If the world today faces challenges that call for strong leadership, it had better watch out. When did the governments of the big Western democracies last look this feeble—and all at the same time?
At home, the Bush administration continues to watch its approval ratings sink. In last week's elections, Republicans could be observed delicately distancing themselves from President Bush—and some who chose not to wish they had. Sen. Jon Corzine, who won the New Jersey governorship for the Democrats by a surprisingly wide margin, mocked his opponent as "George Bush's choice." You cannot help but wonder what so enfeebled an administration can achieve in its remaining three years.
The Bush administration's best friend in Europe, Tony Blair, is also in deep trouble. Last week, Blair's attempt to pass a new security law (which, among other things, would have allowed the government to detain suspects without charge for 90 days, up from the current 14) was defeated in the House of Commons. This was a much more shocking development than most Americans probably realize. British prime ministers, who normally rule as elected dictators (a Tory minister who knew what he was talking about coined that phrase), are unaccustomed to losing votes in Parliament. And Blair had staked his reputation on this one. The fact that so many of his own Labor members in Parliament were willing to rebel against him is telling: It means that they think he is on the way out, and sooner rather than later.
German politics is in a state of something close to paralysis as well. An inconclusive election two months ago has produced, finally, a coalition of the unwilling: The conservative Christian Democrats have formed a power-sharing government with the leftist Social Democrats, under the leadership (bitterly resented on the left) of the Christian Democrats' Angela Merkel. It is hard enough to see this coalition surviving, let alone getting anything done. And the list of things that need to be done in Germany is long.
But America, Britain, and Germany all look fine compared with France, which is still in shock after the sustained and widespread rioting of recent days. Jacques Chirac's government was slow to respond to the crisis, and it probably made matters worse with injudicious comments from on high (the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the rioters "scum"). The government is none too clear on what to do next.
It is tempting to draw connections—and why not, just for a moment, surrender to temptation? After all, some of the links are real, though not as tidy as you could wish.
One such link is Iraq. It goes without saying that Bush and Blair are both paying a heavy political price for the war. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction, which both leaders had emphasized as a primary reason for removing Saddam Hussein, and the costly, bungled execution of the postwar strategy, have bled support from both leaders. Each is tainted by the suspicion of dishonesty. At a minimum, there was less than full disclosure of official doubts over the WMD intelligence. Many voters in both countries believe they were just plain lied to about it.
Both leaders' competence is called into question, too. In Bush's case, this is straightforward: Responsibility for the postwar mess rests ultimately with him. For Blair, the coalition's junior partner, the charge of incompetence has a different cast: The United States duped him into war, some say, or else he simply failed to identify and assert Britain's interests. Last week, Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to Washington before the war, gave an account, splashed across Britain's front pages, that was less than flattering: In dealing with the White House, he said, Blair was meek, inattentive to detail, and carried away by self-righteousness.
Bush's troubles are about competence more broadly: Iraq is only part of what is dragging him down. The Democrats' charge that he is an ideological extremist never got them very far, because Bush seems too likable—and too muddled—for that description to fit. But the charge of incompetence certainly sticks, and if you go with that line, Iraq falls neatly into place. Next, add the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. And while charges of incompetence and cronyism are still engulfing the presidency over that episode, the White House, as if to validate this whole line of criticism, goes and nominates Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Bush's opponents could not have scripted it more to their liking.
Iraq, and the issue of Islam and the West, also have a connection to events in France—but it is tenuous, and one should not make too much of it. France opposed the war, of course. And although most of the rioters are Muslims (typically, immigrants from North Africa), they seem driven less by religious or even secular anti-Western zeal than by a straightforward sense of economic and social exclusion from mainstream French society.
France has tried harder than most European countries—harder than multicultural Britain—to assimilate its immigrants, but seems to have had no more success than the others. And France, like much of Europe (but again, unlike Britain), has a chronic unemployment problem, and the burden of this falls most heavily on African immigrants. Unemployment rates among young Muslims run as high as 40 percent. When the failure to assimilate immigrants and their children—and thus to create a sense of belonging and participation—combines with a lack of jobs, the result is toxic. In a way, however, this is almost reassuring: Better to be dealing with fury arising from economic or racial disadvantage, bad as that may be, than from religious grievance. But, given the facts on the ground, it would not take much to give the riots in France an even more sinister, religious-war aspect.
High unemployment and a persistent sense of economic underachievement lie behind the political difficulties of many other European governments. Germany is a case in point. There, it is telling that the Social Democrats, who opposed the war in Iraq and thereby, in the eyes of most German voters, were on the right side of the argument, have gained very little from it politically. Germans understand that their economy needs to be fixed—that unemployment is too high and growth too sluggish. And they agree that their economy, not Iraq, or security more broadly, is the key issue. But they are hopelessly confused about the measures needed to fix the problem—hence this unstable and deeply divided governing coalition.
The encompassing theme, if there is one, is powerlessness. In all four countries, people feel that their governments are wrestling with issues that are beyond them. In no case, though, do they see a clear alternative to the government or policies they already have. It is a moment of maximum disenchantment with politics.
If the world needs strong leadership, this article began, it had better watch out. Does it, though? The question is worth asking. There are worse things than weak government: Strong government dedicated to (or inadvertently serving) bad ends, for instance. Inactivity is a seriously underrated trait in politics, in ordinary times at least. But these are not normal times. All four countries face enormous domestic challenges, including (but not limited to) the need to provide incomes and health care to their rapidly aging populations. Planning for that demographic transition requires difficult balances to be struck, across generations and within them. Who is going to lead that effort in the United States, or in Britain, France, or Germany? The answer today would appear to be, none of the above.
The world faces too many other challenges that will not wait, many of them requiring international action—on development, for instance, on the threat of pandemic disease, on international trade and finance, on climate change. And looming over everything is the fact that the West still faces implacable enemies who will, one day soon, get their hands on WMD. One of the biggest costs of the misadventure in Iraq is that it has—to some extent, as yet unknown—inhibited and disarmed America and its friends in that life-or-death struggle. If you doubt this, watch Iran's continuing defiance of the world over its nuclear program.
So, yes, the world as a whole needs strong leadership—especially in the United States. The failure of France and Germany to adopt policies that are friendly to private enterprise and good for jobs is costly, to be sure, but mainly for citizens of those countries. Blair's difficulties are an absorbing human and political drama, with much at stake for Britain's future direction; but again, it is mostly a local issue. For the world as a whole, the indispensable actor is the United States. The enfeeblement of the Bush administration is a setback not just for Americans but for everybody else as well—except, of course, for those enemies of the West.
Somewhere in there, maybe, is a consoling thought. If the reason that terrorists attack is to destabilize Western governments, why bother just now? Our leaders are doing so well unassisted.