It is hard to imagine that many people will be looking back on the Bush Junior years with nostalgia.
It is clear that President-Elect Obama will have his work cut out to address the enormity of the financial and economic problems currently engulfing the United States, and therefore by contagion the rest of the world. It may be because of this that he has decided to make someone as high-profile and charismatic as Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State. She can shoulder the external responsibilities in large measure while he concentrates on the domestic agenda, which is very largely why he has been elected. We Europeans are fooling ourselves if we think that Barack Obama was elected because Americans were uneasy about the unpopularity of the United States and its government abroad.
Yet however daunting the domestic prospect, the challenges to the world order left behind by the Bush years are truly formidable. Paradoxically the war on terror has been highly successful in one area, the area which matters most to Americans. There has been no attack on the United States homeland since September 11, 2001. Not many of us would have bet on that outcome. But according to the Bush administration's own doctrine, in its national security strategy of September 2002, it claimed to be fighting a war against terrorists 'of global reach'. In the name of this war two countries have been invaded and occupied. This declaration of war has given the terrorists the oxygen of publicity they crave and elevated criminals into soldiers for a cause. And, as those of us who live in these islands know only too well, terrorism didn't start on 9/11. And as it is a tactic, not an end in itself, is unlikely if ever to go away. Hence, how do you gauge that you have won the war on terror?
On another level, when I said that George Bush was al-Qaeda's best recruiting sergeant a few years ago, I was expressing a fairly banal thought. As the inquiries into 9/11 comprehensively demonstrated, Saddam Hussein and Iraq were not involved in the terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Nor was al-Qaeda present in Iraq until after the US-led invasion of 2003. Now the jihadi genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The countless deaths of Iraqis and US and other allied soldiers at al-Qaeda's hands since the invasion are just one of the tragically unintended consequen- ces of the Iraq war.
For many women in Iraq there has been a terrible price to pay in terms of their personal liberties: bullied, beaten and even killed for such crimes against morality as wearing Western clothes, Iraqi women must wonder why an invasion in the name of freedom and democracy should have deprived them of some of their most basic human rights.
Elsewhere along the so-called arc of instability, there is precious little satisfaction to be gained at the Bush administration's performance. Afghanistan, that other major war theatre, is proving evermore intractable as the Taliban and al-Qaeda reorganise and rearm from their safe havens in the tribal lands in Pakistan, where the new Prime Minister has been no more successful than General Musharraf in keeping control.
Hardly surprising when the real power in the land is the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, which effectively created the Taliban back in the Nineties. Afghanistan outside Kabul is in desperate straits with an alienated population, not only against the US and Nato forces, but against the Karzai government seen as increasingly ineffective and corrupt. And opium production has never been higher.
One of the main beneficiaries of the war in Iraq has been Iran, which now emerges as the regional superpower thanks to the installation in Baghdad of a pro-Iranian Shia-dominated government and all this at the hands of the "great Satan" as the Iranians call the United States. It must seem too good to be true to the mullahs. A government as divided and incompetent as the current one in Iran, which has alienated so much of its population, could be expected by now to have been significantly weakened. Yet the militaristic rhetoric coming out of Washington has united the country in a predictable way under the banner of Iranian nationalism and its right to develop nuclear power.
Nobody I know thinks that the Iranian government will stop at peaceful uses of nuclear power; on the other hand, can they be entirely blamed for wanting to develop nuclear weapons when so many of their neighbours or near-neighbours have done so? Iraq was certainly on this track in the Nineties. Israel, India and Pakistan are all nuclear states. Syria has ambitions in that direction. Why should Iran be the one out of step? That is of course the view in Tehran. For the rest of us, non-proliferation and the dramatic reduction of all nuclear arsenals remains the preferred option. It seems at this stage unlikely that the Bush administration will feel up to launching or condoning a military strike on Iran. The days of the neo-cons' quip "everyone wants to go to Baghdad, real men want to go to Tehran" quoted in Newsweek before the invasion seem long gone. But Obama/Clinton will have to give Iran a very high priority in their foreign policy programme. Talking to the Iranians rather than threatening to bomb them might be a good place to start.
Others in Bush's Axis of Evil to be "dealt with", as his former Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, put it, included Syria and North Korea. Syria's capacity for trouble-making through Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon remains legendary, though France and Britain have recently shown signs of wanting to encourage Syria to behave more constructively. But the festering sore of Palestine has remained neglected and aggravated by Bush's partisan approach so clearly illustrated by the US administration's looking on benignly while the ill-judged Israeli operation in 2006 in Lebanon strengthened Hezbollah.
To be fair to President Bush, there has been some modest success with the curtailment of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. It looks as though North Korea has disabled part of its facilities, and only six weeks ago the United States removed North Korea from its list of state-sponsors of terrorism. So the Axis of Evil now boils down to just Iran.
But there are increasing problems with what President Reagan used to describe as the Empire of Evil. Post-Soviet Russia has been mishandled by more than just one US president. But the result is a Russia determined to reclaim first-class status after the humiliations of the Nineties and is increasingly self-confident and aggressive, particularly in its own backyard. The disastrous attempt by Georgia's Washington-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili on South Ossetia last summer prompted a predictably robust, not to say brutal, Russian reaction. Yet it is hard to believe that Saakashvili would have acted without a green light from a senior figure within the Bush administration.
In one area at least the Bush legacy will be looked at kindly. He has accelerated dramatically efforts to combat HIV/Aids and malaria in Africa, and by the time he leaves office President Bush will have doubled the level of assistance to Africa to $8bn. Besides that, his President's Malaria Initiative of 2005 and his emergency plan for Aids relief is estimated to have reached 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
If the horizontal issue of HIV/Aids and malaria has been a relative success area, another horizontal issue has been a spectacular failure, namely climate change. President Bush appears to be as much in denial over climate change as President Mbeki of South Africa was over HIV/Aids. The default unilateralist stance of the Bush administration, which could be seen in its reaction to the International Criminal Court where he refused to sign up, or in his rejection of the Kyoto Agreement, has been one of the main causes of friction with European allies who look to the US to take a lead in these areas. The new administration's ambassadorial appointment to the United Nations will be an interesting litmus test. Appointing John Bolton as the Ambassador to the United Nations, as Bush did, was like making Richard Dawkins the Minister for Religious Affairs.
If the current international financial turmoil shows us anything, it is how none of us can be insulated from seemingly remote events. Who earlier than 18 months ago had ever heard of a sub-prime loan? As Obama struggles with reforming the Bretton Woods institutions -- the monetary management system -- and the world recession, the new Secretary of State will have a whole series of toxic issues to deal with. She will, however, enjoy an initial surge of goodwill as a reaction to bleak disillusionment with the Bush years.
Sir Ivor Roberts, a former Ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia, is President of Trinity College, Oxford