W. said goodbye to us last night, in an appearance that was surely notable for most Americans mainly because of the annoyance that he delayed by fifteen minutes their prime time shows like Gray’s Anatomy and Eleventh Hour.
The Bard reminds us that we cannot attribute the dominance of the unworthy ruler to fate, or the stars. If we diminish ourselves and make ourselves underlings and give up our birthright as free citizens, bowing down to a would-be emperor, then we ourselves must accept the blame.
“Ye gods, it doth amaze me,
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world,
And bear the palm alone. (1.2.129)
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135)”
Bush is my slightly older contemporary. I knew guys like W. in college, the frat boys who painted the local lighthouse windows red in the middle of the night after binging on cheap beer and chasing skirts instead of cracking their books. The guys who were rude and arrogant because they did not know how to wear their inherited wealth gracefully, the loudmouths who parroted Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley without having the integrity of the former or the eloquence of the latter.
When I was at college, I was interested in peace movements and spirituality, in Gandhi and Sufism. Bush was obsessed by demon rum, poontang and carpet-bombing peasants. I and my friends marched against the Vietnam War because draftees from our social class were getting shredded in the jungles fighting an Asian nationalist movement for no good reason. Bush and his buddies mouthed Domino Theory and International Communist Conspiracy and had their powerful fathers arrange fancy deferments for them. W. was just another spoiled rich kid who refused to grow up and threw up on the shoes of the rest of us while singing the praises of brutal militarism and unrestrained capitalism.
When W. hit rock bottom in his drinking and womanizing he was about 40, and he got the most rigid and simplistic kind of religion, which suddenly all the rest of us had to support. Why is it that wastrels who find faith are so insufferable? And despite all his personal failures and the clear evidence that if you put him anywhere near the leadership of an organization he would run it into the ground faster than a drunk can down a shot, he kept being given chances because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and his father had amounted to something. It has long been recognized by historians that the key problem with dynasties is that being born to a powerful father is no guarantee that the heir apparent won’t be a royal screw-up.
So Bush, the impudent, opinionated, stubborn socialite is made president in 2000 by his daddy’s rightwing friends on the supreme court. And because of September 11 he gets his chance to avenge the failed Vietnam War, and to kill Saddam Hussein, the unpleasant little brown man who had dared defy W.’s wealthy and powerful daddy.
W. wasn’t up to dealing with the Middle East. It is a complex, vital, fractious place and is notorious as the graveyard of modern presidencies. Carter was done in by Iranian hostage-takers. Reagan embroiled himself in Iran-Contra. Bush Sr. imprudently took on the Israel lobbies over loan guarantees for Israeli colonies on the West Bank, and that misstep helped cost him reelection.
W. is a frightful combination of ignorant, dull, and pigheaded when to succeed in the Middle East he needed to be well-informed, bright and intellectually agile.
Those were my stomping grounds; I knew them the way W. knows Houston. But when I objected to his policies at this little weblog, my mailbox was flooded with hate mail from people who thought W. knew best about the Middle East. As if you could get experience, knowledge and wisdom about the world from 20 years of bar hopping in Texas. Did the man even have a passport?
His war in Afghanistan was little more than an aerial intervention in favor of the Northern Alliance, who, given close air support, easily rolled back the Taliban. But Talibanism was not merely an ephemeral political ideology that could so easily be defeated. It was a cry for order on the part of a brutalized and often exiled population that had suffered Soviet and warlord wars. It was a cry for authenticity on the part of a people warding off foreign domination. It was a vehicle of Pushtun power at a time when the Dari Persian speakers had found new patrons such as Iran and India. Talibanism was not defeated in 2001, it simply went underground for a while.
Bush had a huge country to deal with in Afghanistan, a little larger than France but with a geography more like the American southwest– and analogues to the Rocky Mountains and the Arizona desert. It was among the poorest countries in the world, seeded with millions of land mines and haunted by widows, orphans, and the maimed. Riven by ethnic, linguistic, religious and tribal divisions, it was a virtual basket case. Bush promised to make the big investments in it that would bring it back from the brink. He lied. From 2001 through 2006, my recollection is that the US spent $80 bn. on war operations in Afghanistan and $10 billion in civilian aid. It was a drop in the bucket.
Bush boasted last night about Afghanistan being some sort of shining democracy. I wish Afghans well, but no countries that poor and desperate are stable democracies. The Karzai government would collapse in short order if the US and NATO troops weren’t propping it up. The Taliban and other guerrilla insurgencies operate with impunity in places like Ghazni not far from the capital. And, Bush’s harping on the liberation of Afghan women is just annoying. Women are better off than under Taliban rule, which was pathologically misogynist. But rural Afghan tribes haven’t suddenly decided to treat their women differently. Some warlords regiment the women under their control only a little less thoroughly than had the Taliban. And, besides,the Taliban themselves are back and dictating such matters in some of the Pushtun areas.
