In a Time of UniversalĀ Deceit, Telling the Truth is Revolutionary.
Saturday, June 15, 2024

Anis Shivani: The Prince and the Paupers


This would be less grim to talk about if Bush weren’t still with us. But he is, in every way that matters. The Bush Doctrine lives. No leading American politician can disavow the two key aspects of the Bush Doctrine: that we cannot distinguish terrorists from the countries where they live, and that we must act preemptively against gathering threats before they materialize (propositions contradicting international law). Bush’s memoir is arguably the most important book of the year because it reveals — far better than do books by Charlie Savage, Isikoff and Corn, or Bob Woodward — how he fundamentally reconceptualized the functions of the presidency, the balance of power among the branches of government, and the expectations and obligations of citizens, with lasting effects.

Reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times treat Bush respectfully — much as a Machiavellian prince would desire to be treated after going into retirement; too often reviewers play Bush’s game by humanizing him, or treating him with humor, or safely relegating him to history. But Bush truly was a transformative president, among the rare few, and we deceive ourselves — as many in the commentariat continue to do, as with Maureen Dowd’s light-hearted mockery of him — if we consider him an anomaly, a rare eruption of a virus that won’t repeat itself. This book’s ideas will have resonance with a large segment of the population, and a notable number among the elites; we need to study Decision Points (Crown, Nov. 9) seriously, as onerous a task as it may be, if we are to make sense of the perpetual aura of crisis that has enveloped America, and why we seem to be stuck on a self-destructive path.

Decision Points is a classic recipe for a benign dictatorship, a uniquely American form of dictatorship, to be sure — from its rigid understanding of morality (good versus evil) to its distorted valuation of life (only American lives matter; Bush is not concerned about the loss of civilian life in the countries he attacked) — that gives comfort to many in a time of economic and cultural stress.

The beauty of the Bush philosophy of governance is that it creates and accelerates those very conditions of stress (radical economic inequality promoted by tax cuts for the wealthy and concomitant cuts in public services for the less well-off) that then provide fertile ground for popular acceptance of measures intended to further worsen conditions for the subject class. An example would be to purposely inflate the housing bubble and then use the succeeding bailout to further enrich the wealthy elites at the cost of the average worker. Or to execute a reckless Medicare drug expansion plan, catering to pharmaceutical companies and knowing it would lead to insolvency, to set the stage for drastic future cuts in Medicare — and other entitlements, while they’re at it. The same principle applies in foreign policy, such as in retreating from Bill Clinton’s tentative rapprochement with Iran and North Korea as Bush’s first order of business, demonizing these countries as evil, and then setting in motion offensive strategies once those countries predictably react. The principle is evident in attacking and occupying Middle Eastern countries, then justifying the war on terror by pointing to the increased radicalization ensuing from the invasion.

Decision Points reveals the blend of personalities within Bush that makes for a rather unique combination, a big reason for his enormous impact. The faux Western/cowboy personality (derived from Reagan, but extending much farther in Bush’s case, setting up West Texas’s American virtues against the corruption of the East Coast elites) is his persona of choice, along with high doses of the decisive commander-in-chief (he relishes this role, and there is something for psychologists to ponder with regard to his avoidance of active military duty and his great passion for relating to soldiers and their devastated families as protector and comforter). Another favorite persona is the perpetual crisis manager; he reveals that his favorite question to world leaders was: “What keeps you up at night?”

Other elements of his personality contribute to the anti-intellectual populist appeal: he struggled with drinking and will be open and honest about it, like anyone else bent on self-improvement; he doesn’t ever question the foundations of religion, it’s enough that Billy Graham takes him aside one day and asks him if he’s “right with God”; and he reduces the honor and dignity of the presidency to not having affairs with interns, rather than anything involving public policy.

He makes every decision by the gut, and is keen to inform us that he usually goes for the most aggressive of the three options (they’re always three) presented to him, because he’s convinced of the morality of his fight for good versus evil:

“After 9/11, I decided to employ the most aggressive of the three options General Shelton had laid out [for Afghanistan]…. This time we would put boots on the ground, and keep them there until the Taliban and al-Qaeda were driven out and a free society could emerge.”

