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The Incredible Shrinking Superpower


20/05/08 "Time" -- 19/05/08 -- Worried about the high cost of filling up? President Bush is on the case. Last Friday he arrived in Riyadh to urge King Abdullah, the leader of the world's largest petroleum producer, Saudi Arabia, to put more oil on the market.

At the sun-bleached airport, Bush was greeted with the Gulf's signature mix of garish oil wealth and tinpot amateurism. A large retinue of royalty watched as a band played an off-key version of the U.S. national anthem. Bush walked through the cavernous air terminal to his motorcade and drove to the monarch's "farm" at al Janadriyah. Through the enormous gates and along alleys of dying shrubs and trees fed by miles of futile drip hoses, he made his way to the King's "villa," a marble-clad, poured concrete palace. Through a foyer with a statue of a cheetah felling an antelope and anterooms full of attendants, Bush strolled deep into Abdullah's inner sanctum, past the portly King's private exercise pool, his Stair-Master and his "Vibromass" anti-cellulite belt-massager, to his personal study, where a console of 24 small TVs filled one wall and two overstuffed chairs coddled the leaders.

It was there, after much pomp and circumstance, that Bush made his request. And it was there that the King still said no.

That was the sum result, anyway, of Bush's efforts to ease your gas bills on his visit to Saudi Arabia. In fact, Bush didn't do much better on the rest of his five-day trip to the region. Oil prices aren't the only issue America faces in the Middle East; they may not even be the most important. The Iranian regime is busy gaining the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Bush made no progress convincing allies to pressure it to change course. Iran is also arming and training anti-Israeli forces in Gaza and Lebanon. Instead of backing down, those groups stepped up attacks on America's allies before and during Bush's trip. Even the nominal purpose of the trip, bolstering Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, produced no progress, unless progress includes the inauguration of a general election battle between Bush and Barack Obama over national security.

But if a record number of Americans disapprove of Bush's performance as President, the issues he spent five days not fixing in the Middle East may not be ones he — or anyone else in America — can do much about. Bush is a lame duck, and foreigners know it. But his successor, Republican or Democrat, will find that America's influence in the world is at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War. The question these days isn't "how weak is Bush?", it's "how weak is America?"

Bush's trip offered a sobering answer. After the President's meetings with the Saudis, his National Security Advisor, Steve Hadley, came to the "villa" where the traveling press corps was working and made a prolonged effort to explain why, even if the Saudis did boost oil production, it wouldn't reduce the cost of gas in the U.S. "The bottom line is," said Hadley, "the problem of high gas prices is more than just about oil, it's more than just about Saudi, and it's more than just about short-term production." All of which is true. Unsaid was the fact that even if the Saudis could reduce gas and oil prices, why would they? They're making a lot of money and the U.S. doesn't have much leverage to convince them they ought to make less.

The Arab-Israeli peace process is no one's idea of an easy fix, but it's failing now, in part, because of American weakness. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to work on a framework for an eventual settlement that could be signed by the end of the year, even if the two sides couldn't make peace on the ground while they are negotiating. But the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, opposes a peace deal and is gaining power from Abbas and launching attacks on Israel with greater frequency, taking advantage of public skepticism there for any kind of peace agreement. The U.S. has tried to rally Arab pressure on Hamas, only to see it grow stronger.

The most important of the tough issues Bush's successor will inherit in the region is the confrontation with Iran. In Israel and the Arab states there is mounting unease, in some cases outright fear, at the idea of a nuclear Iran. But Iran is shrugging off U.N. sanctions that Russia and China are ensuring remain half-hearted. And with the U.S. pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan there's little Washington can do to scare Iran into changing its ambitions. On Sunday, on the flight back to Washington, when Condoleezza Rice was asked if there was any progress on pressuring Iran, she said, "The important thing is that the President significantly advanced the discussion about really using the strengths that this community of states [in the region] has." Translation: no.

Americans tend to think of the presidency as all-powerful, but much of its authority comes from the ability to convince the public to follow, and the same is sometimes true in diplomacy. The time when George W. Bush could perform that trick has long passed. But if Americans are adjusting to the idea of a weak Bush, an even tougher mental leap awaits them once he leaves office: accepting that the U.S. isn't the force abroad it was just a few years ago. The next President's hardest job may be getting the country used to that. 

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