Battered and Bruised: America Looks Beyond the Bush Warriors

By Erich Follath

Part 2: 'A Gambler Who Bet Everything on Iraq'

But the verdicts are already coming in. In a new survey of 109 historians, 107 call his presidency a failure, while 61 percent see George W. Bush as the worst president of all time. "We've never seen a presidential meltdown like this…. This is a terrible loss, and a dangerous one, for the whole world is watching," writes Peggy Noonan, the speechwriter for former Republican President Ronald Reagan. According to historian and author Douglas Brinkley, Bush's "legacy is disastrous. He is a gambler who bet everything on Iraq."

"Gambler" and "Iraq" are the key terms in the life and work of George W. Bush, and they will likely remain so for eternity.

Iraq is the gaping foreign policy wound, even if the level of violence in Baghdad and some provinces has declined. The war violated international law, divided the allies and wounded the Americans in terms of their value system and self-respect. Over and above the enormous financial cost, the war has been the source of great human tragedy. More than 4,000 American soldiers and an estimated more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died, while more than four million Iraqi men, women and children have been forced to flee their country.

There will always be debates over whether it made sense to bring down the brutal regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with military force and become an occupying power. There is much to suggest that it was the wrong choice. It undermined America's political standing (while bolstering Iran's influence as a regional power) and, even among US allies, fueled the suspicion that Washington was solely interested in oil and military bases.

Bearing Responsibility

The answer to another, equally critical question is already beyond debate. There is "no longer the slightest doubt," writes The New Yorker, that the Bush administration lied to and manipulated the American public to gain support for the invasion of Iraq. It is also considered indisputable fact today that the conduct of the war was incompetent. It was a mistake for the Pentagon, but also a case of serious mismanagement by the White House, which talked itself into a euphoric state of victory. "One big problem with the war was the president himself," says George Casey, the former commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq.

Another ugly blemish on the Bush administration is the disgrace of human rights violations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The administration bears responsibility -- as it does for the scandalous weakening of prohibitions on torture, a move that is simply incompatible with a country based on the rule of law. The man in charge at the White House is believed to have directly approved the practice of waterboarding, which simulates the sensation of drowning in its victims.

Although the constitutional institutions in the United States have continued to function -- the free press has remained critical and the US Supreme Court has ruled twice that the Bush administration violated the Constitution, forcing the Bush team to make changes to its policies -- the world still sees the United States in moral decline.

The loss of trust in the United States as a superpower is reinforced by its undisguised contempt for international organizations like the United Nations and for agreements like the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as its relative unwillingness, as the world's biggest air polluter, to take the pressing problems of climate change seriously.

The domestic consequences of the Bush years have also been catastrophic. The national debt has almost doubled, to an inconceivable $10 trillion (€7.75 trillion). The number of Americans without health insurance rose by over eight million to 47 million, while the number of those living below the poverty line grew by almost six million. Bush's tax breaks for the country's wealthiest citizens have made America's already extreme social disparities even more glaring. Every week, the top 1 percent of US income earners becomes an average of $1,000 (€775) richer, while those in the lower fifth on the income scale see only an additional $1.50 (€1.17) in their wallets.

Continues to Shape Him

George W. Bush can endure this because his value system is one that allows him to be at peace with himself. The man who his father (and predecessor in office) declared a failure more than once, who was an alcoholic and then rehabilitated himself after becoming a fundamentalist Christian, clings to his faith and the conviction that "the guy upstairs" is giving him the right advice. With God on his side, Bush compensates for his addictive behavior -- but in reality it continues to shape him.

"He's the first one to admit that he has an addictive personality, and he has to channel this addictiveness to constructive things," his friend Dan Bartlett told the New York Times Magazine.

Like a man possessed, Bush ignored all warnings on the subject of the Iraq War. Like an addict, he now clings -- during the worst financial crisis in the last 50 years, which ought to consume all of his attention -- to sports. He spends hours riding his bike, taking ever longer and more difficult routes. He is suddenly deeply involved in opening ceremonies for local tennis, baseball and softball events.