It’s also very clear from this book that Bush was definitely heading down the path of military action against Iran, until he was thwarted by the NIE report asserting that Iran had dismantled its nuclear weapons program:

“But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”

He sure lets on his hankering for it.

All of these constituent personas make for an imitable template of the populist-authoritarian president, with the added charm, in Bush’s case, of having had to transcend his patrician upbringing (a more patrician background is hardly imaginable) by self-creating the instinctive/demagogic character to which, he thinks, the military in particular responds ecstatically — especially when he’s sending them off to die in large numbers.

Actions ought to be judged not by results, but by intentions (a religious value); and since intentions, in the case of the chosen elite, are opaque, they ought not to be explored too deeply. This point is emphasized by Bush’s accounts of his father always offering “unconditional love” toward his son, whether it’s after he pours “vodka in the fishbowl and…[kills his] little sister Doro’s goldfish,” or whether it’s after he can’t find the WMD in Iraq or the war is spiraling out of control. On the eve of the Iraq war, the father comforts the son: “You are doing the right thing…. You made…[the decision] with strength and compassion…. ‘I love you more than tongue can tell.'” Generally, we think of the deity as issuing unconditional love; clearly, Bush’s expectation is that the populace (like his father) should grant him unconditional love, because he wants to protect us.

How much does Bush believe what he says in Decision Points? At one level, everything. One cannot merely put on an act beyond a certain point, and the conviction — to go to war without justification, or to decide to torture prisoners — must be palpable for policies to stick among subordinates. At another level, nothing. How can he possibly believe any of his justifications? Surely, he’s trying to get ahead of historians, despite his persistent dismissal of historians as a class:

“If they’re still assessing George Washington’s legacy more than two centuries after he left office, this George W. doesn’t have to worry about today’s headlines.”

This book should revive the discussion of the influence of neoconservative Straussians (Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol) that was dominant around the time of the start of the Iraq War: is there a higher truth for the elite and a more accessible one for the masses? The Straussians, to simplify, hold among other things that religion is an instrument to organize the masses around unity of national purpose, whose final aims can only be known to the real elite. There is much in Decision Points to hint that for Bush, Christianity is just such a necessary Straussian (or Machiavellian) tool; one doesn’t detect in the book the religious zeal of a passionate convert, and the Christian morality is applied too selectively (to unborn children, or frozen embryos dedicated to stem cell research, rather than the actual living) and infrequently.

Another way to look at the book — and this only enhances the Straussian reading — is as a peek into the mind of Big Brother himself; the Orwellian subtext is pervasive throughout the book. Bush is still dead certain of the rightness of all his major decisions, and his concern is often with presentation, how he ignored some basic public relations dynamic that he ought to have grasped. Decision Points is rife with these propaganda principles: address the public at the simplest possible level; repeat a few basic phrases until they become the truth; never show weakness and deal with opponents ruthlessly; direct popular anger toward subversives (those who don’t grasp the struggle of good versus evil); connect with the people always at an emotional, not rational, level; reduce language to its basic syntax, fracture it, reorganize it in chaotic/fractal terms so it becomes immune to logical analysis; preempt opposition, value secrecy for its own sake, take aggrievement of the privileged to unprecedented levels.

The chief executive/commander-in-chief need not have a complex emotional life to explicate. This has always been Bush’s modus operandi: act as if the surface is all that matters, as if probing the deep waters of one’s own psychology serves no purpose. It’s yet another mockery of the East Coast elite, who presumably have deep inner lives, subject to discussion. Thus Bush takes us through his early life rather quickly, in one chapter. He always had a great relationship with his father; there is no question of competition with him. He takes his privileged education for granted and so should we:

“As the days at Andover wound down, it came time to apply for college. My first thought was Yale. After all, I was born there. One time-consuming part of the application was filling out the blue card that asked you to list relatives who were alumni. There was my grandfather and my dad. And all his brothers. And my first cousins. I had to write the names of the second cousins on the back of the card.”

