Battered and Bruised America Looks Beyond the Bush Warriors
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.
The Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang was filled with pride as he reported to Chinese mission control from his space capsule. It was Saturday, Sept. 27 and Zhigang was about embark on his first space walk, marking a breakthrough for the space program of this rising power in the Far East. President Hu Jintao looked jubilant in the live television broadcast. With its successful excursion outside the space capsule, the People's Republic, as a nation in space, drew level with the United States and Russia in one important respect. Indeed, Beijing is already discussing a manned expedition to the moon. Once exclusively American, the Earth's biggest satellite may soon become Chinese as well.
This illustration was on the cover of this week's SPIEGEL. It is a remake of a SPIEGEL cover from 2002 (below) showing President George W. Bush's cabinet on its way to war. The US Embassy in Berlin ordered 33 copies of the original illustration in poster form for the White House. There has been no word yet as to whether orders have been placed for the new version. The title reads "The Bush Warriors: End of the Show."
Meanwhile, the White House, the center of power in this superpower, seemed oddly abandoned, as if no one were at home. As if 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., were temporarily closed for renovations. It wasn't, of course, but amazingly enough, had it been, hardly anyone would have noticed. The master of the house, certainly, would be missed by only a few. Bush did address his fellow Americans to talk about the financial crisis, but he seemed oddly disinterested. And even in these dramatic times, hardly anyone was listening. He may still be the president, but is he no longer shaping policy.
The original "Bush Warriors" SPIEGEL cover illustration from 2002.
US in Deep Decline
Rarely has the decline of a nation -- and the soaring success of another -- been so strikingly documented as it was by the almost simultaneous events in Beijing and Washington at the end of September. Of course, the bailout package has since been approved (although Paulson revised the conditions attached to it based on the European model and it was coordinated with Beijing) and, of course, China has also been hard-hit by the worldwide financial crisis (although its economic growth, after "declining" from almost 12 percent last year to an estimated 8 percent this year, remains impressive against the backdrop of the American recession).
But none of this changes the fact that the United States is in deep decline, in the wake of the dramatically ruinous policies of George W. Bush, 62, and his administration. That decline begins at home. Never before have such low approval ratings been measured for a US president than for Bush in his last few months. They are currently at between 19 and 20 percent. More than four out of five Americans believe that the nation is "headed in the wrong direction." And the image and reputation of this dominant Western nation has also declined to a new low in the rest of the world during the two terms of the 43rd US president.
In Western Europe, the US's popularity has declined by almost half, and in Turkey by 75 percent. The numbers are even worse when it comes to Bush himself. Even the citizens of the two neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, consider George W. to be about as likeable -- and as dangerous -- as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to a recently published BBC poll, a majority of people worldwide believe that Washington's activities have in fact strengthened the al-Qaida terrorist organization. Absurdly, al-Qaida has a better image than the United States in Egypt and Pakistan, two countries that are the recipients of especially generous US financial assistance.
How could it have come to this? What is the legacy of the Bush era? And can a new man in the White House turn the tide?
Avoiding Bush Like the Plague
In the twilight of his presidency, George W. seems markedly relaxed among friends. He has built himself his very own Bush World, where everything has its place. There is no such thing as failure in this world. It serves as protective armor for Bush. It is a cosmos, a virtual, Manichean cosmos in which everything is clearly delineated between good and bad, perpetrators and victims. And, in this world, anyone who is not "with us" is branded a contemptible enemy.
When someone like journalist Bob Woodward approaches Bush with critical questions, he suddenly becomes forgetful. When asked about the notorious and decisive memo leading up to the Iraq war, the war president pleads overwork -- Oh, there was so much going on at the time, and it isn't much better today: If you only knew how much work there is to do here. And if the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist presses him for an answer, Bush can quickly become curt, the man of the permanent smile turning into the impatient that's-it-end-of-story president.
After seven years of Republican dominance in Washington, Bush's fellow Republicans now avoid him like the plague. Republican presidential candidate John McCain gave Bush all of 14 seconds of public togetherness, 14 seconds on the tarmac in front of Air Force One, on a day in May 2008. An armored black limousine pulled up to the plane, Secret Service agents opened the doors of the car, Bush and McCain came together briefly in a carefully choreographed moment in front of cameras that had been set up in advance, the president pinched the candidate's wife on the cheek and shook hands with his fellow Republican, but then McCain turned away, as if fearing pursuit. Bush jumped up the steps to the waiting aircraft, and the 14 seconds were up.
Bush did not attend the Republican Convention in September, instead delivering an address via satellite. Another hurricane threatening New Orleans required the president's presence in the disaster zone. But he was not missed by his fellow Republicans. The only person who had more than a few friendly words to say about Bush in St. Paul was his wife Laura.
Self-doubt is anathema to George W. He hates pity. And why should anyone pity him, pity the man with the "best job in the world," the job that, as he says, hasn't brought him challenging or satisfying experiences, but "joyous" ones. Only minor details suggest that his presidency is coming to an end. "You can hear his Texas accent creeping back into his voice rather than the I'm-the-president, no-accent kind of voice," a Bush confidant told the New York Times Magazine recently. Although the friend claims that Bush cares very little about his disastrous approval ratings, it is hard to believe George W. Bush when he says that he is not interested in his legacy.
A biography of Winston Churchill is on his night table, and a bust of the British statesman stands in his office. Churchill, consistent and ruthless and farsighted in his battle against evil, is Bush's political role model. In the United States, Bush likes to compare himself with Harry Truman who, despite his unpopularity, would not allow himself to be deterred from the course he believed was the right one and who many today consider rehabilitated, long after his death, because he kept a steady hand in the Cold War.
George W. would like to be remembered as a second Truman. "His view of leadership is defined as doing the right thing against pressure," Michael Gerson, a former Bush advisor, told the New York Times Magazine. The president himself was less eloquent when asked by Bob Woodward about his legacy: "History? We don't know. We'll all be dead."