Saturday, January 24, 2009

A catastrophic presidency

(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.


sterkworks said...

A perfect post. Amen to all you have said. This American has felt this way since his first election to office.

Steve Withers said...

Bush and his team cooked the intelligence about WMD.

I was paying close attention through 2002 as I had read the PNAC plans for America and Bush appeard to be following them to the letter, driven by Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, who were the framers of this ill-conceived plan of action.

The Chinese and Russians clearly knew who Bush was and what he was capable of. They signed an alliance in early 2001 for the purpose of countering the more agressive and hegemonic America the NeoCons planned to impose - and lock in. This is WHY China announced a space program for landing on the Moon and Mars: the NeoCons wanted American dominance of all space. Bush was left to follow on, a victim of his own rhetoric.

In this context, a truthful case for invading Iraq was very unlikely and we didn't get one. Bush lied and thousand died and it reall is as simple as that.

The man -and those around him - should be standing trial in a US court or before the ICC if the US doesn't have the integrity (under whatever administration) to look at the prima facie case for war crimes having been commited by the Bush Adminisration: starting with lying to wage war.

As for Obama, he is clearly a more intelligent, thoughtful, clear-thinking man than Bush. He ran a near-faultless 18-month run for the White House and did it on scale and with funds never seen before in a US presidential campaign. That shows discipline and organisatoin and clarity. To the extent it suceeded by dealing with *reality*, so much the better.

Obama can't save the world alone. Unless enogh Americans in the right poisiotns of influence also buy into his move to more accountability and openness, then he will achive very little.

The record in the US for facing up to reality isn't very good. The pressure to do so usually comes from outside, no inside.

Good luck to Obama. I can't se how he could be WORSE than G W Bush. That would mean blind luck played a larger part in all this than the talents and abilities of incumbent.

That may well be the case, but I hope it isn't.

Good column, Karl. You got me thinking - as usual.

Ayrdale said...

Wrong I think.
The WMD were used by Hussein on the Kurds. So what if they weren't found?. Their recipe was there for further use. More importantly the will to use them again remained.
The war in Iraq has essentially been won, and the country a better place than it was under Saddam. Many, many Iraqi's have cause to celebrate that.
Bush and Howard turned down the asinine Kyoto protocol, another decision that history and reflection have proved right.
Bush a loony and a moron ?
I don't think so.

Ayrdale said...

Any comments on the Iraq elections ?

kassto said...

Ayrdale — the Iraqi elections don't fit the anti-Bush view of the world, so just get ignored. My view was and remains that the Iraqi invasion was for the best. Yeah, a lot of Iraqis have died, most of them killed not by Americans, but by other Iraqis who don't like what kind of mosque they visit. The Americans have pretty much prevented civil war in Iraq, a civil war which would have been on the cards no matter how Saddam was toppled.

Watching the Iraqis go to the polls doesn't fit the liberal agenda (who are happiest when their world view is justified by the big events); it doesn't go down too well with the other regimes of the Middle East either — the kind who want you to believe that the Muslims of the Middle East ``aren't ready'' for democracy.

Ayrdale said...

Kassto, I agree. Strange that our host whose curmudgeonly views I usually endorse thinks otherwise.
Perhaps Mr editor confused columns, and posted a contribution from Chris Trotter by accident...

Karl du Fresne said...

I try to stay out of the Comments section of this blog; after all, I’ve already had my two bobs’ worth. But seeing I’ve been directly challenged over my comments about George W Bush and Iraq, I feel obliged to respond.

Yes, provincial elections have just been held in Iraq. Who wouldn’t welcome that? They also appear to have been violence-free, and who wouldn’t welcome that too? On the other hand, some media comment from Baghdad highlighted the relatively low turnout (51 percent, compared with 76 percent in national elections in 2005) and speculated that it was caused by a combination of dodgy enrolment systems and, in the words of one correspondent, “Iraqi disenchantment with a democracy that, so far, has brought them very little”. So there’s still some way to go.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that elections were held at all is cause for celebration. They certainly wouldn’t have happened under Saddam Hussein. But were these elections the result of a carefully orchestrated master plan by the Bush administration, as Bush’s cheerleaders want us to believe? Hardly.

Let’s go back. The reasons given for the US invasion of Iraq were hopelessly muddled from the outset. The decision to invade was directly related to 9/11, though Iraq was never implicated in those terrorist attacks. This seemed to be a case of a retaliatory Bush administration lashing out almost at random (in contrast with the decision to invade Afghanistan, which was very clearly linked with Al Qaeda – hence the broad international backing for that action).

We were told too that the purpose of the invasion was to forestall Saddam’s use of WMDs, which turned out to be non-existent. It was only after these two justifications collapsed that the purpose of the exercise became, conveniently and retrospectively, the democratisation of Iraq. So while the recent elections can be hailed as a further step in the construction of a new, democratic Iraq, let’s not kid ourselves that this was President Bush’s noble purpose from the outset.

Let’s also look at the human cost of the invasion – nearly 100,000 documented civilian deaths and more than 4000 US military fatalities, to say nothing of the general mayhem, destruction and misery wrought. A cynic might argue that provincial elections with a voter turnout of 51 percent was a modest dividend in return for all that.

Again, let’s go back. The US appears to have waded into Iraq with no understanding of the demonic forces it was about to unleash. Hence one of the defining moments of the Bush presidency: the premature, tragi-comic declaration “Mission Accomplished” when Saddam’s feeble army had been vanquished. (The other defining moment? Bush’s stunned-mullet impersonation in a Florida classroom when he was advised of the 9/11 attacks.)

Had Washington had a more sophisticated grasp of the type of country Iraq was, it surely could have foreseen that the removal of its strongman dictator, far from signalling the instantaneous dawning of a new democratic epoch, would lift the lid on a seething cauldron and precipitate a bloodbath not unlike that seen in the Balkans after Marshal Tito turned his toes up.

Hence the need for the so-called Surge to finish a job that was ill-conceived and comprehensively botched. President Bush has reason to be grateful to his military commanders in Iraq for extricating him from an embarrassing quagmire. (Kassto, a friend of mine whose opinions I respect, says America “pretty much” prevented civil war in Iraq – but that putative civil war was one that America touched off in the first place.)

So history might see George W Bush in a more favourable light? Hard to say. But we have to judge things as we see them now, and it’s worth noting – though it hardly needs re-stating – that the overwhelming majority of Americans now share the view that the US invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake, and look to President Obama to restore American pride and self-respect. It’s worth noting too that Tony Blair, only last week, said he was still troubled by his decision to back the US and had no idea whether history would vindicate him.

Yes, Bush removed a tyrant, and Iraqis may yet learn to embrace democracy. The free world should rejoice if they do. If you wait long enough, even bad decisions can sometimes produce positive outcomes. But awkward questions remain.

There are many tyrants in the world. If we can justify removing one, why can we not justifying intervening by force in other countries where despots rule over brutally repressed, suffering people? (North Korea and Zimbabwe immediately spring to mind, but there are plenty of other candidates.) And that leads to an even more difficult question: how many innocent lives can justifiably be extinguished in the name of freedom and democracy? There’s no definitive answer to that one, but 100,000 seems quite a high price to me.