His network of patronage needs no commentary. He brazenly elides over the question of going AWOL during his Texas Air National Guard service: “When I entered politics, opponents used the gaps in the system to claim I had not fulfilled my duty. In the late 1990s, I asked a trusted aide, Dan Bartlett, to dig through my records. They showed that I had fulfilled my responsibilities.” What he tells us about the lost decade — of booze and drugs in Houston — after graduation from college is that he was determined not to settle down: “I had pledged that I would spend my first ten years after college experiencing a lot and not getting tied down.” How he got the cozy deal with Harken Energy, bailing him out of his business losses, and the deal for the Rangers’ stadium (“we designed a public-private financing system to fund the construction of a new stadium”), are not things we need to understand in detail.

Decision Points should revive interest in psychoanalyzing Bush’s character, as inevitably any dominant ruler who has acquired a messiah complex must be analyzed; this felt like a luxury during the Bush years, when psychoanalysis of him almost seemed to legitimize his wars and brutal divisions, but this is no longer the case. At every step, the son seems to want to outdo the father, and does it by way of truly psychopathic belief in his own entitlement. He is uniquely prepared, as the son of a president and the grandson of a Senator, with an unassailable family, to lead the country in the fight against good versus evil. He felt a “calling” to run for president. Any doubt about this was clarified in church one day, as pastor Mark Craig of Dallas spoke of God’s call to Moses to deliver the Israelites, Moses’s skepticism, God’s reassurance, and Mark Craig’s declaration that “the country was starving for moral and ethical leadership.” His mother tells Bush, “He is talking to you.” We ought to forgive the prince his indiscretions; he has redeemed himself manifold by answering the call to serve the nation, by embodying its highest principles and values.

The psychoanalytic impulse, however, remains risky, because it personalizes Bush and his violations of domestic and international law, when our concern ought to be with the institutional basis for potential future violation. Another authoritarian — someone on the order of Sarah Palin — will have different distinguishing features; this kind of analysis ought to clarify, not distract from, the structural problems.

Compassionate conservatism was Bush’s mantra during his campaign and his early years in office. For the international arena, it morphed into the “freedom agenda,” whereby despotic countries, particularly in the Middle East, would follow the free-market model and become Americans-in-training (Bush often speaks of old Europe versus new Europe, the “young democracies” of Eastern Europe which understood his fight against evil better than the leaders of old Europe like Schroeder and Chirac). Compassionate conservatism was capitalism’s charity arm; faith-based mercy dispensed in the form of paltry redeemable vouchers at capitalism’s back door, not too many questions asked: “Faith-based programs had the potential to change lives in ways secular ones never could.” It was the antithesis of the rationalized social welfare state, an attempted return to premodern dispensation of patronage and tutelage, a gross violation of individualism. The freedom agenda works in similar idiosyncratic fashion; the Bush Doctrine instructs the commander-in-chief which countries represent gathering threats, whose evil leadership must be replaced by good.

All this would be risible, if it weren’t still more or less our official doctrine. Have we disavowed Bush’s messianic declarations of global war to end evil in his 2001 and 2002 speeches, the 2002 National Security Strategy, and the second inaugural address? The Bush Doctrine is premised on zero tolerance for real or imagined terrorism (we have to be successful 100 percent of the time, they only have to succeed once). For example, Yemen (because of opinions issued there, or bomb parcels sent from there) is a growing target of the freedom agenda; and perhaps Iran will be, in a future administration. It is an open-ended warrant for the elite to pursue ends for which there are no cost-benefit calculations; there is no accountability for the success of the mission other than the gut feeling that freedom needed to be defended.

So the prince has received an ideal training in the moral values of his people, he has been divinely chosen to serve (the Supreme Court’s decision, from which Bush is utterly detached in this book, as if it all occurred in a mortal realm with which he is not familiar), and only the moment of crisis is needed for him to burst into full bloom, as the consummate leader (decider) that he is, seizing authority from the people who have presumptively delegated all of it to him by their act of election.

