Published on Friday, July 8, 2005 by Dawn, Pakistan's leading English-speaking newspaper.
The Worst US President Ever?
by Huck Gutman
Bush is quite likely the worst president in the 200-year history of the United States. This has enormous implications for the international community, since his country is not a small republic like the Maldives or Andorra, but a global behemoth. His power as the most powerful man on earth derives not from a particular intelligence or set of talents, but by virtue of his position as the leader of the dominant military and economic nation on our planet.
Many of us in the United States do not like the way in which George W. Bush runs the American nation and attempts to run the world. Our numbers are growing: in each of the nine national polls taken in this month less than half the respondents are of the opinion that he is handling the presidency well. More significant still, since he retains a reputation for personal charm which buttresses his standing in the polls, the latest poll reported that only one-third of Americans think the American nation, under Bush, is headed in the right direction. Two polls earlier in the month found that well under 40 per cent of Americans approve of the direction in which he is leading the country.
Americans are very fond of lists, so let me do the American ‘thing.’ Here is a list of the top 10 reasons why President George W. Bush can be considered the most disastrous president in American history. This is actually a double list: the first five items concern foreign policy, while the second five address domestic policy.
Mr Bush began a war on false pretences. He lied to his people when he committed them to the war on Iraq, and on the basis of those lies he has undermined world security and committed his nation to the destruction of much of Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died — and over 1,700 Americans — for no reason greater than that being a war-time president would improve his political stature. (Well, it is possible that his personal oil interests, and those of his friends, factored in. Maybe also an idiosyncratic personal grudge — on the order of, ‘I’m going to show up my father and get that damn Saddam Hussein and show I’m tougher than both Saddam and my Dad’ — that raises his Oedipal complex to international dimensions.) That he lied about Iraq’s ‘threat’ to the United States is no unsubstantiated allegation.
The recently revealed “Downing Street Memo” is the report of Britain’s’ intelligence chief made to Prime Minister Blair about his trip to the United States eight months before the war in Iraq began, long before it was publicly considered. The memo makes clear that deception and the fitting of facts to serve a military agenda was a high priority for the Bush administration. (‘C’ in the following is Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service — MI 6 — who had just returned from meetings in Washington.) “C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Let us be blunt. Basing a war on ‘fixed’ evidence is a high crime, a betrayal of the trust of the nation’s citizens. In the United States, it is grounds for impeaching the president and removing him from office. But since Mr Bush’s own Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, such impeachment is, though warranted, unlikely. Mr Bush has undermined global security by legitimizing a doctrine of ‘preemptive war. “ What nation cannot use Mr Bush’s rationale — “to counter a sufficient threat to our national security...to forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively” — in its own interest to attack a neighboring state”?
The threshold which prevents nations from legitimately making war on other nations has been dramatically lowered by the Bush administration. Even worse, as I have argued previously on this page, the American president’s “National Security Strategy” justifying preemptive war provided economic reasons as examples of a casus belli: a disrespect for private property, policies which do not “support business activity,” and a refusal to commit to “tax policies — particularly lower marginal tax rates — that improve incentives for work and investment.”
If one parses that last statement, it says that if another nation that taxes the wealthy to provide services for the poor, the United States may consider it has a sufficient cause for preemptive war. Mr Bush has waged a destructive war in and against Iraq. There is no question that Saddam Hussein was a dictator and that his regime was repressive. But by ignoring the international community and the United Nations, by starting a war to show he was tougher than his father, Mr Bush has visited destruction and death on the people and the economy of an independent nation. Reliable reports put the civilian death count in Iraq at somewhere between 22,500 (actually reported and verifiable) to 98,000 (the number provided by the British medical journal Lancet nine months ago based on its sophisticated statistical sampling). Electric service is unreliable in 78 per cent of households in Iraq, a figure which increases to 92 per cent in Baghdad. Potable water is often non-existent. Male unemployment is over 30 per cent.
