I confess I’ve never quite understood the complaints we sometimes receive from listeners who think we spend too much time reporting on American politics. True, the US is a long way from our shores; France and Germany, for example, are considerably closer. But for goodness sake, who has more influence on the world we live in: President Bush or President Chirac?
I ask because of another extraordinary development this week in US foreign policy. As you may remember, I was struck when Mr Bush delivered his State of the Union address in January by how his tone on climate change seemed to have changed significantly. Then more recently, I commented on the deal he’s struck with North Korea over their nuclear bomb. And now – well now he says (or rather Condoleezza Rice says) he’s going to start talking to the Syrians and Iranians about how to reduce the violence in Iraq.
So the question, in the words of the New York Times, is simply this: Has the Bush administration gone soft on its foes? And the answer, I think, is no, but it is now prepared to talk to them in a way that wasn’t the case a few short months ago. (Much to the dismay, incidentally, of the Washington hawks like ex-Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, who was on the programme last Tuesday.)
And the explanation? There are two reasons, I would suggest: first, the Iraq imbroglio. The administration hard-liners who were convinced that all would go well are now in retreat: Donald Rumsfeld has gone; the former ambassador at the UN, John Bolton, has gone – Vice-President Dick Cheney is still there, but he’s looking mighty lonely. The foreign policy wallahs at the State Department are in the ascendancy.
And the second reason, not unconnected to the first: last November’s mid-term elections. Mr Bush can read election results as well as anyone else (remember his reaction? “We got thumped”), and I’ve never subscribed to the view that he’s stupid. He knows he has to last another two years, and that means finding some way to work with a Congress that’s dominated by his opponents in the Democratic Party.
So what’s happening in Washington, in my book at least, is both interesting and important. Definitely worth reporting on, discussing and analysing. Ditto the prospects of the various candidates who hope to be moving in to the White House in January 2009. Yes, I know, I know, it’s nearly two years away – and I promise we won’t go overboard with every twist and turn of the pre-pre-election campaign. But we’ve already got a woman candidate, a black candidate and a Mormon candidate, and I’m confident there’ll be plenty more excitement before it’s over. Of course, it’s all over-blown, and of course it goes on for far too long … but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
But fear not: despite my remark above about M. Chirac, we’ll also be reporting on the French presidential elections in April, and I’m already making plans to be in Nigeria, one of the most influential African nations, for their presidential poll at around the same time. We like to call it The World Tonight’s global vision.
And while we’re on the subject of visions: was it just an unfortunate coincidence, do you think, that the new Alan Milburn/Charles Clarke website, designed to stop Gordon Brown, oops, sorry, encourage a debate in the Labour party, is called The 2020 Vision, when everyone at Westminster knows that Mr Brown is blind in one eye? They surely wouldn’t have done it on purpose, would they?