The most shocking thing about this book is how Bush presents himself as pouncing on the entire Bush Doctrine without prior deliberation, without any occasion for the solicitation of opinion or the consideration of alternatives. Even as he is scuttling around the country on Air Force One on 9/11, he knows with certainty that terrorism must be fought as a war, not as a police action (instantly redefining himself as a wartime president), that countries where terrorists live must be treated the same way as terrorists themselves, and that this is a new kind of war (as he explicitly instructs Condi and his other advisers on the first day). In fact, this is not some retrospective narration, because the war footing and the articulation of the doctrine did indeed commence immediately.

This really ought to give us pause. Bush speaks again and again of the “fog of war” that day, yet during that opacity, far from his staff, he presents himself as being able to formulate the complete doctrine as it stands to this day: “We are at war against terror. From this day forward, this is the new priority of our administration.” The conflation between terrorists and the countries where they live is crucial because it gives the military targets to attack; otherwise, how could war be pursued? Bush already knew on the first day that “this new doctrine overturned the approach of the past, which treated terrorist groups as distinct from their sponsors. We had to force nations to choose whether they would fight the terrorists or share in their fate. And we had to wage this war on the offense, by attacking the terrorists overseas before they could attack us again at home.” In short, this revived open-ended military offensives into the infinite future. At last, Bush had found his mission; he rhapsodically tells Andy Card that day, “You’re looking at the first war of the twenty-first century.”

The ruler bonds with his people by instinct. He can make absolute decisions of war and peace, without any consultation with his countrymen. On the day of the attacks: “I told Don that I considered the attacks an act of war…. I planned to mount a serious military response.” How did he know there would be countries to attack? The prince identifies, at the gut level, with the bloodlust of the people; Bush recounts getting turned on by the workers at the World Trade Center site telling him, “George, find the bastards who did this and kill them,” or “Do not let me down!” or “Whatever it takes!” Invariably, the people he meets appreciate the prince’s sacrifices of their family members, and encourage him to continue the war, or volunteer to serve themselves. At Walter Reed, a soldier in the Special Forces Unit with a lost leg says, “Don’t feel sorry for me, Mr. President… Just give me another leg so I can go back in.” The wife of a Marine tells him: “If he had to do it all again, knowing he would die, he would.” There is of course the anomaly of Cindy Sheehan, who comes to resent Bush for having had her son killed, but Bush, in his compassionate mode, forgives her anger (“if expressing her anger helped eased her pain, that was fine with me”).

In the rest of the book, he is able to defend any policy of his — the search for the missing WMD in Iraq, the torture of prisoners, the failed war in Afghanistan — simply by claiming that he did it to protect the American people, which is his first and foremost duty. Again, this would be a matter primarily of historical interest, but there has been no signal that this is no longer the reigning presumption. Candidates for both parties in 2008 were repeatedly pushed to the wall during the debates on precisely this point: how far would they go to take preemptive action? The only answer that can satisfy — given the presumption that a commander-in-chief will be considered a failure if a single American life is lost to terrorism — is that there can be no bounds to preemption, including annihilating nations deemed to pose a threat with nuclear weapons.

The prince cannot be challenged as others competing for office can; his sense of entitlement won’t allow it. If anyone assails Bush’s character, he will be outraged, as is standard protocol with the Bush family. Bush glides over his nasty campaign against John McCain in 2000: “McCain ran an ad questioning my character by comparing me to Bill Clinton. That crossed a line. I went on the air to counterpunch.” He doesn’t say how he counterpunched, but we all remember. What was the most disgusting moment of his presidency? That Kanye West said Bush didn’t care about black people after Hurricane Katrina. After setting into motion a wave of xenophobia that continues to affect millions of immigrants, and after implementing economic policies that have impoverished millions of African Americans, what really gets him is Kanye West’s statement.

