Sat, 16 Dec 2000

American presidential election in the eyes of a Malaysian

By Karim Raslan

KUALA LUMPUR: Al Gore's defeat in the American Presidential contest will please many people in Kuala Lumpur. Whilst I am not a fan of his -- Malaysia produces more than enough plywood masquerading as politicians to necessitate having to import Tennessee's finest -- I would hesitate before celebrating. George W. Bush's outrageous fortune may not prove to be quite so fortuitous as many suppose.

Whilst the foolish will revel in the embarrassment of the "indispensable power" as Madeleine Albright likes to call the USA, the rest of us should be sensible to how the debacle will influence American engagement with the outside world and Asia in particular. The events of the past five weeks will have a deep impact on both America and the Presidency in three ways.

Firstly, the electoral contest and the subsequent legal manoeverings will have had a personal effect on the President- elect. The parallel in this respect is Indonesia.

The process by which the two Presidents assumed power is not dissimilar, most importantly both countries employ an electoral college system that is intended to refine and in some cases dilute the intentions of the people.

As a consequence, flawed electoral systems in both republics denied the winning candidate (in terms of the popular vote), the Presidency. Neither George W. Bush nor Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur, possess the broad mandate that is vital for leadership.

Furthermore, the loss of legitimacy attendant on this bizarre outcome has a negative effect on the perception both domestically and internationally of the President's authority.

In the case of George W. Bush -- a political princeling with little real experience of adversity -- the situation will gnaw away at his sense of self. Part of the reason he was able to succeed thus far was the fact that he was more comfortable in his skin.

Unlike Al Gore whose every move was foreshadowed by pollsters and spin-masters, George W. Bush's relative inexperience and ignorance meant that there was less to show and a lot less to hide.

However, the easy bonhomie of a Bush-led administration will soon come to grief as the forces ranged against him prepare for the future. Notwithstanding the appeals for bipartisanship and compromise, the claws "are out".

As a consequence the administration could well grow more paranoid and embattled especially when, in time to come, "Dubya" compares his diminished position with his father's relative stature.

Secondly, the greed and relentless ambition of the two candidates and their advisors has undermined the credibility and legitimacy of all the institutions of State and the Supreme Court in particular.

This will have the effect of undermining the respect that the domestic population -- not to mention the rest of the world -- will have in the "American Way" and most importantly the sanctity of the Supreme Court Justices.

For a nation that prides itself on the manifest morality of its message -- liberal democracy, free-markets and human rights compliance -- the process has been traumatic.

It's as if a high-minded cleric has been exposed as a liar and a cheat. Having pontificated for decades on the superiority of his faith he has been exposed as a hypocrite. Outsiders will be increasingly unwilling to trust his leadership or his supposed even-handedness.

Understandably, he is extremely angry and embarrassed. Moreover because he is a bully as well, he will lash out at anyone foolish enough to remind him of his inconsistencies and foibles.

Watch either Jay Leno or David Letterman on the late night chat shows. Their contempt for the political process is palpable and audience' laughter at the mention of "Sore Loserman" and Dubya possesses a nasty edge.

Such derision will not disappear miraculously following Inauguration Day. It will haunt the White House, its incumbent and the nation for the foreseeable future.

With both the President and the nation shackled by self-doubt and uncertainty, one can be assured that there will be a fall-out in terms of international affairs and this is the third point.

The degree of political partisanship at the highest levels of Washington society will make it very hard for the President-elect to govern.

The divisiveness extends across all the institutions -- Congress, Senate, the Supreme Court, even the country at large. Given the obstacles and the fact that "Dubya" does not possess the popular mandate (losing by a margin of 350,000 votes), he will find it nigh on impossible to wield power domestically.

In time this will infuriate him, all the moreso since most of the Democrats will pour scorn on both his attempts at healing the nation and his "compassionate conservatism". In his frustration he will turn elsewhere because having been elected President will want to act in a Presidential manner.

If he is denied that privilege at home, he will, like Nixon before him, embark on a more internationalist agenda whatever the consequence.

Surrounded by a Cabinet of internationalists -- Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powel, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz -- he will find no end of opportunities to act in the style to which he feel he deserves, strutting the globe imperiously.

We must remember that a diminished Presidency and a frustrated leader, surrounded by the trappings of power but no real authority is a worry similar to the Nixon-Kissinger axis of the early 1970s.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't forget that the bravado is chiefly intended to impress the skeptics back home. Loud and sternly worded warnings directed Saddam Hussein (not to mention the occasional air-strike), the Chinese, the French and anyone foolish enough to question his writ are to be expected in part because a man leading a nation that is weakened by internal dissension and political chicanery will not want anyone to recognize the hollowness of his bark.

In short, we -- the rest of the world -- don't matter as long as we collectively reinforce the perception that he is the global leader. Heaven help us if we should try to assert our independence or reveal the President for the lame-duck he truly is.

At a time when every American comic is laughing at Dubya's limited intelligence we will have to lavish him with praise and bestow him with honorary degrees. In essence we will have to be sensitive to the President's sensitivity about his position.

This touchiness will be worsened if as many suspect the American economy does decelerate. The subsequent collapse of house prices, job losses and a tumbling greenback will serve to fuel the recriminations and the back-biting domestically.

Unfortunately, the American predilection for foreign intervention and interference often has little bearing on the actual problem at hand.

For example, it is arguable that President Bill Clinton's desperate bid to achieve a peace break-through in the Middle East precipitated the Second Intifada.

Driven by his desire to burnish his Presidential legacy he overlooked the reality on the ground in that neither Ehud Barak nor Yasser Arafat were in a position to deliver the epoch-making peace that he wanted for inclusion in the history-books.

Had George W. Bush won the election in a more straight-forward manner we could have expected a foreign policy under-pinned by realpolitik and a keen attention to American foreign interests -- whether commercial or strategic.

In itself this would have been a refreshing change after the Clilntonian Era of moralizing hypocrisy.

However, the sullied nature of the victory and his tarnished mandate will leave George W. Bush oscillating between extremes. He and his advisors will use foreign policy as an escape valve and a means of avoiding the intractable problems at home.

The White House will fall prey on the one hand to delusions of grandeur and global leadership (especially vis-a-vis China and Taiwan) and on the other hand to isolationism and boredom (in Africa, the United Nations and the Balkans).

So before Kuala Lumpur indulges erupts into party-mode the celebrants might want to think again.

The writer is a Kuala Lumpur based lawyer and columnist of the Business Times of Singapore and The Sun in Malaysia.