Sunday, December 19, 2004

Thoughts by and on Time’s 2004 Person of the Year: George Bush

President Bush has just been awarded Time magazine’s 2004 “Person of the Year.” In an interview that accompanies the issue bearing his image, he makes many statements that are sure to both please and enrage large segments of the American public, as well as provide fodder for presidential historians for years to come.

On the topic of the recent election, Bush states that the reason he beat John Kerry was because of the wars he initiated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the American public had largely forgotten about the war in Afghanistan in the run-up to the election (how many times did it make the headlines or even merit a question in the debates?) and it never was truly contentious to begin with, I think Bush really meant to say that the election was about Iraq, and I’m sure he is right. In retrospect, invading Iraq was probably one of the shrewdest political moves in American political history. If we had found huge stockpiles of WMD and the aftermath had gone smoothly Bush would have been lauded as a hero and reelected in a landslide. Neither of these scenarios transpired and yet he still won a resounding victory. Why? Because he was a “war time” president, resolute in his cause. Although the American public is capable of turning on its leaders when wars take sudden turns for the worse (like they always do), we want to believe that our soldiers aren’t dying in vain and we will give a large degree of leniency to the commander-in-chief. The Iraq War wasn’t even two years old come last November and with Iraqi elections due in January Bush was correct that the American people were prepared to give him a chance to carry out what he had started. Changing horses midstream is not something the American people are very comfortable with, even though Kerry tried to convince us that the “horse was drowning.”

In broader terms Bush says that the election was about “use of American influence,” which I take as a euphemism for American military power since this is essentially the only type of influence he has attempted to wield. I suspect that even many of those who voted for Bush but disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq (there had to be at least a couple million of them given Bush’s margin of victory) largely agreed with Bush’s stance on the use of American military force; that we have the right (duty) to use it to spread freedom and democracy in this age of Islamic terrorism. Kerry’s consciousness was formed in the Vietnam era and he brought with him an inherent distrust of American military power as a tool to reshape the world. Something to contemplate: Could it be that those who have never seen firsthand the horrors of war and how truly difficult nation-building is are the ones who trust the most in the redemptive powers of military force?

Interestingly, Bush’s heartfelt belief in America’s responsibility to spread freedom and democracy by force developed entirely in the months following 9/11. There is scant evidence that he took much of an interest in foreign affairs at all prior to 2001, and he certainly never made any of the grand sweeping statements about spreading democracy that are now commonplace in almost all of his speeches. His entire foreign policy vision stands in direct contrast to positions he took in the 2000 presidential campaign, in which he argued for a strict isolationist position, even indirectly criticizing Clinton’s campaign in Kosovo. He stated explicitly during that campaign that he was against nation-building and that he didn’t believe it was America’s role to tell other people how to govern themselves. Bush’s transformation (flip-flopping is reserved only for Democrats) from isolationist to Wilsonian idealist in a couple short years is one of the most profound changes in the history of American politics and we will all be experiencing its repercussions (good and bad) for generations to come. Evolution and change are often amazingly positive forces in the world. But to go from staunch isolationist to a fervent believer in the power of preemptive military force to remake the Middle East within such a short time span strikes me as the product of a largely emotional response, rather than the culmination of years of careful study and introspection solidified by a monumental event. And as we all know, sometimes emotions get the best of us and do not lead to the wisest decisions.

In the Time interview Bush also says that he relishes the fact that many people dislike him so much. I’m one of those who has always believed that the “I’m a uniter not a divider” made for a great campaign slogan in 2000, but had little to know with the real George Bush. Without having to worry about his reelection anymore, Bush decided to confirm this view held by many of his detractors (maybe just to tick them off a little more). I find Bush’s admission strangely disturbing; not because I think all liberals are right or because I condone “Bush hatred”, but because it reeks of pettiness and snobbery, just the things Bush supposedly has tried all this time to distance himself from. Needless to say, he’s going to have another four long years to make his opponents dislike him even more.

J.S.

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