In a Newsweek article titled “Beyond Bush: What the world needs is an open, confident America,” Fareed Zakaria at once brings to mind the same capacity to enable and aver that often seen in the family of an active or untreated addict, when just three paragraphs into his essay he paints what now has to be a familiar picture where George W. Bush is concerned: Dubya ambles off into the sunset while others are left to cope with the consequences of his actions and choices, and to clean up after them, while Dubya goes on to live the charmed (and largely unexamined) life of one who “sleeps better than most would think,” having wreaked havoc on so many lives.
In any event, it is time to stop bashing George W. Bush. We must begin to think about life after Bush—a cheering prospect for his foes, a dismaying one for his fans (however few there may be at the moment). In 19 months he will be a private citizen, giving speeches to insurance executives. America, however, will have to move on and restore its place in the world. To do this we must first tackle the consequences of our foreign policy of fear. Having spooked ourselves into believing that we have no option but to act fast, alone, unilaterally and pre-emptively, we have managed in six years to destroy decades of international good will, alienate allies, embolden enemies and yet solve few of the major international problems we face.
So, Bush will go on to give speeches, collect fees, and perhaps land in yet another position that will allow him to cash in on his family name rather than any particular skill or ability of his own. And we are not to blame (“bash” is the term Zakaria chooses, as though holding someone accountable must include some degree of hostility) him, but to set about cleaning up the mess left behind by his “foreign policy of fear.” We must not look too closely, because, like the family of the addict, if we look too closely at his illness we will see our own.
Zakaria seems to ignore or miss entirely one important consideration: that George W. Bush may well have been the perfect candidate for an America just as anxious as him (despite its wealth and power in the world), just as angry and just as entitled to do as it please. And woe betide anyone who even attempted to suggest anything to the contrary. Consider Bush’s own testy response in press conferences, when a reporter has the temerity to question administration policy or suggest that mistakes have been made, and compare it to the response that almost any suggestion that any response to 9/11 should be carefully considered and debated in Congress. And remember that the long member of Congress to make that recommendation, Barbara Lee, was the target of death threats.
At first she thought other Democrats might join her. “We talked about it in our caucus meeting and there were several members who spoke very aggressively about the reasons we should not support this type of resolution… but of course, then the anger and the sadness of the moment took over and I believe that what happened was that people went with the flow.”
The resolution had been scheduled to go before the House on the Saturday after the memorial service. But the Republican majority in Congress deftly rescheduled for that very evening, a move Lee believes was probably designed to take advantage of the emotional climate. It also meant that there was little time for anyone to pressurize Lee into changing her mind. In the chamber she looked down at two voting buttons – one red and one green. The Speaker called out the terms of the resolution, and Barbara Lee made history by sticking her finger on the red button for “no”. When the tally was done, it worked out at 424 for and one against.
The emotion of the moment will probably live with her forever. “I went back into the cloakroom – which is the area behind the chambers – and many members came up to me and said, ‘I think you made a mistake, you better go and change your vote.’ These were members who were close friends. They said, ‘Come on, Barbara, you can’t be the only no vote on this,’ and I said there was no way I was going to change it.”
Her colleagues might not have agreed with her, but they did listen to her argument. Pared down to its essentials, it ran like this: Congress represented the rational. It was a body that had to remain above the fray. What decisions it made had to consider the lasting good and not respond to the emotion of the moment. By pushing for a vote so quickly, Lee believed, the Bush resolution was taking power out of the hands of legislators and giving it to the executive branch.
So when Zakaria write something like this:
To do this we must first tackle the consequences of our foreign policy of fear. Having spooked ourselves into believing that we have no option but to act fast, alone, unilaterally and pre-emptively, we have managed in six years to destroy decades of international good will, alienate allies, embolden enemies and yet solve few of the major international problems we face.
It occurs to me that we didn’t so much spook our selves as we allowed ourselves to be spooked, particularly when it came to Iraq. We allowed ourselves to be spooked. We allowed our leaders to exploit the fear that many felt after 9/11 and chose not to listen to more reasonable voices like Barbara Lee; voices that were not saying, in the emotional heat of that moment, that we should not respond but that rather we should carefully consider how best to respond, and choose the most effective response. But the gestalt of the moment was that “something must be done,” and there was no time to consider whether the right thing could be done. And so, here. we are.
And when Zakaria writes this:
In a videotaped message in 2004, bin Laden explained his strategy with astonishing frankness. He termed it “provoke and bait”: “All we have to do is send two mujahedin … [and] raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘Al Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” His point has been well understood by ragtag terror groups across the world. With no apparent communication, collaboration or further guidance from bin Laden, small outfits from Southeast Asia to North Africa to Europe now announce that they are part of Al Qaeda, and so inflate their own importance, bring global attention to their cause and—of course—get America to come racing out to fight them.
Again, this is exactly what sane people tried to say in 2003 that invading Iraq was exactly what Bin Laden would want. I’m reminded that the response of the general American public was pretty much the same as that of the Bush administration; simply ignore the intelligence, ignore the fact-based recommendations against the administration’s stated argument for the invasion.
Two months before the invasion of Iraq, U.S. intelligence agencies twice warned the Bush administration that establishing a democracy there would prove difficult and that Al Qaeda would use political instability to increase its operations, according to a Senate report released Friday.
