Reflections after Bush
“Properly” one might reflect about the Presidency of George Bush the Younger as he left office, but all these years later the nation and the world still suffer, and will continue to for a long time, from the most disastrous and destructive President the United States has ever had. He wasn’t without help, of course, in delivering us unto this mess; that, plus the ephemeral nature of the man’s character, and the fact that his presidency can be seen as a culmination of events over the last several decades, means that reflecting about Bush really means reflecting about far more than a Op-Ed checklist of accomplishments and failures, and is really about reflecting on us.
One of the smaller bad legacies of Bush the Younger is the line of thought that he makes his dad look good in comparison. Bush the Elder was a horrible President, who set the stage for so many of the disasters we have had to undergo. As Vice-President and then President, he was part of the decade long cosseting of Saddam Hussein. Then, having all but invited Iraq into Kuwait, we constructed a coalition of the bribed and coerced, barely removed the Iraqis, proceeded to encourage the Kurds and Shias to rise up, then abandoned them, then lied about it (shades of Eisenhower and Dulles re Hungary in 1956). After 1989, Bush and his Texas oil-scum buddy James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and the young careerist Condoleezza Rice demonstrated utter incomprehension and irresponsibility about Europe after the implosion of the Soviet Union. The one place there was any realistic likelihood of turmoil in Europe was in what was devolving into the former Yugoslavia. But the United States (and our partners in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) turned a blind eye to that reality (“we don’t have a dog in this fight”). Instead, they were slow about the Baltic states’ independence, and ditto for Ukraine. All of this, when it was perfectly obvious that so many of the non-Russian states of the old USSR would choice independence, with whatever degree of reality (contrast, say, Lithuania with Belarus.) A cliché of the 70s and 80s was about “Cold Warriors” itching for nuclear war. The bad joke of that is that the real Cold Warriors were people who could not imagine a world without the Soviet Union as they knew it, without an adversary defined as more or less as powerful as you, with whom you played a constant game of up-and-down (a bi-polar world, indeed), as if this was some enduring reality of history, and hadn’t come into place during, and because of, the Second World War, another of Hitler’s wonderful legacies. So the real crisis in Europe was ignored, the real and effective use of power by the West left in abeyance, with Bush’s successor left to belatedly to deal with the mess, and also take most of the opprobrium that should have landed in Bush the Elder’s lap. It is also worth considering how much of this thinking continued into the younger Bush’s administration, with the “need” to try to enlist Russia as an ally in the “War on Terror” and George Bush the Younger looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and supposedly getting a sense of his soul.
But the largest drag on the world is the financial one. Bush inherited a long string of budget surpluses, with editorialists having the luxury of leisurely debating the pros and cons of having the entire national debt eliminated circa 2015. When he left office, deficits had been run and the debt stood at over 10 trillion dollars, nearly double with what he started. (Oh, and quite by the way, why wasn’t the first decade of the 21st century, the era of the Bush tax cuts, a time of massive, booming investment?) But supposedly Obama is the irresponsible one about money: as with most things matters had to get worse before they got better, but the deficit has been going down year by year. But Obama, supposedly also a Great Communicator, doesn’t know how to make his own case.
One of the stupidest clichés about Bush, uttered by friend and foe alike, is that, think of him as you might, he is a man of “deep convictions.” A man of deep convictions does not run for President at the age of 54 talking about how our foreign policy must be more “modest” and then a year later, in the wake of the terror attacks, proclaim a crusade for freedom and democracy to be exported to lands which haven’t much experience with either, and get us mired in two unwinnable wars which are advertised as part of that crusade. A man of deep convictions does not, at the same time he is making speeches about no longer siding with the old, bad forces of un-freedom in the “Arab World” then render prisoners to Syria and Egypt, among others, for torture. Stubbornness does not mean conviction any more than having to have one’s own way equals a sense of purpose.
Then there is No Child Left Behind. What is interesting is how “liberals” (Teddy Kennedy, etc.) allowed themselves to be co-opted on this, and how the very defining of the subject was left to Bush, and how the subject continues to be defined in terms which he, or his ideological masters, laid down. Millions of people have received the firm impression (and impression is the word) that basically the only thing wrong with public education is a bunch of incompetent teachers who are protected by their union. Never mind generation after generation of an educational administrative class which actually runs the schools, going after every trend in education, from New Math to Smart Boards to on-line learning, as soon as they pick up their meaningless master’s degrees in this or that. Our experience has some analogies with that of the United Kingdom. The Thatcherite ‘reforms’ were blithely continued by Blair and Brown, and now Cameron. Not only is university becoming more expensive, but greater stress is laid on the GSCE (age 13-14) rather than the A-levels (age 16 and after). Students are then tracked on the basis on GSCE scores – in other words, the British are Germanizing themselves.
A lot of this has to do with the suburbanization of “liberalism” (I’m from Oregon originally, so I know a lot about this). Precisely because of the success of the New Deal-Fair Deal-New Frontier-Great Society, the focus of ‘liberals’ became increasingly “personal” to point that in the 1990s the atrocity known as Welfare Reform was passed, but, damn, those blessed partial-birth abortions were protected. Year after year, really decade after decade, articles and editorials have bemoaned “America’s Decaying Infrastructure” but there is truly no passion on the part of the political classes to do anything about it. You can’t expect ‘conservatives’ to care, but there was a time when ‘liberals’ would have been excited about this, but those days are gone. The stimulus package of early 2009 could have been a perfect time, but of course it wasn’t. It didn’t occur to Obama, or Biden, or Pelosi, etc. to take a deep breath, use their political momentum to explain to the American citizenry how bad the mess left by Bush was and how that was combined with a golden opportunity to take care of some problems America had been storing up for decades.
