CONOOR, India—Up here in the tea estates of Nilgiri Hills, where teak-floored bungalows with vast verandas offer spectacular vistas, one feels grateful for the distance from the ubiquitous American media and for the time and tranquility to think and reflect.
As the year of the war on Iraq draws to a close, the larger perspective that emerges is clear: George W. Bush, a small man in a big job, has dragged America into one of its darkest chapters.
He commands unprecedented military power, but his word carries little or no weight in much of the world.
This odd equation remains unaltered by Saddam Hussein's capture, hyped in America but seen elsewhere as inevitable, given that Iraq is not an Afghanistan of a million caves. If anything, the video of his captivity exposed the Bush administration's desperate need to display a trophy catch.
Bush's next declared mission, that of toppling Yasser Arafat, only reinforces the image of the president as a king who knows not the boundaries of his kingdom, nor the limits of his power. Or, as a captive of pro-Israeli hawks hell-bent on remaking the Middle East to Likud designs.
While the president struts and smirks for the cameras in contrived situations — landing on an aircraft carrier to prematurely declare victory in Iraq or serving Thanksgiving turkey to soldiers in Baghdad — terrorism has increased under his watch. Not unlike the record rise in suicide bombings in Israel under Ariel Sharon.
Bush's use of fear as a key tool of governing has turned the world's most powerful nation into its most paranoid, despite two invasions and an expenditure of nearly $200 billion (U.S.).
The administration, invoking 9/11 and the murder of 2,900 innocents as its licence to wage unilateral wars, has so far killed about 10,000 innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's a guesstimate, since America does not count the Afghans and Iraqis it kills in the process of "liberating" them.
The gap between Bush's words and deeds gets bigger by the day, as does the disparity between his illusions and reality.
His war on Iraq was waged on a pack of lies, shoving aside the United Nations when it refused to play its part in the sham exercise of rubberstamping a predetermined course.
Just as he manipulated intelligence to tie Iraq to terrorism and portray its non-existent nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as a threat to America, Bush ignored the State Department's warnings of post-war troubles. He spoke instead of flowers greeting the U.S. liberators and oil revenues paying for the war and rebuilding of Iraq.
He invoked democracy but ignored its expression abroad and suspended its principles at home.
His war was universally opposed, even by the electorates of the governments that joined his "coalition of the willing" — Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia. His most enthusiastic allies were dictators and oppressors, the worst violators of human rights, who used the war on terrorism to stifle dissidents and kill secessionists.
He keeps delaying direct elections in Iraq for fear that the majority Shiites would win and won't be the puppet he wants installed in his subject kingdom.
His administration's violations of the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution are not explained away by the need to cut corners to get at terrorists. Besides not catching any, his policies alienated the very groups whose help was crucial and also sapped the moral strength of his rhetoric and America's $240 million public-relations campaign in Muslim nations.
American courts are reasserting, as they always do, albeit slowly, the rule of law.
But the human and political damage is already done.
Bush promised to avoid a clash of civilizations, but that's what he is widely perceived as presiding over. The anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic discourse — often unapologetically racist — is supplied by Christian fundamentalists and pro-Israeli neo-conservatives, two key constituencies Bush dares not alienate.
The mollycoddled Sharon is thus set to blithely ignore Bush's road map and steamroll over Palestinian lands and Palestinians' human rights in hopes of imposing his version of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
But this will no more bring peace than his previous policies did.
So long as the Israeli-Palestinian issue festers, anti-Americanism and, presumably, terrorism will keep growing. The link has been unmistakable.
Surveying these geopolitical ruins, it is politically incorrect to blame the American public. But its gullibility is alarming. Even now, a majority believes that Saddam had a hand in 9/11. The Bush crowd knows only too well the usefulness of Saddam, a former ally now a demon.
All of the above is self-evident, except to a majority of Americans and their apologists, including, sadly, some Canadians.
The latter are still whining over Canada's decision to sit out the Iraq war, which history will record as Jean Chrétien's finest hour — something Paul Marin would do well to always remember.
What of the future?
Saddam's trial should be conducted, not as Bush wants, by the Iraqis he controls, but by the International Criminal Court.
Saddam should be charged with crimes against humanity as well as war crimes — hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tortured, raped, mutilated, murdered; groups brutalized in Stalinesque campaigns: Kurds, Marsh Arabs and Shiites; neighbours Iran and Kuwait invaded, their civilians and properties destroyed.
Iraq should be turned over to the United Nations.
But since that's not likely, the United States should let the world body play as great a role as possible while keeping military control in American hands.
That would help improve security for Iraqis and American soldiers alike. It would attract international help, especially from those, like France, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan and India, who do not want to be caught dead cavorting with Bush.
Iraqi sovereignty belongs to Iraqis. They need to write their own constitution, elect their own leaders and make their own mistakes.
They could not possibly do any worse than their occupiers, who have been lurching from crisis to crisis for the last eight months in a haze of incompetence and ignorance.