US President George W. Bush’s successor inherits a world of troubles come January, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a defiant Iran, and a US economy battered by the global financial crisis.
The new president will take the reins of a limping superpower facing deep doubts overseas about the limits of its strength, and sharply diminished US standing even among Washington’s closest friends, recent studies find.
"America’s moral leadership and decision-making competence will continue to be questioned at home and abroad, despite the arrival of new leadership in Washington," a Georgetown University working group said earlier this year.
Already, both major contenders in the November 4 election — Bush’s fellow Republican and chosen successor John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama — have denounced the vastly unpopular president’s policies and promised a new course.
"Restored respect will come only with fresh demonstrations of competence," the Georgetown group said in a study of US standing in the world and the foreign policy challenges of the next administration.
Bush leaves a mountain of unfinished business. Barring perhaps unimaginable breakthroughs, it will fall to one of his successors to end the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, herald the end of nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and celebrate a lasting peace deal in the Middle East.
And the next president will certainly inherit a grim economy — the White House this week predicted a sharp rise in unemployment, while some private-sector forecasts warn of a trillion-dollar budget deficit in 2009.
Bush will host a global crisis summit November 15 in Washington, but it will focus on laying out principles for overhauling regulations, while leaving that task and potentially the worst of the crisis to his successor.
The new president will likely face difficult decisions on Iraq. Recent US public opinion polls reveal new optimism amid decreased violence there, but most Americans still want US troops to come home as soon as possible.
And it is not clear whether US and Iraqi negotiators will agree on a long-term strategic pact and a separate deal spelling out the rights and duties of US troops before the UN mandate for their presence lapses in December.
Seven years after US forces ousted the Taliban Islamist militia from power in Afghanistan, 2008 has been the bloodiest year of fighting there, while Bush and key allies have vowed to escalate US troop levels.
Bush was the first sitting US president to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Middle East peace talks have stalled after he helped revive them last year, and both sides are openly looking to his successor.
The new president will also inherit Iran’s defiance of international pressure over its suspect nuclear program and a fragile six-country deal making ginger progress towards ending North Korea’s atomic weapons ambitions.
He will also decide the course of the war on terrorism Bush declared after the September 11, 2001 strikes, which the White House credits for averting repeat attacks.
But critics have targeted the US use of secret prisons, alleged torture, the fate of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — which Bush recently left to his successor to close, if he can — and support for friendly governments with spotty human rights records.
Other headaches include Washington’s chilly ties with Moscow — their worst since the Cold War — as well as relations with Pakistan which have tensed over suspected US strikes at extremists along the border with Afghanistan.
Where some see potential disasters, Bush sees successes in the making if only his successors will stick to his approach, and the White House says it is a better world in October 2008 than at the dawn of his term in January 2001.
"Over the last eight years, President Bush has worked, in an ever changing world, to fight extremism, spread freedom, and lift people from poverty so that the world is a better and safer place for our children," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Bush likes to say that US forces liberated millions in Afghanistan and Iraq, while aides highlight improved ties with Brazil, China, and India and celebrate a flurry of free trade pacts in the Americas.
On Iran, Bush has said repeatedly that he leaves his successor a "framework" for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear program — US-backed talks grouping Britain, France, Germany — ignoring his early opposition to that approach.
On North Korea, which first tested a nuclear weapon on his watch, Bush says the six-country talks grouping China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States are better than his predecessor’s bilateral approach.
And Bush said Tuesday that the economic crisis may endanger one of his proudest achievements — the expansion and improvement of aid to Africa — and warned his successor that cutting back would be "a serious mistake.
The White House has been preparing a public relations blitz to polish his image, aides say — a far cry from Bush’s once mocking assessment of history’s judgment because, by the time it comes, "I’ll be dead."