Bush is a man on the run -- from himself and his legacy. And he looks on, apparently in disbelief, at how the world loves to hate him, and how even close friends are leaving the sinking ship he still claims to be steering.


The scene is a book unveiling in Washington, DC, in May 2008. The author is a professional. His name is Scott McClellan, he was the president's press secretary, and he was considered a loyal representative of the White House and a staunch advocate of the policies of his boss. But today he is no longer praising the administration's achievements. Scott McClellan, 40, is settling scores with his former employer -- with the verve and toughness and relentlessness unique to spurned lovers.

His book is titled "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." On the day of its publication, it is already clear that it will be yet another heavy blow for the president, who praised McClellan when he resigned from his job at the White House in 2006 as one of the "best of our country" and as someone who "handled a challenging assignment with class and integrity." The attacks on Bush could hardly hit any closer to home. According to a White House insider, the president, stunned, read the words on the jacket and angrily tossed the book into a corner.

Too Gullible and Insufficiently Critical

"Scottie" McClellan has known Bush since their days together in Texas. He still admires him, says the former press secretary at his book unveiling. He adds that he does not consider George W. to be a bad person, only a weak one who is and was easily manipulated. McClellan concludes that his former boss has an extreme aversion to analysis and is the victim of self-suggestive wishful thinking -- that "his leadership style is based more on instinct than deep intellectual debate," as McClellan wrote in his book.

It was only gradually, says Bush's friend of many years, that he realized how policy was shaped in the White House. All too often, according to McClellan, the goal was that of "manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage." Not without a healthy dose of chutzpah, Bush's former spokesman accuses the American media of having been too gullible and insufficiently critical.

This is the sort of accusation that causes journalists to sit back and take a deep breath. Is this man a Judas who trims his sails to the wind and an opportunist hoping to make a few bucks with his revelations? Or is he a truly disappointed man, an upstanding conservative who is criticizing the failings of the Bush administration out of conviction and a sense of moral dilemma?

The reviews have been overwhelmingly negative. Commentators note sharply that McClellan was surprisingly good at hiding his doubts and keeping his true feelings hidden from everyone else. Nevertheless, hardly anyone questions the veracity of McClellan's account. A few weeks after the publication of McClellan's book, it is already at the top of the bestseller lists. McClellan himself is considering a career in politics, or perhaps in journalism. And just recently, he endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.


It has become a popular game to use Bush as the punching bag, to blame him for everything and to paint him as an object of hate. And yet, say many experts, Bush has changed during his second term. The man who once insisted on waging US wars with ad-hoc coalitions -- and without his reluctent allies -- was again making overtures to the international community.

