96 period and still facing a Republican Congress, Clinton governed as a moderate for the entirety of his second term, demoting his wife and other Left-leaning advisors to a secondary role. This was not enough for his enemies in Congress, however, who continued to investigate and subpoena him over all kinds of alleged misdeeds, real and imagined. One of these eventually paid off for them, when in early 1998 they obtained testimony from Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, that she had had an inappropriate sexual relationship with the President. Asked under oath s part of another investigation if he had had an affair with Lewinsky, Clinton denied it, thus stepping into the trap and providing his adversaries with the grounds for impeachment (perjury). With America at peace and the economy in its soundest footing, the Republican Congress opened up impeachment proceedings against Clinton, who, faced with evidence, had by now acknowledged the inappropriate sexual relationship with Lewinsky. As in 1995-96, U.S. public opinion massively turned pro-Clinton; Americans didn't want their President impeached over a matter largely seemed as trivial and private (not an abuse of power of "high crime" against the state). The procedures against the President were seen for what they truly were: petty "payback" for watergate and Iran-Contra. Faced with such national opposition to Clinton's removal, Congress merely censured him in January 1999 (as the Democratic Congress had done against Bush in 1988) and allowed him to finish his second term.
With Clinton retiring and his Vice-President and heir-apparent Gore seeming vulnerable due to the impeachment crisis and some voter fatigue after 12 years of Democratic control of the White House, a number of high-profile Republicans vied for their party's nomination to the 2000 elections. Among them were Arizona Senator John McCain and Governor George W. Bush of Texas, son of the last Republican to be elected President (George H. W. Bush in 1984). In a bitter race, Bush bested McCain to capture the Republican nomination. With the two top vote-getters seemingly irreconcilably estranged as a result of the acrimonious primaries, Bush "followed his heart" and surprisingly selected Gary Bauer, a man tied with evangelist conservative circles. Gore, for his part, was confirmed as the Democratic torch-carrier, although only following a surprisingly spirited primaries challenge from former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Gore selected as his running mate California Senator Diane Feinstein of California, energizing Democratic women voters and thus reconciling the party with many females following the Clinton infidelity scandals (Feinstein had been one of the strongest critics of Clinton and his moral lapses). Senator Feinstein also solidified Jewish support for the ticket, being the first Jewish candidate for Vice-President in U.S. history.
The country seemed to be split by this point: many saw the advantage of keeping Gore and maintaining the pace of economic growth, while others longed for new leadership after 12 years of Democratic control of the White House. Gore seemed decent and high-minded, but also somewhat wooden, "coached," phony, while Bush Jr. appeared as more direct and personally likable. The polls remained close (within the margin of error) throughout the summer and fall. In the November 2000 elections, Gore won by an agonizingly narrow margin of about half of a percentage in the popular vote. The electoral results were contested by the Republicans (especially the crucial Florida results, where Gore had won by less than 1000 votes) but, without recourse to a mostly Democratically-appointed Supreme Court, the certification remained with Gore. He was sworn in (along with Vice-President Feinstein) in January 2001.
Key members of the two-term Clinton administration were:
- Secretaries of State: Richard Holbrooke (1993-97); George Mitchell (1997-99); Madeleine Albright (1999-2001)
- Secretaries of Defense: Adm. William Crowe (1993-95); William Perry (1995-97); Sam Nunn (1997-2001)
- Secretaries of the Treasury: Lloyd Bentsen (1993-95), Warren Rudman (1995-99), Robert Rubin (1999-2001
- Secretaries of Defense: Richard Riley (1993-1997), ? (1997-2001)
- Attorney Generals: Vernon Jordan (1993-97); Jamie Gorelick (1997-2001)
- National Security Advisors: Anthony Lake (1993-96); Madeleine Albright (1996-1999); Sandy Berger (1999-2001)
The Al Gore Administration (2001-05)
Gore started his term on a shaky footing, owing to the unprecedented closeness of the 2000 election (some Republicans believed fraud had been committed against their candidate, or that somehow the election was stolen from them, as Bush had led, if barely, for most of the summer and fall). Worse, the economy began to sour and gas prices increased, bringing about recession-like conditions in 2001. Congress was still in Republican hands, and in no mood to cooperate with a man who had won by half of one percent of the popular vote. Gore's efforts to bring environmental concerns to the forefront were met with scorn. The country was muddling through a malaise when Islamic terrorists struck America on September 11, 2001, bringing down the World Trade Center in New York and attacking the Pentagon itself, in Washington. Immediately, the American public and Congress closed ranked around Gore when he announced plans to invade Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks, and topple the Taliban regime, which was shielding it. The invasion went on as planned, but Osama Bin Laden and the bulk of the Al Qaeda leadership managed to escape.