Meanwhile, American companies are growing immensely profitable by supposedly providing services — repairing infrastructure, pumping oil — that benefit them far more than the citizens of Iraq. Mr Bush embarked on a war with no plan to win the peace. He created a dramatic made-for-television scenario on the deck of an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, when, dressed in a pilot’s jacket, arms outspread, he declared victory in Iraq. He insisted, “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
Since that date, 1,365 Americans have died in combat, almost 10 times the number who died before Bush declared “victory,” and between 15,000 and 35,000 have been wounded. (It is telling, and chilling, that there seem to be no cumulative figures on the number of Iraqi civilians who have been wounded during the American occupation. Aren’t the deaths of fathers and aunts and children and co-workers worth tallying? We know that the US administration seeks to control the news: but how can the scope of this tragedy go unreported?) Mr Bush seems to have no sense of history: it is as if the French occupation of Algeria, the American occupation of Vietnam, the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, taught him and Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nothing at all. Perhaps they have been too busy looking at political poll numbers, and figuring out how to get new contracts for American corporations, to read any books about what happens when major powers decide to wage a war in and against developing nations.
Mr Bush is committed to unilateralism. There will be no American ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to curb climate change. Mr Bush rejected the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia, the International Criminal Court, bilateral negotiations with North Korea. He invaded Iraq with only the support of what he called the ‘coalition of the willing ,’ a code name for Great Britain and a number of American client states. Tellingly for the future of humankind, he has unilaterally rejected the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians. The United States has held over 500 people of 35 different nationalities at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, “many” according to Amnesty International, “without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits.”
The American military subjected inmates at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison to humiliation amounting to torture. Amnesty International reports that the “total number of detainees held outside the USA by the US during the ‘war on terror’” is 70,000 — and it is unknown for how many of them their Geneva Conventions rights are secured. To summarize: Instead of making the world a safer place, Mr. Bush has made war, wrought destruction, and undermined multilateral efforts to build and sustain a more livable world. MR Bush has not been kinder to American people, nor secured their well-being as their elected leader is supposed to do. He has redistributed wealth from the middle class upward — to the very wealthiest families in America.
Two tax cuts which give the biggest benefits to the top one per cent — those who earn more than $337,000 annually — have raised the tax burden on the middle class. This past year, for instance, President and Mrs Bush earned $784,219 and Vice-President and Mrs Cheney earned $2,173,892. (Yes, they are both clearly in the top one per cent of income earners). The Bush-enacted tax cuts slashed their tax bills, 12 per cent for Mr Bush, 18 per cent for Mr Cheney so that they paid $110,182 less than they would have paid had the legislation not been enacted. Meanwhile, in the longer run the only way to pay for these tax cuts — which turned a federal surplus into an enormous deficit that the Bush administration projects at $521 billion in this year alone — will be to reduce government spending on the programs which underwrite the quality of life for poor and middle class Americans: food and income support for the poor, education and health care and pensions for the middle class. Thus, the massive tax cuts to the wealthy will be paid for by hacking away at, bankrupting and terminating programs that support the working people of America.
In his administration, more than any other during the past three quarters of a century, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class has shrunk. America is currently an oligopoly run not only by, but for, the wealthy class. Mr Bush has embraced deficits which will undermine the long term health of the American economy. The numbers are staggering. The budget deficit is $512 billion. The current accounts deficit for the first quarter of 2005 was $195.1 billion, which projects to a deficit for 2005 of $780.1 billion. That means that this year alone the United States has financed its lowered taxes, its costly war in Iraq, its hunger for cheap goods, by a total of $1.29 trillion. Numbers can by themselves be numbing, so let us try a comparison. Pakistan’s government budget expends $16.5 billion, India’s 2004 $104 billion, China’s $348.9 billion, all including capital expenditures.
The three governments spend barely over a third of what the United States borrows through deficit spending and balance of payments debits. Although Mr Bush would prefer to hide the fact, this money in one way or another will have to be repaid. Those repayments will hold the United States hostage, exactly as developing nations today are often held hostage by the IMF and the World Bank.