What bothers him is not that he didn’t invest in the infrastructure to prevent Katrina, or that he didn’t mobilize the federal government adequately, but that he made a public relations error by not stopping in Baton Rouge and just flying over flooded New Orleans on his way to Washington. What bothers him is not that the nation was in turmoil after the Supreme Court awarded him the presidency, but that “a few pockets of protestors” lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the Inaugural parade. What bothers him is not the number of people without health care in this country, or the innocents killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but whether “a frozen embryo [is] a human life.” (Straussian ethicist Leon Kass of the University of Chicago advised him: “We are dealing with the seeds of the next generation.”) What bothers him is not that the whole Iraq adventure was misconceived, but that we didn’t show the Iraqis we could protect them early on.

Decisions in government need not be made according to any known social policy matrix. The same is true in the diplomatic field. Bush again and again gives examples of how he came to trust people, always on a trivial basis. “When [Tony and Cherie Blair]…agreed on Meet the Parents,…Laura and I knew the Bushes and Blairs would get along.” Along with this mystical certainty, the burden to prove innocence is always on the other side — the non-white, the non-American — rather than the prosecutor of the case. Again and again in Decision Points, Bush suggests that if others (Iran with its nuclear weapons program, Saddam Hussein with his WMD) don’t have anything to hide, why don’t they come clean? And if they don’t come clean (“the only logical conclusion was that he was hiding WMD”), based on his zero tolerance policy, he has every moral right to invade that country and kill its people in retribution. Later, if the party is found not to be guilty (if Hussein didn’t have WMD), the attacker is exonerated, because of his duty to act preemptively. Then the casualties are blamed on the other party: “There was one person with the power to avoid war, and he [Hussein] chose not to use it.” Repeatedly, Bush says of those he attacked that they chose war. By his logic — and we are not free of this logic yet — they did.

The crisis mode puts the president in a position of unassailable dignity, and he becomes immune to criticism. There isn’t always a red alert, but there’s always an orange alert, and to that extent democratic discourse suffers. As for the eight years of manipulation, Bush concludes: “Some critics charged that we inflated the threat or manipulated alert levels for political benefit. They were flat wrong.” To judge the success of the Patriot Act, Bush offers the flawed example of the Lackawanna Six, representative of the “small-town dupes” intelligence agencies have typically caught since 9/11. But when the war is fought at such an absolute level of certainty, then the results of legislation cannot be rationally evaluated; after all, if there is the minutest chance of catching a real terrorist, we cannot question maximally intrusive authority such as the so-called “Terrorist Surveillance Program” (it was “essential to keeping the American people safe”). The prince’s superior moral judgment allows him to remove prisoners beyond the routines of ordinary justice, so he makes his lawyers determine that “al Qaeda did not meet the qualifications for Geneva protection.” The prince can torture anyone “to protect the country,” so he “approved the use of the interrogation techniques” (waterboarding). “Damn right,” he tells George Tenet when Tenet wants to know if waterboarding is allowed. He can order assassinations (such as of Saddam and his sons) on his say-so; we’re not free of this either.

A favorite myth in the liberal press for the past decade — with Maureen Dowd, for example — has been that Bush was a puppet, and that Cheney, or other dark forces, were the puppet-masters; or that Bush’s Oedipal conflict with his father propelled him to take risks. This myth should be put to rest once and for all with Decision Points. Bush compares himself to Harry Truman, who laid the institutional foundations for the national security state that lasted all through the Cold War. He always saw his mission in comparable terms: “I made it a high priority of my second term to turn those tools into institutions and laws that would be available to my successors.” Just as Truman is still with us, more than sixty years after the inauguration of the national security state, Bush will be with us for the duration of this indefinite war. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he was the primary creator of the perpetual-war state. Similarly, in the domestic arena one of the goals of the ideologues supporting Bush was to starve the beast (of government) by passing fiscally unsustainable tax cuts and ratcheting up military spending at the same time. So Bush casually observes: “The so-called surplus had vanished in ten months” (without noting that he made it vanish).

