“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power,” said Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, almost a hundred-and-fifty years ago.
Today, the presidency of George W. Bush is in its twilight months. The season of presidential debates of 2008 has begun. America is in the midst of Palin-mania. Opinion polls predict a tight race between John McCain and Barack Obama. And I am reminded of the eternal truth spoken by Lincoln all those years ago.
The conduct of the Bush administration has affected the lives of countless people in America and around the world. As American voters approach polling day on November 4 to elect his successor, the outside world ponders with them. What have the last eight years been like? Where is America headed and what would it mean?
President George W. Bush was never a subtle politician. His personal charm and southern directness attracted many Americans and helped him win two elections for the White House. Each time, he also had a stroke of luck. The Bush victory in November 2000 was one of the most controversial, and disputed, presidential election results in the history of the United States. Just five electoral college votes separated him from his Democrat opponent, Al Gore. The state of Florida, with 25 electoral votes, gave that victory to Bush. Overall, Bush got half a million fewer popular votes than Al Gore, his defeated rival. The legal battle after the election went right up to the American Supreme Court, which decided that the recount of ballots by hand in Florida was unconstitutional and the Republican Secretary of State of Florida could certify the result.
The Florida vote count which gave George W. Bush the victory was so controversial because his brother, Jeb, was Governor there. The Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who certified the Florida vote, was not only a member of Governor Jeb Bush’s cabinet. She was also co-chairman of the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in the state. In the end, a majority of just 537 popular votes out of a total of nearly six million ballots cast in Florida decided the result. It was certified by a close ally of Bush and a recount by hand was declared unconstitutional in a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by conservative judges.
Four years later, it was his ‘war on terror’ that, despite serious doubts, convinced America that it was not the time to reject an incumbent president. The 2004 presidential campaign was particularly nasty, just as the 2008 campaign is turning out. The neo-conservatives, who ran the Bush campaign, focused on national security. Bush was projected as a decisive leader. His Democrat rival, John Kerry, was depicted as a ‘flip-flopper’ by none other than the Vice President, Dick Cheney, to many the most powerful figure in the administration. One of Kerry’s slogans ‘Strong at home, respected in the world’ drew accusations that Kerry would pay more attention to domestic concerns, implying that defense would be ignored. Questions were raised about the legitimacy of the medals Kerry had been awarded during his military service in Vietnam. Bush had never fought in any war. But the 2004 Republican campaign was vicious. Kerry stood little chance.
Today, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, lives in the glory of the Vietnam War, in which he endured abuse after capture and America lost. What was his achievement? The Republicans would not tell.
A president who has served eight years in office is bound to leave a legacy. The single issue that defines the legacy of George W. Bush is ‘the war on terror’, pursued relentlessly during all but a few months of his presidency. It is tempting to suggest that the nature of American foreign policy under his administration was the consequence of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. But the explanation is simplistic. It provides no more than a convenient, and not entirely accurate, context to the ‘war on terror’.
In truth, the fundamental characteristic of the Bush presidency has been an uncomplicated view of the world and America’s role in it. Behind the jingoistic frenzy, whipped up by the McCain-Palin ticket in the 2008 campaign, there is a much more profound question. What will a McCain-Palin administration, with an uncomplicated worldview and America’s role, mean for the country and the world?
The retaliation against the Taleban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was understandable. But the scope of American ambition under Bush was something else. The campaign to overthrow the Iraqi regime in March 2003 on the basis of false assertions, the countless civilian deaths, the abduction, incarceration and abuse of tens of thousands of innocent people amount to crimes for which the leaders of many lesser countries would face trial. For a while, it looked as though Iran and Syria would be the next targets in the ‘war on terror’. Reckless threats of military action against Iran still continue. McCain and Palin may well carry on the same path, even though America remains bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The ideological vehicle used to get George W. Bush elected to the White House in November 2000 was the Project for the New American Century. By 2006, it had become a discredited and disbanded organization. However, a new band of Republicans aggressively pushing the same ideology has risen again in support of the McCain-Palin ticket. The old and discredited neo-conservatives like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bolton and Jeb Bush sought to link domestic controversies surrounding the Clinton administration to what they described as a drift in American foreign and defense policy. While domestic critics focused on the personal conduct of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Project for the New American Century attacked the President’s agenda for economic recovery. The implication was that Clinton’s economic program had a cost – weaker defense.
It is an irony that many enthusiastic supporters of Hillary Clinton should now contemplate switching to the McCain-Palin ticket, given that it represents the opposite of Clinton.
The message of the neo-conservative constituency of George W. Bush was unmistakable – a more interventionist America, referring back to ‘Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity’. But the ambition of the new right went further – ‘to build on the successes of the past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next’. From the beginning, neo-conservative associations like the Project for the New American Century believed that American power was absolute in its potential and that its use was inevitable. The language of McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, echoes the same aggressive sentiment.