The report, issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee, brought to light once-classified warnings that accurately forecast many of the military and political problems the Bush administration and Iraqi officials have faced since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
These warnings were distributed to senior officials with daily access to President Bush and others at the very top of the administration, the report states.
Even in October 2004, when it was reported that that the administration even ignored reports that Iraq had no WMDs, reported by no less than Fox News, over 50 million Americans went to the polls to reelect a president that less than 30% of the country now supports. Chances are some the remaining 70% were among those 50 million-plus, now reconsidering their votes. Too late. There were plenty of sane, reasonable people saying prior to March 2003 that the administrations case for war in Iraq didn’t add up. Those voices were shouted down in a national non-debate that had the feel of a failed intervention.
Whose fault is it when an intervention fails?
Why did almost no one listen? What it because that information was also accompanied by advice that no addict ever wants to hear; namely that we would also have to change how we are in the world?
I’ve been watching a show on A & E for a while now, called Intervention, probably because seeing the stories of other addicts is a way of reminding myself how much I have because of my recovery, and how much I can lose if I don’t stay sober. About halfway through the show comes the intervention — when family and friends sit the addict down and basically say “look, either you go to treatment today or our relationship is going to change in the following ways.” It’s’ an ultimatum that can be accepted or rejected, but either way it means change. About half the time the offer is accepted, and the other half the addict freaks out, turns down the offer and insists everything is just fine, and if everyone would leave them alone things would be even better. By this point, the addiction has progressed to the point where the addict is either delusional or paranoid. Or both.
Guess which option America chose?
So when Zakari writes this:
We will never be able to prevent a small group of misfits from planning some terrible act of terror. No matter how far-seeing and competent our intelligence and law-enforcement officials, people will always be able to slip through the cracks in a large, open and diverse country. The real test of American leadership is not whether we can make 100 percent sure we prevent the attack, but rather how we respond to it. Stephen Flynn, a homeland-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that our goal should be resilience—how quickly can we bounce back from a disruption? In the materials sciences, he points out, resilience is the ability of a material to recover its original shape after a deformation. If one day bombs do go off, we must ensure that they cause as little disruption—economic, social, political—as possible. This would deprive the terrorist of his main objective. If we are not terrorized, then in a crucial sense we have defeated terrorism.
I’m reminded of the freaked-out, delusional, paranoid, intervention refusing addict. You know? The kind who needs a carefully controlled environment, can only be around certain people, and can’t handle anyone challenging their behavior or pointing out its destructive nature?
Can’t we also deprive the terrorist of his main objective by no longer contributing to (note, I didn’t say creating) circumstances that help give rise to terrorism? Or that no longer contributing to conditions tht make terrorism look like a worthwhile option? Can we do that while also preventing terrorism by disrupting existing networks and bringing known terrorists to justice? Could preventing the growth of as-yet-unknown terrorists and dealing with known terrorists be an appropriate two-pronged strategy? Would it require us to change how we are in the world? Probably.
What seems not to be on the table is that preventing attacks might have less to do with being better armed and more vigilant than with taking a clear-eyed look at “how we are” in the world, the impact that has on others, and how we might change that. The thought itself is unapproachable because it requires a change in our behavior, a shift in our self-perception, and perhaps an admission that we have been wrong. All things an addict can’t do.
Zakari writes of “the atmosphere of fear and panic we are engendering” but again fails to address that this anxiety and panic (which is really internal anxiety we’ve externalized onto the rest of the world in the same way a deluded addict might project their anxiety and anger onto others to avoid coping with them) might be alleviated by taking inventory of ourselves and admitting where our actions and policies have harmed others. Oh, and then not doing it again.
Zakari misses entirely that this atmosphere of fear and panic is what we wanted to engender, and chose to engender when we put Bush/Cheney back in power for another four years. This is not just what we wanted. This is what we are.
But there’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off — and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness — come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.
The truth is that Bush’s high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies were, literally, a matter of life and death. They were about war. And they were sanctified by 9/11. Bush tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity, which Congress and the media went along with for a long time and which has remained largely unexamined to this day. Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. This doesn’t mean we support Bush, simply that at some dim, half-conscious level we’re too confused — not least by our own complicity — to work up the cold, final anger we’d need to go through impeachment. We haven’t done the necessary work to separate ourselves from our abusive spouse. We need therapy — not to save this disastrous marriage, but to end it.
But we have, to date, refused that therapy. Even when a successful intervention seemed likely after the 2006 elections, the Democrats turned out to be that one family member (there’s one on almost every episode of Intervention) who can’t quite live up to the agreements of the intervention, and keeps slipping the junkie money for another fix, sometimes driving them to make their connection, and then giving them a place to sleep it off.
And always they say it’s for the best. It’s for the addict’s own good or even the family’s own good. That is, if they talk about it at all.
The myth of a Bush recovery doesn’t just apply to the president. It applies to us as well. But it only becomes a myth if we do as Zakari seems to suggest, and allow Bush to amble off into the sunset life of a retired president, collecting speaker’s fees, clearing brush on his ranch, and never once pondering what his choices have meant for the country.
Whether the president is in recovery or not, if we are to recover from his presidency, we must take a clear-eyed, honest, critical look at what his choices — and our choice of him — says about us, and what it means for us. And for the rest of the world.