Why they might miss Dubya when he’s gone
Many of those still bashing Bush as an idiot indulged in some political idiocy of their own over the past eight years. PLUS: Who’s the poodle?
President George W Bush might officially leave office today, but he effectively lost power a long time ago. Even his own party have disowned and tried to forget their president for at least the past year, with Republican candidate John McCain standing on an I’m-Not-Bush ticket – a remarkable testament to the exhaustion of the Bush administration as it sank into oblivion.
But while President Bush himself has been quietly fading away as Barack Obama prepares to take office on a wave of euphoria, one thing above all has kept the man known as Dubya in the news – the determination of his opponents to drag him out and give him one last kicking in the media (a painful spot) for supposedly being the worst/most unpopular/stupidest president in American history.
In recent times it has often seemed as if many of the big questions in US and international affairs have been simplified to the point where any child can grasp them. A primer in politics, economics and science could perhaps be boiled down thus. Name the main cause of man-made global warming: President George W Bush. Outline the central causes of the war in Iraq: President George W Bush. Analyse the factors giving rise to the terrorist threat today: President George W Bush. Explain the origins of the financial crisis: President George W Bush. Give reasons for the ‘dumbing down of America’: see above. Etc, etc.
To judge by many of the farewell send-ups of Bush, we might conclude that the outgoing president was an incompetent and incoherent fool. Yet it seems these same people would have us believe that the useless idiot has been the most powerful and dominant force for evil on Earth since President GW Beelzebub. One columnist waved farewell to Bush this week with the assurance that ‘outside of the obvious mass murderers, you were one of the worst leaders in the history of the modern world’. Whether or not Bush is the most unpopular president ever, he certainly leaves office as the one to attract the most vitriol from all sides.
Now like most people, I barely have a good word to say about the Bush presidency. But what are all these millions of bad words re: Bush really about? Does the accusation that his was an outstandingly wicked presidency stand up to the test of history?
Yes, Bush misled America (with assistance from the UK) into pointless, disastrous, politically-motivated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not to be confused, of course, with President John F Kennedy’s escalation of the Vietnam intervention, which he justified via the strictly non-political statement that ‘we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place’. Or with President Lyndon B Johnson misleading the world over the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify launching the full-scale war in Vietnam that still makes Iraq and Afghanistan look small by comparison.
There are other areas where attacks on the easy target of the Bush presidency owe much to myth and historical amnesia. So those who condemn the alleged ‘unilateralism’ of his foreign policy, and refusal to bow to international institutions over issue such as Iraq, often forget how President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair launched an equally ‘illegal’ war against Yugoslavia in 1999 without UN support. And those who slam the supposed free market ‘neo-liberalism’ of Bush’s economic policy ignore the way that his administration ran up the largest federal debts in US history even before the huge bailouts of the past year. It made no more sense to call Bush a neo-liberal when the US state was spending billions supporting capitalism before the financial crisis than it would be to suggest he has since become a socialist for boosting state intervention.
Many of Bush’s most vitriolic critics have often confused the self-publicising rhetoric of his neocon supporters with realities in the world of politics and power. That confusion, wilful or otherwise, has served a political purpose of its own.
How much easier it has been to blame Bush for ‘stealing’ the 2000 election or ‘duping’ American voters than to ask the hard questions about why the Democrats twice failed to win enough support to defeat such a joke character. (Indeed many of the liberal media insults hurled at Bush have really been aimed at the ‘lizard-brained’ American voters who were stoo-pid enough to prefer him over his enlightened opponents.) How much simpler is it to blame Bush for lying over Iraq than to ask why so many on all sides supported the invasion, or seriously to examine the wider problem of US intervention, a policy pursued by the likes of Clinton before him and supported by Obama today. Why bother examining the deeper causes of terrorism or economic crisis in the heart of American society, when you can simply pin the blame for it all on the personality flaws of a discredited president?
One thing that Bush could rightly be accused of in his heyday was exploiting the emotive politics of fear over issues such as terrorism. Yet his critics have used their own version to distort political debate, stirring and exploiting fears not only over, say, global warming, but a visceral fear of George W Bush himself.
Perhaps President Bush really has been the idiot he is depicted as in all those collections of film clips now adorning YouTube. But this hardly makes it profound or radical for serious commentators to echo that philosophical genius Russell Brand, who hilariously called Bush a retard. This is political idiocy with a liberal face.
Like it or not, I fear it will not only be the cartoonists and impressionists who will miss the easy target in the White House when he has gone. Without such an obvious boil to blame for all of their ills, the liberal intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic might even be forced to confront some deeper questions about themselves and the sort of societies in which we live. Or perhaps they can just keep on blaming Bush for the next 20 years – after all, there are many over here in the UK who would still like to hold old Margaret Thatcher responsible for the current crisis.
