To many outside the US, Europeans in particular, the result of the presidential election may have felt like a slap in the face. The US president, whom most of them never liked and many had grown to resent, was re-elected by a country that many observers thought they knew and understood.
For them, the outcome raises two huge questions. First, how and why did Americans vote this way? The first time they voted for the former Texas governor they did not necessarily know what they were getting; this time, they voted for George W. Bush with eyes wide open. Second, what does another term for Mr Bush, now with an enhanced Republican majority in the Congress and a clearer electoral mandate, bode for US foreign policy and the world?
On the first question, it is important to remember that, going into the election, Mr Bush enjoyed the advantage of incumbency, a reasonably low US unemployment rate and residual goodwill from his response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. John Kerry did well just to keep the race close. However, polls show his critique of Bush foreign policy failed to convince most Americans—and herein is a lesson for the rest of the world.
Even those Americans who now know that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction or deep ties to al-Qaeda remember he was a monster who brutalised his people and defied the international community for years. Overthrowing him may have been a mistake. But it was no sin. The main alternative—containment policy—was no picnic. It required the US and UK to keep forces in the Saudi holy lands. It also led to an increasingly leaky sanctions regime, which itself hurt the Iraqi people. In retrospect, it might have been better not to initiate war in Iraq. But the argument often heard in Europe—that it was a hegemonic adventure to satisfy cowboys in the White House and help US oil companies—was never serious.
Turning to Mr Kerry’s grand call for a more multilateralist US foreign policy, many US voters probably sensed the Massachusetts senator was right. Few take pleasure or pride in having their country provide nearly 90 per cent of foreign coalition forces in Iraq and suffer nearly 90 per cent of the casualties. But would Europeans really have helped much more had America gone the extra diplomatic mile to involve them in decision-making? Even if Mr Kerry was right in his critique of the president, voters did not believe his alternative policy would have been radically more successful in eliciting more burden-sharing or improving prospects in Iraq.
Furthermore, the Democratic candidate was reluctant to lay out a broad vision using economic, diplomatic and foreign aid tools for winning the long-term global war on terror. Even though Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, acknowledged the US needed such a strategy, Democratic advisers apparently thought it would convey weakness to discuss it.
In re-electing Mr Bush, Americans showed they were simply not convinced that Mr Kerry offered a notably better way to handle security threats.
Voters also showed no fear that Mr Bush would unleash a rash of pre-emptive wars, and they were probably right. Consider the remaining “rogue states”. Syria would be the easiest target, perhaps. But its regime is also the least noxious of the offenders still standing. It is not in flagrant violation of Security Council demands, and with US forces tied down in Iraq, even a relatively modest operation to overthrow the Assad government would be extremely hard to carry out. If the latter point is true for Syria, it is true in spades for Iran, a country several times as large. Moreover, while Iran’s government supports terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist, it is cleverly pursuing a latent nuclear capability without obviously contravening the non-proliferation treaty. These factors make it hard to imagine pre-emptive war. Air strikes against a nuclear complex could be carried out—but that would only buy a few years, after which Iran could move its nuclear facilities underground. In the meantime, its nationalistic population would probably have rallied strongly against the US.
North Korea, the worst of the lot, arguably merits being overthrown—or at least forcibly de-nuclearised. But there are practical problems. A surgical air strike is no longer possible, since North Korea’s plutonium has been reprocessed and moved. War in Korea would be as hard as war in Iran and probably at least 10 times as bloody as the Iraq war. None of America’s significant regional partners favour it, and the US lacks the forces to do it alone.
None of this is meant to predict easy sailing in the four years ahead. The Bush administration’s hawkish instincts could certainly produce clashes with US allies over Iran, North Korea and Middle East peace talks, not to mention global warming and other matters. But the likelihood of a second divisive debate over a military operation is modest—and the chance that a pre-emptive doctrine will dominate Mr Bush’s second term is even smaller. At least that seems to be what American voters, disagreeing with the prevalent European caricature of the US president, apparently concluded in re-electing Mr Bush.