At this point, I want to discuss the general disposition of America’s political right in recent years. In broad terms, it is an ideological movement representing a range of political and social organizations, which can be divided into two streams – neo-conservatism and the religious right. On the one hand, there are the new conservatives. Their rise in the late 1990s can be attributed to the rebirth of the coalition that came together under Ronald Reagan twenty years before. Many leading figures of the neo-conservative movement were younger politicians and thinkers who had been out of power during the Clinton presidency. The other stream of the political right is religious.
There are significant differences in the American Christian right, ranging from Lutheranism and Catholicism to the more conservative Evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist Churches. White Evangelical voters account for more than 20 percent of the American electorate. Their overwhelming support for George W. Bush was largely responsible for his success in the two presidential elections. He received 68 percent of the white Evangelical vote in the 2000 election; it was 78 percent four years later.
There are differences, but there is also common ground, between those who make up the American political right. Differences are easier to identify on social issues. Moderate right-wingers tend to be less vehement in their opposition to abortion, stem cell research and homosexuals and less staunch in their support of the death penalty. At the other end of the religious right, there are those whose views on marriage, women’s rights, abortion and homosexuality are extreme.
One of the most controversial personalities of the religious right, preacher-politician Reverend Pat Robertson, has called feminism as a form of ‘socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians’. In 1998, Robertson claimed that acceptance of homosexuality could result in hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. In the wake of the outcry after these remarks, he returned to the topic and, quoting from the Bible, sought to justify them.
Such demagogy, and attempts to resort to selective use of religious texts to legitimize extreme views, are not exclusive to the political right or left. Nor are they limited to the Christian right. We hear a lot about Islamic fundamentalism, far less about Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalisms. They, too, have been responsible for so much unrest in the Middle East, South Asia and other parts of the world. However, we must not lose the focus of discussion here. Our discussion is about the mass movement responsible for the presidency of George W. Bush.
Three main aspects characterize that movement. First, a strong belief in America’s power and its right to exercise that ability. Second, a conviction in the superiority of Judeo-Christian values. And third, a strongly pro-Israel and anti-Muslim agenda. I referred earlier to the views of Pat Robertson, the preacher-politician. The rhetoric of another leading figure on the American right, Bill O’Reilly, is also worth mentioning. During a radio discussion about an opinion poll showing that most Iraqis did not see American troops as liberators and wanted them to leave the country, O’Reilly told listeners that he had ‘no respect’ for the Iraqi people; they were a ‘pre-historic group’ and the lesson from the Iraq War was for America not to intervene in the Muslim world again, but ‘bomb the living daylights out of them’. His support for coercive techniques to extract information at detention centers such as Guantánamo Bay, trial in military tribunals and opposition to offering the detainees protection under the Geneva Conventions is well documented.
The rhetoric of people like Robertson and O’Reilly cannot be dismissed as irrelevant and unrepresentative. Both command huge audiences through their television and radio programs. Many aspects of the ‘war on terror’ show the influence such views have had in the Bush administration. It is undoubtedly America’s war. But to bypass its obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the Bush administration invented a new concept of ‘enemy combatant’ for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers.
After sustained international criticisms and legal battles in the United States, the White House announced in July 2006 that it would comply with the third convention which guarantees the basic protection to detainees. The administration had no other choice after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the special military commissions set up to prosecute detainees violated U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions. It was a symbolic victory for opponents. Administration officials continued to argue about what really amounted to degrading and inhuman treatment, which is illegal under the fourth convention. The White House and the Pentagon maintained that the detainees were already treated humanely in the light of legislation passed in Congress barring ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment’ of detainees.
The overall disposition of the Bush administration since January 2001 reflects the instinctive belief across the new political right that American power is unlimited and unaccountable and the United States could decide unilaterally whether, when and to whom an international treaty would apply. The essence of such a mind-set is ‘we will do it because we can’. In this respect, there is considerable unity of purpose across America’s political right. It is driven by a domestic agenda. Foreign policy is an instrument to satisfy the conservative coalition at home for the sake of power.
As Americans approach polling day on November 4 to elect the next president, Lincoln’s axiom assumes profound importance. Nearly all men can stand adversity and John McCain undoubtedly endured torture after being taken prisoner in Vietnam. That should not be the real issue, however. The real issue should be the character of the man who would be president – John McCain or Barack Obama. For, as Lincoln said, he is going to be tested by economic and foreign-policy problems unparalleled since America’s withdrawal from Vietnam more than three decades ago.
The above article appeared in OpEdNews on 26 September 2008.