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1. Ein Titel
mrwarmth 11/03/2008
---Quote (Originally by sysop)--- In his two terms in the White House, US President George W. Bush has presided over a precipitous fall in America's reputation around the world. History is likely to judge him a failure. Now, his successor will have to dig the US out of a deep hole. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,587786,00.html ---End Quote--- I think we have to discuss and analyze this "precipitous fall" in terms of a political analysis that is itself internally consistent. Unfortunately, the analysis in referenced Spiegel article is hopelessly self-contradictory. The article states that the US reputation in the world is at rock bottom, because of its human rights abuses. The article then contrasts the US with China, a country the author believes is "rising" in the world. Yet China is a far greater, and far more flagrant, abuser of human rights than the US is or could ever be. So if human rights abuses diminish a country's greatness on the world stage, then China's reputation should be falling, not rising. Right? Conversely, if human rights abuses have no effect on such things, then American missteps in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are meaningless for an analysis of America's standing in the world. It's clear Germany's view of the US is based on double standards, but do you really want to be so obvious about it? In any event, the reputation and standing of the US will recover quite nicely, and very quickly, for two very simple reasons: Bush will be gone. And he was such a spectacularly bad president that his successor will only have to do nothing to seem a huge improvement. And Obama will be a very much better president to begin with. Secondly, Europe needs the US, for many reasons. They can only afford to hate us so much, for so long, until their own intrinsic dependence on American power forces them to put the past behind them and move forward. Heck, if Germany can rehabilitate itself after the Nazis, then I don't think the US has anything to worry about in that regard.
2. Where are the Meae Culpae? (or should that be Mae's culpae)
plotinus 11/03/2008
---Quote (Originally by mrwarmth)--- Heck, if Germany can rehabilitate itself after the Nazis, then I don't think the US has anything to worry about in that regard. ---End Quote--- Yes, but Germany actually changed itself, and created a better society and outlook. Will the USA recognize the evils it has committed, and reform itself? The obstinacy of our resident American jingos, Mae and Warmth, represents fairly well the resistance Americans demonstrate when they are shown to be in the wrong. America still has not made amends for the Vietnam War, where it committed obvious and monstrous war crimes. God help them, Many Americans try to convince themselves that they were the winners in Vietnam! Until Americans can admit and confess their errors and crimes, I don't think you can compare them to Germans. -
3. Ein Titel
mrwarmth 11/04/2008
---Quote (Originally by plotinus)--- Yes, but Germany actually changed itself, and created a better society and outlook. Will the USA recognize the evils it has committed, and reform itself? The obstinacy of our resident American jingos, Mae and Warmth, represents fairly well the resistance Americans demonstrate when they are shown to be in the wrong. America still has not made amends for the Vietnam War, where it committed obvious and monstrous war crimes. God help them, Many Americans try to convince themselves that they were the winners in Vietnam! Until Americans can admit and confess their errors and crimes, I don't think you can compare them to Germans. - ---End Quote--- Wrong. Germany had change imposed upon itself by the US. Indeed, if one compares the occupation of Germany after WWI and after WWII, and their respective historical outcomes, I think the record shows that Germany was given entirely too much freedom after WWI, which led to its descent into Nazi barbarism. After WWII the Germans basically had their constitution dictated to them and forced upon them. They certainly didn't do it themselves.
4. Warmth wants to have it both ways
plotinus 11/04/2008
---Quote (Originally by mrwarmth)--- Wrong. Germany had change imposed upon itself by the US. Indeed, if one compares the occupation of Germany after WWI and after WWII, and their respective historical outcomes, I think the record shows that Germany was given entirely too much freedom after WWI, which led to its descent into Nazi barbarism. After WWII the Germans basically had their constitution dictated to them and forced upon them. They certainly didn't do it themselves. ---End Quote--- More weaseling by Warmth. The fact is, Germany changed, and changed individually, German by German, and in the hearts and minds of each German, into a nation which is far more virtuous than the USA. Or are American brainwashing techniques so powerful that they can force this transformation against the will of Germans? And if they are so powerful, what have they done in the USA itself? -
5.
marianna2008 11/05/2008
Whether someone agrees or not with the article has more to do with which side of the coin is more obvious to the reader every time. Someone who lives in the US has certainly a different perspective than someone who lives in Germany or someone who lives in Greece like me. But facts cannot be ignored. And facts shout out loud the Bush administration was a failure in total. The main issue here i think, and the first question that came up to my mind when reading was: How can someone so extreme in his leadership could hold a liberal nation like America into what seemed to the rest of the world as "complete mind control" for so long? Maybe the fact and only he was so extreme in his twisted political perception made people feel too numb to react or even too weak to go against it. Today's elections, not marked by the result but by the way the process itself developed, show serious signs that America "breaths" again after being "on stand-by" for at least the past 4 years. When 62% of the voters stated their main motivation to participate in the elections is the economy problem and only 9% is still under the fear of the "terrorism ghost", it is quite clear Americans gain back their political concience. This time without any kind of a "mass revolution", almost silently - and in this sense it is worth more. We can be sure the Bush "new - western - fundamentalistic era", a fiction with no political basis, fell apart as abruptly as it rised. Some may even have the opinion this was anyway a predetermined course and i would gladly sign it. How the new administration will handle the concequences which inevitably followed this groundless and even dangerous "experiment" and the ones that are still to come is pretty blur right now. But we certainly have a "clean" victory today and the winner is not called Obama. It is called realism. Well, this is always the first step into the right direction, isn't it?
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