President Bush is a man everyone loves to, if not hate, at least mock. The snickers surrounding the latest incident when an Iraqi journalist, overjoyed at being liberated, hurled shoes at President Bush and called him a dog (by the way, both are really insulting in the Muslim world) was just part of a long drawn out episode of Schadenfreude over the failure of this President. Everyone is joining in. Senator McCain’s campaign openly lambasted President Bush, and the Republicans tried to steer clear of him as if he were as toxic as those subprime mortgage backed financial securities.
Faced with such reactions, Bill Clinton would have steamed, and tried frantically to improve his reputation. Richard Nixon was in such a position, and became melancholy and prone to drunkenness and depression. But somehow, President Bush, the guy known as a clueless idiot, has the ability to understand his situation and not let it consume him. I view the President with more sympathy now than any time during his term; I don’t think he’s a bad man, but he did make some bad choices.
His first poor choice was to pick Dick Cheney to be his running mate. Back in 2000 I was somewhat intrigued by the ‘compassionate conservatism’ and ‘ownership society’ rhetoric of George W. Bush. Was he going to finally lead the Republicans out of the hateful Tom Delay and Newt Gingrich style of hardball politics?
But when I heard that Cheney would be the Vice Presidential nominee, I was horrified. I had studied Cheney’s role in the first Gulf War, when he wanted to ignore Congress, coalesce power in his Department of Defense, and engage in a far more militarist policy. He opposed the efforts of Gen. Schwarzkopf and Powell to build a massive force, believing they were over-estimating the opposition. When that 1991 war went easily, he felt vindicated. I knew Cheney was an avid advocate of intensified Presidential power and limiting the role of Congress. That is completely contrary to my philosophy of transparent and decentralized power. Once Bush chose Cheney, I opposed that ticket completely.
I believe that choice led to many other poor choices early in the Administration. Many of the neo-conservatives brought into the Department of Defense and the White House were through Cheney’s influence. They dominated the advice given the President, playing on his duty to “protect America” and desire to “spread democracy” to launch a very aggressive effort to reshape the Middle East and expand American power. Bush certainly wasn’t a naive idealist in all this, but a President is only as good as the advice he gets. A President is insulated and dependent on his team. He had a team that wanted war, distrusted Congress, and looked disspassionately at the suffering of civilians — it was worth it, they would rationalize, if we gave them democracy.
President Bush shifted policy in 2005. Most of the neo-conservatives were gone. Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates brought a new realism to US foreign policy. The tone of US diplomacy went from “you’re with us or against us,” to “OK, let’s rebuild our relationships.” He gave up just about every policy goal of the first four years — reshaping the Mideast, spreading democracy, a long term presence in Iraq, and even dedication to win in Afghanistan. He dropped most of his domestic agenda. First the wars, and then the political winds shifted against him. By 2008 he was a different President, surrounded by better advisors, and arguably making better decisions. Moreover, he was able to change course dramatically without appearing unstable.
The fundamental error made by President Bush and members of both parties is to have overestimated US power both in terms of military reach and economic stability. The booms of the 90s created a kind of cocky “we’re the unipolar power, baby, get used to it” attitude early in the new millenium. Idealist dreams of spreading human rights and freedom seemed to mesh with raw self-interest in securing oil supplies and protecting us from terrorism. The American public had an inflated view of American strength and the universal appeal of our ideals.
President Bush thus strikes me as a kind of tragic symbol, but in some ways a hopeful one. He first represents the errors made due to our arrogance at the end of the Cold War. I don’t mean that as a partisan attack. He represents the average American who believed that we were number one, and that our ideals and power were strong and well intentioned. We Americans were willing to be told “this will defend our values and liberate others.” We wanted to believe, and thus most Americans supported the war in Iraq early on.
Americans are pragmatic and in general good at adjusting when things go wrong. The hopeful side of President Bush as a symbol is he also reflected the ability to change policy direction even as it turns out assumptions were wrong, and a foreign policy crisis is joined by an economic one. Bush sat back and watched events unfold, intervening when he deemed necessary, but not in a way designed to hog the spotlight or undercut the candidates for his job. In that sense, Bush is a transition figure to the new kind of thinking President-elect Obama represents. Rather than the stark break seen by some, there is a continuity. The cowboy world of President Bush isn’t really as far removed as the urbane world of Barack Obama.
And the dislike people have for President Bush? Besides the usual partisan stuff you’ll see against any politician, much of it is a way for people to avoid admitting their own errors in assessing US power and policy. Better to blame Bush for screwing it up, than really thinking about why his choices didn’t work. For some this allows them to hold on to their illusions — the unregulated economy really can work, we really can militarily win in the Mideast, we just need better leaders — but for others they can shift their views without too much cognitive dissonance.
Don’t get me wrong. My opposition to the policies of this administration is intense on many levels. But I’m not going to join in the personal attacks on President Bush or the joy many have in seeing him leave in virtual disgrace. The lessons we as a society have learned — and are still in the process of learning — are difficult, our country is not what we thought it was ten years ago. Without President Bush, we’d not be ready for a President Obama. Without learning painful lessons about our society and its vulnerabilities, we’d not be ready to try a new approach.
And the shoes? To me that symbolized the disdain most Iraqis have for what has been done to their country and its people in the name of “liberation” by the US. We all need to duck, even those of us who opposed the war from the beginning. President Bush symbolized a way of thinking about America that felt good and was embraced by most, but turned out to be wrong. Now we need to figure out how to move forward and transform the US without losing sight of our core values.