(Published in Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 21.)
I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who regrets for a millisecond the departure of George W Bush from the world stage. His presidency has been catastrophic both for America and for the world at large.
In the early stages of his two terms in office, hardline conservative friends of mine vigorously defended him. I learned to avoid the subject of George W Bush, especially after the invasion of Iraq, because it often led to raised voices. But as time went on, even the most vocal Bush supporters gradually fell silent.
The realisation that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction was a turning point. It swept away the principle justification for the invasion, despite attempts by the White House to retrospectively redefine the US action as being all about the democratisation of Iraq. It also strengthened claims by Bush’s critics that it was really all about oil – something I remain unconvinced of.
Eventually some of my pro-Bush friends conceded, as the death toll of both US soldiers and Iraqi civilians inexorably mounted, that the attack on Iraq was misconceived.
Iraq now seems to have turned the corner, and it’s possible it may yet become that rarest of flowers, a stable democracy, in the weed-infested patch that is the Middle East. But the damage done in the meantime, to the Iraqi people and to America’s standing in the world, is incalculable.
There was never any argument that Saddam was a tyrant and a threat to stability, but it was never explained why this particular tyrant had to be removed by force when historically, the US had been content to leave other despots in power and was not beyond intervening to prop them up whenever it suited American interests.
Even before the misbegotten Iraqi adventure, Bush had fatally undermined any claim America might have had to moral authority in the world. He did this in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the US government disregarded fundamental human rights by arbitrarily detaining countless people – including its own citizens – on the flimsiest grounds and in circumstances which denied them access to lawyers and communication with the outside world.
Such is the nature of the man that Bush couldn’t see the irony of his claim that America was making a stand on behalf of freedom and democracy – just as he was apparently unable to see the irony in his petulant response when other countries recently refused to accept released detainees from Guantanamo.
The US arbitrarily removed these people from their countries, cynically exploited what it saw as a loophole in American law by transporting them to a remote military enclave in the Caribbean, subjected them to interrogation techniques of the sort favoured by Pol Pot, and held them without charge or legal representation in defiance of all judicial norms.
As far as we know, many may be innocent. On the other hand, some may be human timebombs. It would hardly be surprising if innocent men, embittered by years of unjust detention at Guantanamo, had been turned into potential terrorists who now bear a lethal grudge against the West.
For all this, the Bush administration was rightly condemned, other than by a handful of sycophantic allies, including Britain and Australia. Yet a resentful Bush ended his presidency apparently believing other countries had an obligation to help the US clean up a mess entirely of its own making. Well, hello?
Perhaps, in future years, we will look back on the eight years of the George W Bush presidency as a bad dream. There were times when it felt as if we watching one of those dark political conspiracy films that were so popular in Hollywood after Watergate.
Trouble was, some of the leading players in this real-life drama – notably the neo-conservatives with whom Bush surrounded himself – were so one-dimensional, so close to caricatures, that had they appeared on screen we would have dismissed them as unbelievable. Some bore an unsettling resemblance to the gung-ho madmen in Stanley Kubrick’s famous nuclear warfare satire Dr Strangelove.
The Hollywood analogy is appropriate in other ways too. It often seemed Bush and his advisers had formed their view of America’s role in the world by watching Rambo-type movies in which American superheroes triumphed over sinister foreign enemies.
Bush has done what few people would have thought possible – make the disgraced Richard Nixon look good. He has greatly devalued the American “brand” and in doing so, has given strength to malevolent forces around the world that delight at the thought of a weakened and enfeebled America. That is his most worrying legacy.
It seems inconceivable that the White House, centrepiece of the world’s wealthiest and most important democracy, should have been captured by such a simplistic world view. Then again, it reveals a particular type of myopia that afflicts America, a country so big, so powerful and so self-sufficient that its inhabitants don’t feel the need to understand the subtleties of a complex, highly nuanced world.
As I once heard a New Zealand academic who had lived in the US for many years observe, the reason many Americans don’t know much about the rest of the world is that for them, America is the world.
This may help explain why a consistent factor throughout the Bush presidency appears to have been a total absence of self-doubt – a bull-headed certainty, on the part of Bush and his advisers, that they were on the right path. Theirs was a world view uncomplicated by any appreciation of inconvenient complexities. To someone from a country like New Zealand, who grows up knowing we don’t count for much and have to punch well above our weight to be noticed, this difference in outlook can be hard to grasp.
So now the baton passes to Barack Obama, who promises to have a more sophisticated understanding of how the world works. He comes to the presidency on a wave of optimism and idealism that hasn’t been experienced since the inauguration of John F Kennedy. It falls to him to restore the sense of moral authority that Bush talked about even as he was squandering it.
The world desperately wants Obama to succeed. But it remains to be seen whether he has the substance to match the winning charisma and the seductive oratory.