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Battered and Bruised: America Looks Beyond the Bush Warriors

By Erich Follath

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."
Illustration Jean-Pierre Kunkel für den SPIEGEL

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."

Almost at the same time, at a point halfway around the earth, a finance minister was doing something highly unusual: falling to his knees in a gesture of desperation. The Republican Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson was kneeling before the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, begging her to do everything in her power to make sure that the $700-billion bailout package for the US economy was passed. Paulson's unmistakable message was that the United States was on the brink of an abyss.

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.
Illustration by Jean-Pierre Kunkel

The original "Bush Warriors" SPIEGEL cover illustration from 2002.

"The fundamentals of our economy are strong," the president said in August. But what could be more disconcerting than to be told by George W. Bush that everything is going to be alright?

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."

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1. Ein Titel
mrwarmth 11/03/2008
Zitat von sysopIn 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
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
Zitat von mrwarmthI 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.
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
Zitat von plotinusYes, 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. -
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
Zitat von mrwarmthWrong. 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.
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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