Even a vibrant American economy would be strained by the enormous obligation of paying interest on and paying down the national debt, and repatriating the dollars ‘borrowed’ by the balance of payments deficit. But the American economy is not as vibrant as is claimed: more and more of America’s productive capacity, both in manufacturing and in the intellectual work done by white collar workers, is being supplanted by the productive capacity of other nations, China and India chief among them. Consumer spending has been fueled almost entirely by low interest rates which have created a housing boom — now at the stage of being a speculative bubble which may soon crash, bringing the economy to a halt. Thus, the American standard of living, already in modest decline, will likely plummet fairly rapidly in coming decades. And American economic pre-eminence is likely to be challenged — though this may well be a fine thing for other nations — by China and the other nations of East Asia, the EEC, India and South Asia, and perhaps the nations of Southeast Asia.
Mr Bush has initiated an attack on civil liberties almost unparalleled in the history of the United States. With the passage of the Bush-initiated “Patriot Act,” the federal government was given enormous powers to invade privacy and intrude on basic freedoms which had been guaranteed to Americans for over two centuries. The legislation gave federal authorities the power to obtain medical records, tax records, book buying and library borrowing records — all without requiring a probable cause or a court adjudication that national security is imperiled. Federal police are now authorized to break into a person’s home and do a search without ever informing the person the search has been conducted. Not only have civil liberties been curtailed, the chilling effect on freedom of speech and association means that more and more Americans are afraid to exercise their most basic liberties.
Mr Bush has politicized the American nation beyond permissible bounds. He has politicized the judicial system by forcing the judicial appointment of ideological conservatives who pass a ‘litmus test’ on such issues as abortion (opposed), class action suits which allow collections of individuals to sue corporations which have injured them (opposed), and the rights of labor (opposed). The sole credential for important government positions, too, is ideological purity. Recently, Mr Bush and his cohorts tried to slash the funding for public broadcasting because he thinks it too ‘liberal.’ He refuses to work with the opposition party, the Democrats. Just as he adheres to unilateralism in foreign policy, in domestic affairs it must always be his way, with no negotiation, no meeting half-way, not even consultation. He seems — and this if far more frightening in fact than the mere statement of it suggests — determined to turn America into a de facto one-party state.
And then, there is the corruption in which political cohorts get huge government subsidies and gifts. His defense department gives huge contracts to ‘friendly’ corporations without even the semblance of open bidding or fair awarding of contracts. Halliburton, for instance, was awarded a $7 billion contract, non-competitively, to repair Iraq’s oil infrastructure. (The former CEO of Halliburton is none other than the sitting vice-president, Mr Cheney.)
Mr Bush has played the religion card — what South Asians call communalism — often, and with a vengeance. Elected in large part with the support and money of fundamentalist Christians, Mr Bush has turned American politics into a religious battleground. His communalist ‘game’ seldom addresses religion per se, instead using coded words and battles about social phenomena to communicate to fundamentalists that he is committed to turning America in a profoundly religious direction. Thus, in recent years, Mr Bush has opposed abortion (while 63 per cent of Americans said, this month, that they do not want to see the federal court legalizing abortion overturned). He has opposed stem cell research (58 per cent of Americans approve such research). He has campaigned against a homosexual’s right to marry (55 per cent of Americans do not want to see homosexual marriage. But an even larger 58 per cent opposed the Constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage that Mr Bush called for.)
Increasingly, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and non-religious people in general feel social pressure from the Bush administration to be like other people — meaning, to act like Christians or shut up. There is much that can be said about America not living up to its ideals, but in the separation of church and state — enshrined in the nation’s Constitution — it has been a model of religious tolerance and freedom for most other nations. No longer. No other American president has injected religion and religious doctrine as deeply into the discourse of American politics as Mr Bush.
Expediency has won out over tolerance; accordingly, the religious divide between Americans seems more profound than at any moment in its history. Whether it is world peace, religious tolerance, the American economy or social and economic justice, Mr Bush has hollowed out much that he should have been strengthening. Nor has he learned from his experience: in not one of the 10 areas highlighted has he changed his course or his thinking. In fact, his mind seems permanently made up, untouched by experience, and untouchable. He sails serenely forward, towards disaster, trying to drag America and the world along on his misguided journeys.
The only good news is that, more and more, the American people are not sure they want to be his fellow sailors.
The writer is a professor at the University of Vermont in the US.
© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005