Battered and Bruised America Looks Beyond the Bush Warriors
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.
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.
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.