The wave of support for the Gore administration began to erode as 2002 rolled around; the larger objectives of the Afghanistan endeavor had been achieved (the overthrow of the Taliban, the forcing of Al Qaeda to run and go underground, and the establishment of a U.S.-friendly democratic regime in Kabul). But there was no wider "War on Terror" nor a demonizing of Islam, much to the consternation of security-centric Republican politicians and members of Congress. Gore refused to wrap himself around the flag and use the unprecedented unity of the country as an opportunity to invade countries and topple regimes. Efforts were redoubled to secure American airports, flights, and entry harbors, and a color-coded scheme warning of impending of terrorist activity was instituted. Moreover, a cabinet-level department of "Homeland Security" was created (the brainchild of Senator Lieberman, Democrat from Connecticut), to coordinate all activities centering on the defense of the nation from terrorist attacks. But that was it.
Most galling to hardline Republicans was the administration's refusal to invade Iraq to overthrow the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein, who had survived the 1991 Gulf War (fought with the limited contribution of American troops under then-President Mario Cuomo) and was a sworn enemy of the U.S. and the West. Hussein had been personally funding, as well, terrorist activity against Israel, with attendant deaths of many U.S. citizens residents in that country as part of the so-called "Second Palestinian Intifada" (2000-2005). Gore ordered the aerial bombardment of Iraqi military facilities (anything that could be used against the West or Israel) coupled with a stricter enforcement of the no-fly zones above Iraqi skies. He also recognized the "autonomy" -- although not quite independence -- of the Northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan (much against Turkey's opposition) and secured the rights to install American bases there, from which Saddam's actions were closely monitored. But there was to be no outright invasion of Iraq. Sensing a weakness in Gore's stance, Iran, meanwhile, expanded its influence, taking over from saddam Hussein the mantle of official Islamic spearhead of anti-Israeli and anti-American efforts.
As Republican venom against Gore was unleashed, oil prices continued to sour, and nothing the administration tried could succeed lowering them. According to Republicans, this was due to President Gore's refusal to simply drill for more oil on American soil. In particular, great pressure was exerted on the environmentally-conscious Gore to open up protected wildlife areas of Alaska to energy exploration. This he refused to do.
In the end, Gore was simply a victim of widespread fatigue with Democratic leaders and ideas after 16 years of Democratic control of the White House. The sense of having been wronged in the 2000 elections only heightened many Republicans' resolve to at long last put an end to Democratic rule. Their Golden Hour finally came in 2004. As expected, the GOP renominated the "aggrieved" Bush as its best choice to recapture the presidency. This time free of the constraints of office -- he retired following three terms as Governor of Texas in 2002 -- Bush dedicated himself solely to raising money and to criticizing Gore's "lukewarm" response to the threat of international terrorism. Bush also blamed the sluggish economy on Democratic mis-management. After securing his party's nomination in early 2004, Bush patched his differences with Senator McCain and selected him as his running mate in a strong pro-security ticket. Meanwhile, Gore and Feinstein were renominated as the Democratic standard-bearers, although not without internal challenges: Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and pacifist Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio entered the Democratic primaries against Gore. In November 2004, Bush-McCain beat Gore-Feinstein by 53% to 45% of the vote, ending 16 years of Democratic hegemony at the helm of the country.
Key members of the Gore administration were:
- Secretaries of State: Madeleine Albright (2001-2003; Joseph Biden (2003-2005)
- Secretary of Defense: Wesley Clark (2001-05)
- Attorney Generals: Jaime Gorelick (2001-03); John Conyers (2003-05)
- Secretary of Education: Jim Hunt (2001-05)
- Secretary of Homeland Security: ? (2001-04), Anthony Zinni (2004-05)
- National Security Advisor: Sandy Berger (2001-03); Strobe Talbott (03-05)
The George W. Bush Administration (2005-09)
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.
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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