Leading Article: George W Bush Offers a Meaner and Harsher America

Article excerpt

A PRESIDENTIAL inauguration should be a time of cheer and optimism. But the entry of George W Bush into the White House - only the second time in US history that a son has followed his father into the country's highest office - inspires not so much hope as trepidation, in its implications for both the domestic and foreign policy of what his predecessor Bill Clinton rightly described the "indispensable nation".

To a certain extent, the American government, like most governments, is a bureaucracy which runs itself. But even the most well-oiled of machines needs wise direction from the top. Not even Ronald Reagan, the president most frequently compared with Mr Bush for his hands-off style, came to office with as little knowledge of, and interest in, international affairs.

It is true that, having been a close informal counsellor to his father, Mr Bush knows his way around the White House, and his senior team is studded with "safe pairs of hands" - most notably Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and Dick Cheney, the Vice- President. Even so the foreign-policy omens are not reassuring. In his valedictory television address, Bill Clinton warned of the dangers of isolationism and unilateralism. However, the first utterances from the soon-to-be Bush administration suggest that this is precisely the direction in which it is moving. It is enthusiastic about an unproven and destabilising system of national missile defence; it talks of hasty withdrawal from the Balkans, and plans to increase military spending sharply.

Many of the new President's promises - including retrenchment in the Balkans, a no-nonsense approach to Russia and the transfer of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem - are unlikely to survive contact with the realities of the world. …