Bush-bashing in the UK

What's so special about this US president?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

President Bush’s visit to Britain, due to start tomorrow, is causing a storm in a state.

British officials are ‘dreading it’; one Downing Street insider says, ‘That man seems to cause us no end of trouble’. Buckingham Palace, where Bush will spend a night, snootily says ‘this visit is being done with advice – with a capital A’. Prince Philip apparently feels ‘under siege’, as US secret services move in to secure the palace for Bush’s arrival. Newspaper headlines vary from ‘REDNECK ALERT’ to ‘We just don’t like Bush’. The Stop the War Coalition is planning a week of protests to expose ‘Bush’s lies’ and let him know ‘We don’t want him here’.

What’s behind this Bush-bashing? There is certainly plenty to protest against, starting with Bush and co’s foreign policy – and demonstrators should be free to demonstrate wherever and whenever they choose. But there are problems with today’s anti-Bush frenzy. Scratch the surface and it seems the Bush protests are less an informed critique of the Bush administration’s actions around the world, than a lashing out against Bush-as-symbol. London’s greeting for Bush confirms that Bush-bashing has become the favoured pastime of the disillusioned and disconnected.

Right-wing American commentator Robert Novak recently wrote that, in all his 44 years of covering politics, he has never seen ‘anything like the detestation of Bush’ (1). Liberal commentator Molly Ivins, who has declared her support for London’s anti-Bush demos, responded by asking why Novak was surprised. ‘Sneering, jeering, bad manners, hideous diplomacy, threats, demands, lies, arrogance, bluster, tax cuts for the rich – and you wonder why we think he’s a lousy president?’, she wrote (2). But Bush isn’t the first president to display such traits and vices – by a long shot. The notion that he is, in the words of one London protester, ‘the most evil president ever to visit Britain’, simply doesn’t hold water.

Ivins says that where previous president Bill Clinton merely lied about ‘a squalid affair that was none of anyone else’s business anyway’, Bush lied us into war by exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (3). She seems to have a short memory. President Clinton bombed Baghdad, in Operation Desert Fox in 1998, claiming that ‘Saddam must not be allowed to threaten his neighbours with nuclear weapons, poison gas or biological weapons’ (4). He and Blair also launched the Kosovo War in 1999 on dubious grounds – including the claim that the Serbs had killed 100,000 Kosovans. The total body count of civilians killed in Kosovo from 1997 to 1999, including by Clinton and Blair’s air strikes, stands at 3,000 (5).

In today’s UK Mirror, Jonathan Freedland says the hostility to Bush is because he ‘falsely sold’ us the war on Iraq and introduced the ‘Bush doctrine, which allows the USA to strike at countries that have made no attack on it’ (6). You could be forgiven for thinking that Bush was the first president ever to launch a war. What about Harry Truman, who nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 180,000 civilians, even though US officials were aware that Japan was on the verge of surrendering? Or Lyndon Johnson, who told the Gulf of Tonkin lie in order to kickstart the Vietnam War, which killed two million Vietnamese? Or Richard Nixon, who expanded the Vietnam War to Cambodia, again on highly dubious grounds, killing thousands more civilians? (7)

Some anti-capitalist groups claim they are protesting against Bush in Britain because of his ‘pro-rich policies’. One report says that ‘Bush’s entire first eight months was tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for the rich, and he lied and said the tax cuts would help average Americans’ (8). The ‘revelation’ that the President of the United States does favours for the rich (otherwise known as capitalists) could only shock the most spectacularly naive. From Franklin D Roosevelt’s railroad connections to Ronald Reagan’s promotion of US business interests abroad, American presidents have always given and sought support from capitalists.

The truth is…there is nothing special about President Bush. Like every other modern president, he has launched wars, told half-truths and untruths, and acted in the interests of America’s capitalist elite – hardly Stop the Press stuff. So why the deeply hostile reaction to his arrival in Britain, everywhere from the backrooms of Downing Street to the front pages of the papers to the ranks of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements?

Some will argue that the anti-Bush demos show the rise of a new anti-war opposition, particularly among younger people no longer prepared to put up with the antics of American presidents. In truth, the peculiar anti-Bush sentiment shows the opposite – a depoliticised lashing out, rather than a progressive movement for change. People have marched against American presidents in the past, most notably around the Vietnam War – but today’s protests against Bush are something very different.

The outbreak of Bush-bashing reveals more about those doing the bashing than it does about Bush. President Bush has become something of a magnet for a widespread sense of powerlessness and disconnection, with commentators, protesters and others projecting a sense of isolation on to the man who most clearly symbolises power in today’s world.

The anti-war movement has coincided with a high level of public disengagement from politics. The marches against invading Iraq – including the million-strong demo in Hyde Park in February 2003 – were not the new radical moment in British politics that many claimed. Rather, the anti-war movement has been more like a collection of individuals expressing their frustration with politics and politicians. The big demos encapsulated a cynical mood and a sense of disengagement – as reflected in the anti-war movement’s cri de coeur ‘Not in my name’, the slogan that best captured the disconnection that many were voicing through the prism of war in Iraq.

It is in this kind of climate that President Bush can be seen as a symbol of everything that is wrong in the world. Isolated individuals feeling themselves disconnected from politics and public debate lash out against the most powerful man in the world, who is of course behind everything. The Guardian earlier this year accused the Bush administration of causing Britain’s unbearably hot weather by refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, while others see the old US naval ships arriving in Hartlepool, complete with toxic waste, effectively as an American invasion (9). When the world feels beyond our control, many lash out against its most powerful man – and it no doubt helps that he happens to fit the caricature of Evil World Leader for our cynical, anti-political age: he’s right-wing, Texan, has loadsamoney and oil connections to boot. Bush is the ideal target for individuals wanting to kick against something, anything.

The tantrum-like nature of the anti-Bush protests is clear from the protesters’ demands – which include ‘Go home’ and ‘Bush: Unwanted Guest’. These are not political protestations, but statements of dislike or disapproval for the not-very-nice man arriving on our shores. Indeed, many attack Bush for his personal traits – today’s newspapers describe him as a ‘redneck’, a ‘chicken’, and a ‘vulgar Texan’; the Mirror has published an ‘Idiot’s Guide to Great Britain’ to help Bush during his trip – which includes tips like ‘The RAF won the Battle of Britain, not Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis’ and ‘We say trousers not pants – unless of course we are referring to your foreign policy’.

From blaming Bush for everything to telling him to ‘Go home’ to providing him with an Idiot’s Guide – there is little that is positive in these disparate protests against Big Bad Bush. The Bush administration has done plenty of things to get angry and protest about – but Bush-bashing just makes you blind.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Call me a Bush-hater, Molly Ivins, AlterNet, 14 November 2003

(2) Call me a Bush-hater, Molly Ivins, AlterNet, 14 November 2003

(3) Call me a Bush-hater, Molly Ivins, AlterNet, 14 November 2003

(4) Iraq attacked in Operation Desert Fox, CNN, 16 December 1998

(5) See Why are we surprised by war lies?, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) The British are not anti-American…we just don’t like Bush, Jonathan Freedland, Mirror, 17 November 2003

(7) See Mentioning the V-word, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) Call me a Bush-hater, Molly Ivins, AlterNet, 14 November 2003

(9) See Chill out, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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