Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brace yourselves – George Bush will soon be free to do just what he wants

We are about to enter the twilight zone, that strange black hole in political time and space that appears no more than once every four years. It is known as the period of transition, and it starts a week from today, the time when the United States has not one president but two. One will be the president-elect, the other George Bush, in power for 12 more weeks in which he can do pretty much whatever he likes. Not only will he never again have to face voters, he won't even have to worry about damaging the prospects of his own party and its standard bearer (as if he has not damaged those enough already). From November 5 to January 20, he will exercise the freest, most unaccountable form of power the democratic world has to offer.

A scary thought. And, why did they do it?

A former official in the Bush administration confirmed to me yesterday that the US has lunged into Syrian territory several times before: it's just that Damascus chose to keep quiet. In which case, the interesting question is why the Syrians went public this time.

This was a deliberate act, calculated to send a series of messages. First, to the Syrians, reminding them who's boss in the region and strong-arming them to do more to crack down on al-Qaida.

Second, to the Europeans who have been moving towards a rapprochement with Damascus. Nicolas Sarkozy may have invited President Assad to Paris and David Miliband may have been hosting the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, in London this very Monday, 24 hours after the raid - but no matter. Bush gets to remind both these uppity Europeans who's in charge.

Third, the president could have been sending a message to his own administration.

However we are meant to read it, the attack on Syria looks a lot like a parting shot from Bush, an end-of-the-movie reminder of what this long and bloody saga has been about. A small operation, causing eight deaths, it nevertheless captures much of the Bush ethos that has ruled the globe these past eight years. It was unilateral; it trampled on state sovereignty; and it relied on force as a first, not last, resort. As a souvenir of the Bush era, it would be hard to top.

Bush may be thinking of a parting gift more in keeping with the record of the last eight years. He and Cheney might decide, what the hell, we have one last chance to whack Iran - and let the new guy clear up the mess. Not likely, but possible. For in the twilight zone, anything can happen.

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