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Bush's Foreign Policy Legacy is Secure

By Gerard Baker

The reviews are almost all in from Senator John McCain's commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia last weekend. The consensus seems to be that the Arizona senator successfully walked the fine line of electoral exigency that divides craven submission to powerful constituents from bold but suicidal affirmations of political independence.

Symbolically burying the hatchet with the man he once dubbed an "agent of intolerance" without stooping to endorse the five-and-dime prelate's philosophy is quite a feat and suggests a subtlety about Mr McCain that had not hitherto been a notable feature of his career.

But as he moves steadily and firmly to the front of the pack of Republican contenders for 2008, it is the substance rather than the symbolism of what Mr McCain is saying that is piquing the interest of an anxious world waiting for the next signs of global leadership from America.

From that point of view another speech he delivered a few weeks ago was much more striking and instructive about the direction of the US debate about its role in the world.

At a conference of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels late last month, Mr McCain took us on a tour d'horizon of the world's trouble spots.

This was pure McCain, minus the Lynchburg feint.

In the space of barely 20 minutes, he gave a rousing condemnation of governments on at least three continents, lambasting Iran, China, Russia, Belarus, Sudan, and by implication, others. It was the sort of declaration that would have brought a smile to the face of Andrew Jackson.

It was a moral declaration of war on the world's bad guys, a good one too . But it was above all, an eloquent and forceful endorsement of the Bush doctrine - the strategic stance, backed by force if necessary, of confronting tyrannical forces in the world.

The reaction of Europeans was polite. Though what the senator was saying amounted to: "You didn't like Bush - wait till you see me" , there is always something disarming about the humorous, engaging man with the heroic life story.

But there was no mistaking the substance - Mr McCain once again established himself as more royalist than the king when it comes to Bush foreign policy.

Which on the face of it is odd, since it is his foreign policy that has principally got this president into so much trouble.

Though immigration reform and gasoline prices have clearly dominated Mr Bush's recent political agenda, no-one seriously doubts that the root cause of his woes is the Iraq War.

This week's Washington Post/ABC poll earlier indicated a sizeable majority now think invading Iraq was a mistake. Americans might agree in principle that the US should promote democracy but, unlike Mr McCain, they seem to believe if Iraq is an example of how it is going to be done, they'd sooner stay home and cultivate their garden, thank you very much.

And yet even more remarkable is that this support for the principle at least of the Bush strategic approach is largely endorsed by most serious foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side.

At that same German Marshall Fund conference last month Richard Holbrooke, a man who seems to have been permanently accorded the status of the next Secretary of State, succinctly complimented Mr McCain on his speech "I agreed with everything he said," he told a slightly startled audience.

Now Mr Holbrooke is famously among the most hawkish of Democrats. It was once said of him during one of his many rambunctious performances in the Balkans negotiations in the 1990s that he was going to make up for the fact that America had arrived late for each of the first two world wars by being really early for the third.

But Mr Holbrooke is not alone in the Democratic party. Listen to the official pronouncements of Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton or Joseph Biden : while critical of the execution of the Iraq war, they still conspicuously avoid denouncing in principle either its conception or the principle of democracy-promotion on which it was at least partially fought.

Though they are under intense pressure from the MoveOn left to denounce the war and the broader evils and hypocrisy of US foreign policy, the Democrats' leadership has no intention of running far off the tracks the Republicans have laid down.

Speak to the foreign policy people floating around the campaigns of Mark Warner or John Edwards and you will find similarly no plans to repudiate the basics of Bush foreign policy. As for Al Gore, for all his recent criticism of the war, it was, remember, the former vice-president whose embrace of an assertive foreign policy was derided by Governor George W Bush, in their 2000 presidential debate, as lacking sufficient humility.

So you have an unpopular war dragging a president down to new lows in public esteem and two parties who for different reasons , and to varying degrees of enthusiasm, insist that US interest in the world are best served by a continuation of an assertive policy that challenges despots and insists on the spread of democracy.

This could change, of course, in the next two years. The Democratic base could round on their leaders and force them to revert to McGovernite foreign policy tendencies. The Jacksonian McCain could be unhorsed by more pragmatic, more cautious Republicans But for the moment, curiously, the Bush legacy looks more secure than the Bush presidency.

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email: gerard.baker@thetimes.co.uk

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