The writer mentioned above (a US liberal writing on a British website), who accused Bush of being just behind the ‘obvious mass murderers’ in history’s league table of bad leaders, concludes that we have one thing to thank Dubya for: making things so bad that Obama got elected. Now, he says, ‘things can only get better’. Some in Britain might think that an unfortunate choice of words. It was, of course, the slogan of the first Tony Blair government, elected in 1997, when many were so bitter about the outgoing Tory government that they invested all of their hopes in New Labour. Even those with short memories might recall how well that turned out.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.
by Brendan O’Neill
Perhaps the greatest myth of the past eight years, the one that most deserves to be squished beneath the hobnail boot of historical fact, is that British prime minister Tony Blair was President Bush’s poodle.
From bad pop (both the Pet Shop Boys and George Michael recorded ‘protest songs’ depicting Blair as a lapdog to Bush’s Rottweiler) to serious journalism (‘What is Blair doing hanging around with this guy?’ asked bemused hacks) to godawful cinema (Richard Curtis’ edgy piece of anti-Bush propaganda, Love, Actually, featured a floppy-haired British PM standing up to a Texan American president), it became commonplace to accuse evil Bush of leading generally decent Blair astray. Not only did Bush launch terrible wars, he had the temerity to drag us Brits along with him!
This self-serving fantasy allowed British officials and observers to pose as the dupes, even the victims, of Bush’s all-powerful drive to war. ‘Unhitch us from the Bush chariot!’ demanded one British journalist, as if plucky-but-unwilling Britain was being dragged along by the force of the Bush war machine, and let us ‘set the bearings of our own moral compass’. Get a grip. In reality, Blair and his backers in the British liberal media were the founders of the very same world-saving, good-and-evil, end-of-days foreign policy that was later adopted by Bush. It might be more accurate to describe Bush as Blair’s poodle.
Of course it’s true, and has been since Suez (if not earlier), that Britain is subservient to the US. Ricky Gervais summed that up when he collected his Golden Globe award in 2004 and said: ‘I’m from Britain. We used to rule the world before you lot.’ Yet Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’, launched in 1997 when Bush was still doing his best to stay away from the drinks cabinet down Texas way, massively influenced the Bushites who were waiting to take power.
Indeed, the two things that Bush is most commonly criticised for – his naive and pseudo-religious belief that the world can be divided into Good and Evil, and his cavalier attitude towards state sovereignty and the authority of the UN – were founding principles of Blairite humanitarian imperialism. Bush is attacked for his super-reductionist, black-and-white worldview, where you’re either ‘with us or against us’. ‘No other president in living memory has spoken so often about good and evil, right and wrong’, says Peter Singer. Yet it was Blair who first injected international affairs with such a simplistic, lethal new moralism. Blair said his ethical foreign policy would be something entirely new – militarism executed not for land or political power, but for ‘what is right’. In Kosovo in 1999 he said: ‘We are fighting not for territory but for values.’
Blair described the Kosovo campaign as ‘a battle between good and evil; between civilisation and barbarity; between democracy and dictatorship’. Bush completely ripped him off in a 2002 speech about the ‘war on terrorism’, when he said: ‘Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree… There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.’
Bush is most loudly attacked for overriding the UN and ignoring state sovereignty. He’s labelled a cowboy, a criminal, an international lawyer’s worst nightmare. He even invaded Iraq without UN authority! Again, it was mild-mannered Blair from Islington, not foul-mouthed Bush from Texas, who elevated Ignoring State Sovereignty into a new principle of international affairs.
In April 1999, Blair gave a speech at the Chicago Economic Club, in which he called for moving away from the old UN emphasis on respecting nations’ sovereign independence and towards taking more pro-active forms of military action to topple ‘regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts’. It became known as the ‘Chicago doctrine’ and is known to have had a big impact on both Clinton (then in power) and Bush. Blair declared that when a state is failing, ‘the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect’. He put this theory into practice when he bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without the unanimous backing of the UN. Four years before Bush did the same over Iraq.
Many of those who today wring their hands over Bush’s wicked warping of decent British politics were only too willing to support Blair’s post-UN, good-and-evil invasion of other countries back in the 1990s. On Kosovo, the Guardian said the UN constitution was a ‘recipe for inaction’ and ‘its imprimatur cannot be the sole trigger for international action to right an obvious wrong’. Bush couldn’t have put it better himself. Maybe he had recently re-read that Guardian editorial when in 2003 he criticised the UN’s slowness on Iraq and decided to forge ahead with his shock’n’awe.
Bushite foreign policy is not some weird, alien, oh-so-Texan force that sprung from nowhere – it is the successor to, and the brutal realisation of, the ethical foreign policy that was first articulated in London in the 1990s and which sought to transform the globe into camps of good and bad that should be open to the attentions and interventions of armed ethicists in the West. It seems that what some people really find offensive about Bush is that he added an explicitly religious gloss – eeurgh! – to Blairite ideas of, er, good and evil, right and wrong, ethical and unethical. All the various phrases invented to describe Bushite foreign policy – ‘neoconservatism’, ‘neo-imperialism’, ‘Empire-building’ – are simply cynical and see-through attempts to disguise the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both launched in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘humanitarianism’, were the logical follow-on from Blair and Clinton’s ethical imperialism.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
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