Decision Points reveals that Bush was fully aware of reorganizing America’s empire in a world without the Cold War’s convenient flash points: “We had to take a fresh look at every threat in the world.” The state’s primary function became redefined as absolute global military superiority (he was making those moves even before 9/11), with zero tolerance for a single casualty in the homeland. About Iraq he glibly concludes: “The region is more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow” (in fact, women were quite liberated in the prosperous, secular Iraq of the 1970s). The reality of increased radicalization due to his policies throughout the Middle East is ignored; the perception in the homeland is all that needs to be managed. Bush gets it backward by saying, “If these fanatics had not been trying to kill Americans in Iraq, they would have been trying to do it elsewhere.” Bush’s most breath-taking ambition may have been to universalize the Bush Doctrine — to favored countries, of course. If other desirable countries felt threatened by terrorism, they too could act preemptively.

Framing governance as a matter of ethical leadership leads to grave risks; we ought to be suspicious of this tendency in any future candidate for president. Absolutism in morality — and when candidates run for high office on an ethical basis, there can be little hope of nuance — leads to distortions of ordinary language; we need to figure out how to salvage words like war, terrorism, extremism, torture, threat, life, courage, cowardice, aggression, and negotiation from the pit of moral absolutism into which they have fallen.

The utilitarian calculus familiar from the Clinton presidency is much more in accord with liberalism; unfortunately, the messiah complex (“Millions…[of innocent children] would soon be counting on me to protect them,” Bush observes) has burrowed deep into our political vocabulary, and the 2008 election was a contest between versions of messianism. What will we do in the event of the next terror attack? Will the Bush mode be reactivated? Democrats endorsed the war on Iraq, the war on domestic dissent, and the curtailment of liberties–as Bush is keen to point out again and again, and rightly so.

At a time when dissent could have mattered, nobody in the establishment fundamentally disputed the language of war (“Tom Daschle…issued one cautionary note. He said I should be careful about the word war“); the liberal elites supported the Afghanistan invasion as a just war (even though, as Peter Singer has pointed out, that war fails to meet the criteria of a just war, since, for example, the option of negotiating with the Taliban for the extradition of al-Qaeda fighters was never seriously explored); and even now there is bipartisan consensus that America became a different place after 9/11. Immediately after 9/11, Bush knew that it was al-Qaeda because “intercepts had revealed al-Qaeda members congratulating one another in eastern Afghanistan.” Intelligence agencies still operate with a preemptive mentality, with heavy costs for individual liberties; should we as a nation think about deciding to take some casualties, rather than give up freedoms? That discussion has never happened. Should terrorism be understood from a utilitarian calculus? If not, why not? Every other public issue is susceptible to utilitarian analysis; shouldn’t there be some rational matrix of costs and benefits here too?

Bush’s stunted moral development (stalled at about age fourteen, for a particularly unintelligent boy) is perceptible everywhere on the political landscape; he’s us, in more ways than we’d like to admit; and there’s no getting away from him. When Bush issued his ultimatum, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” and announced that “in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment,” the country’s elites agreed; do we still agree? Bush knows he’s not alone. As he says about the Afghan war, “I strongly believe the mission [to build a functioning democracy] is worth the cost. In the fall of 2009, President Obama stood up to critics by deploying more troops, announcing a new commitment to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and increasing the pressure on Pakistan to fight the extremists in the tribal areas.” Similarly, Obama’s economic policies were locked into place by Hank Paulson in the fall of 2008; the favorable treatment of banks follows Bush’s paradigm.

Bush’s transformative success speaks to the breakdown of the political system. The range of Bush’s legislative victories, especially in his first few years, is awe-inspiring; his strong-arm tactics are apparently what the political system most respects. Obama has a hard time getting a fair Keynesian stimulus passed; on the contrary, after the midterms, the pendulum is swinging again to Bush’s fiscal policies, and will become more evident in future deficit reduction proposals. The principle of Guantanamo, as of rendition, is secure, and there is no clear exit from Afghanistan.

From The Huffington Post