Bush has not bequeathed us a shining city on a hill in Afghanistan, but a crippled state in need of billions of dollars of investments that we no longer have because of Bush’s kleptomaniac buddies, whom he enabled.
Bush essentially left a small garrison in Afghanistan and tried to deal with its monumental problems on the cheap. Instead, he diverted the needed resources to his building war with Iraq already by winter of 2002. All of the lies and propaganda whereby he dragged us into Iraq, all of the fearmongering and falsehoods, are too well known to rehearse.
The US has been involved in unjust wars before. But it had fought few wars of choice, in which it just fell on another country without having been attacked. The US had tried to stay neutral in both the world wars. Bush blustered and grunted, shouted accusations and plotted provocations, postured and told tall tales, and herded us into an illegal war with intimations we faced the threat of a madman with nukes. He had no evidence for these false and outrageous claims.
He praised Iraq as a pro-American democracy last night. Bush confuses elections with democracy. Bush had nothing to say about the price Iraqis played to have this rogue experiment on their lives. Did he kick off conflicts that killed over a million Iraqis? That massive toll is entirely plausible. Then there would be 3 million wounded, and a million widowed, and 5 million orphaned. He had nothing to say about the swathe of destruction he has left across the Middle East, like the slimy trail of a huge calamitous slug. Bush has destabilized the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region. Turkish-Kurdish, Arab-Kurdish and Sunni-Shiite battles loom that could redraw the map of the region. We may muddle through, but it is too early to tell. Bush just can’t help flashing that “Mission Accomplished” neon whenever he talks about his achievements in Iraq.
There are weasels among the pundits who say that Bush has been vindicated, insofar as Iraq has regained better security than it had in 2006. This is like saying that the Norwegian brown rat was vindicated when the Black Death ran its course, having killed a third of Europe before it subsided.
Bush has not redeemed the Vietnam War but rather made us live through something very like it all over again, the only difference being that this time we are likely to have the sense to get out before we are thrown out.
Bush even dared address us about how wonderful things are in the Middle East now without bringing up the ongoing massacre of Palestinians in Gaza or the continued expropriation and statelessness of the Palestinian people, who may as well be slaves. Bush was the first US president to call for a Palestinian state, and he had pledged that he would accomplish something to revive the peace process in the final two years of his catastrophic presidency. But he ended his second term with a mediocre rightwing Israeli prime minister openly boasting of ordering him around.
Bush was never more than a screw-up. He admitted when running for president that there were deficiencies in his knowledge and experience, but he said he would make up for that by appointing good people around him. It turns out that if someone doesn’t have a lick of common sense, he won’t even know which of his advisers is giving him wise counsel, and he sure as hell won’t know how to appoint wise people to advise him in the first place. W. thought the trustworthy, competent people were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. He doesn’t seem to have taken Colin Powell seriously, and the way he used and discarded Powell is yet another stain on his disastrous presidency.
W. had the gall to exploit people of color at his stage-managed farewell, even though his party is overwhelmingly White and he has driven people of color into much deeper poverty in contrast to Clinton, who raised the standard of living for the poor and actually enforced civil and voting rights. W. brought a native of New Orleans before the cameras last night, as though this gesture could erase his maddening unconcern toward the damage done one of the country’s great cities by his own lackadaisical attitude.
Bush lumbers off into his Dallas gated community (until recently whites-only), having dropped the pretense of being a rancher who liked to “clear brush.” He has enriched his cronies in the military-industrial complex, and opened Iraq to investment by US petroleum firms. But the US economy was hollowed out by an administration that did not believe in auditing the books or actually regulating businesses as the law required. Bush was a socialist on military and security issues and an anarchist when it came to curbing the abuses of corporations or the white-tie superwealthy that he called his base.
Bush never escaped the habits of his ne’er-do-well undergraduate days at Yale. In the end, he replaced being drunk on beer with being drunk on power. He replaced wooing the women with wooing the corporations. He replaced frat boy hijinks with ruinous wars that wrought a devastation across the rugged expanse of West Asia unlike anything seen since the pagan Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258.
Our nation renews itself, and makes small revolutions with its political campaigns. We have the opportunity now, to choose truth over propaganda, responsibility over recklessness, compassion over brutality, altruism over self-interest, and ability over incompetence. We have the opportunity to repudiate the past 8 years, and to transcend them once and for all, to redeem ourselves as a nation. The persons we choose to serve us as first among equals in our republic can bring us shame or honor as a nation. But it is our choices as individuals that make us shameful or honorable in ourselves. We must never again allow a crew of crooked bullies to make us underlings, lest we be laid to rest in dishonorable graves.