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U.S.: Republican Convention -- Bush's Tumultuous First Term Divides Nation

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> Four years after Republicans nominated him to take on then-Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential elections, George W. Bush is again set to receive his party's nomination for president. But this time, Bush will face challenger John Kerry as the sitting president of the United States. Bush's presidency has been one of the most tumultuous in recent U.S. history. After taking office in the wake of a major controversy over the 2000 election results, Bush was soon faced with the attacks of 11 September 2001 -- an event that turned the former Texas governor into a war president determined to respond forcefully to the threat of terrorism, even at the cost of alienating many of America's traditional allies. On the eve of Bush's nomination at the Republican National Convention in New York, RFE/RL takes a look back at his landmark first term in office.

Prague, 27 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Mr. Chairman, delegates and my fellow citizens, I proudly accept your nomination."

Four years ago in the eastern U.S. city of Philadelphia, George W. Bush accepted his Republican Party's nomination to run against then-Vice President Al Gore for the presidency of the United States.

Next week in New York on 2 September, Bush will again accept the party's nomination. But this time, Bush will take on Democratic Senator John Kerry, not as an internationally inexperienced governor from the southwestern state of Texas but as a self-proclaimed war president leading the nation in a global fight against terrorism prompted by the attacks of 11 September 2001.

As such, Bush has presided over an upheaval in U.S. foreign policy, including leading wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and adopting a controversial policy of "preemption," under which the United States reserves the right to neutralize potential threats by attacking first.

These events and policies have helped polarize the American public ahead of national elections on 2 November. They have also helped alienate many traditional U.S. allies in Europe, as well as much of the Islamic world.

Bush's critics see a dark irony in this. The son of former President George H.W. Bush had campaigned in 1999 pledging to lead a more "humble" America in the world and to reduce the security commitments of the United States overseas. Bush's supporters believe the world changed dramatically after 11 September 2001, and that, as president, he has reacted forcefully to the dangers posed by terrorists and rogue regimes.

After the 9/11 attacks, which killed some 3,000 people, the world rallied to America's side. Bush noted as much in his speech to the U.S. Congress just nine days after Islamic militants crashed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

"America will never forget the sounds of our national anthem playing at [London's] Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris and at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo. We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America," Bush said.

Bush's first response to the attacks was to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 in a bid to wipe out the Taliban regime, as well as the Al-Qaeda militants it hosted, including the terrorist network's leader, Osama bin Laden.

While America's European allies supported that effort, which quickly led to the fall of the Taliban, they soon expressed concern at what they saw as a new unilateralist streak in American foreign policy.

The Bush administration decided not to support U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and also withdrew from a series of other initiatives, including a new United Nations international tribunal for war crimes.

In December 2001, Bush pulled the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, an agreement that many saw as the cornerstone for nuclear arms control.

Then came the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The war succeeded in toppling the regime of President Saddam Hussein, but triggered a rupture in relations with key allies France and Germany and helped swell anti-American sentiment around the world.

Though no weapons of mass destruction have been discovered in Iraq, Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, in a speech last month, strongly defended the administration's decision to invade.

"Today, 15 months later, Saddam Hussein stands arraigned in an Iraqi court, where he will face the justice he denied to millions. It is a historic transformation for that nation. Fifteen months ago, it was under the absolute control of a dictator. With the assumption of power by the Iraqi interim government and the enshrining of these rights in law, Iraq is now a country where the government will answer to the people instead of the other way around," Cheney said.

But former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, speaking at the Democratic National Convention in late July, spoke for both Bush's domestic and foreign critics when he accused the president of squandering the global outpouring of sympathy for America after the 9/11 attacks.

"The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'preemptive' war," Carter said.

On the domestic front, Bush has taken on policies that have been both applauded by his supporters and passionately derided by his critics. They include tax cuts that critics say are for mostly wealthy Americans, but supporters credit for keeping the economy afloat during the global economic downturn.

And while Kerry has sought to highlight record job losses during Bush's tenure, foreign policy, and national security are dominating the election campaign. On 26 August, Bush acknowledged making "miscalculations" about post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where more than 100,000 U.S. troops are still engaged in fighting an insurgency.

But Bush said this week he still believes his leadership in the war on terrorism is what should be foremost on the minds of Americans when they go to the polls in November.

"I think we ought to be debating who best to be leading this country in the war against terror. And that's what I'll continue to try to convince the American people of, is that I'm the right person to continue to lead the country in the war on terror. I think we ought to be looking forward, not backward," Bush said.

Current polls show the American public virtually evenly split between Bush and Kerry, with about 5 percent of voters still undecided. It could very well be that group that decides the outcome of the November ballot.