Those of us with longer memories than last week will remember when liberalism underwent a searching critique by what was dubbed “neo-conservatism” (but then some of us also remember when neo-conservative meant, say, Nathan Glazer). Those days, too, are gone. Liberals were only ‘chastened’ to the extent they would abandon the weakest among us, and protect only what mattered to an increasingly affluent “natural” constituency. See above, but consider also the truly thoughtless re-enforcing of de-regulation by Clinton, attended with great posturing of intellectual bravery, too scared to say no to the Pelagian / Libertarian fantasy promulgated by his predecessors in the White House. So, when he was succeeded by Bush the Younger, how could liberals effectively criticize, if they even noticed, the whole sub-prime idiocy? They couldn’t. (Martin Mayer predicted this sort of thing in the 70s in The Bankers, but that’s another story.)
Meanwhile, what about the “conservatives”? Having somehow managed to serve up the first two-term Presidency since Eisenhower, nothing was easier for them than the auto-mythology of Reagan as a Great President. Paul Volcker, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, a Carter appointee, induced a massive recession, in order to wring out the inflation which has beset us since our little mis-adventure in Indo-China (one of the ‘achievements’ of conservatives was to lay that inflation, in the minds of millions, at the feet of Food Stamps and Job Corps). That helped Carter lose the Presidency, and when the inflation was wrung out and the economy began to recover, Reagan couldn’t help but be re-elected (this after historic mid-term losses in 1982). It is almost embarrassing to remember, as well, that the deficits run up by Reagan. In 1986, Reagan replaced Volcker with Alan Greenspan , the fruit of whose misdeeds we still must endure. The other part of the mythology has to do with Ending the Cold War, which in real life Reagan didn’t, and couldn’t, do. He merely had the good fortune to be President while the implosion of the Soviet Union became explicit, and that awful system finally coughed up a leader, Gorbachev, who was willing to begin the dismantling of empire (the Soviet Union, having begun the Cold War with its dominance of half of Europe, had to be the one to end it). Reagan, destiny’s tot, merely soaked up the credit due to others.
“Conservatives” have never been able to quite get over it; hence, their befuddlement during the two Bush presidencies, with an interlude of impeaching a Democratic president for, well, adultery. I think I first noticed conservatives resurrecting “class warfare” (apparently a rhetorical one-way street) in 2006 when Bush the Younger was still in office. It is hardly a wonder that two decades of talking to themselves (i.e., political incest) would finally spawn not merely a succession of risible presidential candidates but the Tea Party. It is worth paying attention to one aspect of that phenomenon: its almost total lack of interest in governance. Of course, people will say that, for instance, the Tea Partiers would like to wreck Obamacare, but the Tea Party is largely an instance of what happens when politics becomes its own subject. There can be no actual Tea Party “program.” The activities of the Tea Partiers are about ideological purity, and purges, and self-satisfaction , and very little else. That is its effect on our political life, to increase the stock of public political masturbation. This is pernicious, but not as a threat to seize power. (In this, they are like the various Trotskyite sects, only well-bankrolled. A couple of stories are pertinent here. The first is for the cognoscenti: I once read about one of the Trotskyite grouping which was distinguished from the others because it held – still holds? – that Trotsky wasn’t killed on orders of Stalin. No, he was done in by the Sparticists. The second story happened here in Nevada, where I now reside. In 2010, the Republicans nominated a true whack-job, Sharon Engle, to run against Harry Reid for the Senate. But she wasn’t pure enough for the Tea Party, who ran their own candidate.)
Meanwhile, Obama has Ukraine and Syria and Iraq with which to deal. These all are legacies from our wretched past and enough was said about Putin, Russia, etc. above. But first consider Syria: we have been over a barrel about Syria for four decades now, ever since Henry Kissinger, back when he was running the world in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, decided that Syria (meaning its regime) was a serious partner for peace which had to be “engaged.” The fruits of that? Syria occupied half of Lebanon for a quarter century (1976-2001). We ended up intervening in Lebanon in 1983-1984, saved the PLO’s bacon after they made a living hell of south Lebanon, and had nearly three hundred of our Marines blown up by Syria’s Hezbollah allies. That involvement in Lebanon is worth considering, apart from its having achieved nothing good, in terms of the politics of reputation. We intervene, we have a disastrous attack on our forces about which nothing is done, then we leave – and the public image and re-elections prospects of Ronald Reagan in 1984 are not affected in the least. (Republicans bitching about Obama and Syria might remember, too, that in 1982 Hafez Assad massacred 10,000 people in Homs in an earlier civil war – and Reagan did exactly what about that?) This leads, secondly, over a now non-existent border, to Iraq. We dismantled what state apparatus there was in that fake nation, opened up a front to Sunni extremism, and installed a government friendly to…Iran, about whom we have been stressing for years. This is called “realism.” Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Rice, etc. set that table, and Cheney, at least, now has the brass to come out of his lair to appear on the Fox channel and kvetch.
So, here we are, over five years after George Bush the Younger left office. Perhaps the most (immediately) depressing thing we might consider is that his having wrought such havoc, and that havoc having such a long pedigree, there are people with bumper stickers with Bush’s picture asking, “Miss Me Yet?” We are so far gone in our fog of amnesia that a sizable chunk of our citizenry would quite willingly return to its vomit, and that is why I said that to reflect about Bush and his presidency means to reflect about us.