There is a special arrogance to making an historical judgment on anything going on in the present. We can't even be sure of the past, even our own past, for, as Daniel Kahneman, Princeton psychologist and the co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, once wrote, "The memory is a fickle friend."
JFK was assassinated almost 45 years ago, and the controversy over his death never seems to end… or get any clearer. Witness Vincent Bugliosi's new 1,600+ page epic that attacks all the conspiracy theorists (no I haven't and don't intend to read it. The reviews are dense enough.) Absent some remarkable and unassailable evidence, we'll probably never know the truth.
Raise the issue of using the atom bomb in Japan and sit back and wait for the furious barrage of opinions. Did Lincoln have homosexual relations with that man? Was Livia (the wife of Caesar Augustus) really the mad poisoner portrayed in I Claudius?
So how does one make evaluations? Very carefully, knowing that one's conscious and unconscious biases act as filters for our pronouncements. And, by listening carefully to others, especially those with competing points of view. To begin, my bias is 60s liberal, I think, although when I tried to explain my concept of liberalism in an earlier article, "Yes I'm A Liberal," a BC contributor from Jerusalem countered that I was describing social justice, so I am, perhaps, a Social Justician. At the same time, I get as angry at traditional liberalism as I do conservatism, so maybe I'm just confused.
Enough introduction. How does one evaluate our current president and his administration, and how does one do it without sarcasm and satire — aye, there's the rub. Let's just pick some of the key moments of his administration and see what transpires. I'll never get this done in one article, so we'll begin by looking at terrorism and foreign policy, to start with. Part II will look at domestic policy.
9/11 and the early War on Terrorism: Perhaps Bush at his best. Capitalizing on the outpouring of world support and grief, he put together a powerful coalition, got U.N. approval and drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan. We stood side-by-side with our European allies; Russia, and much of the Arab world to make a statement that terrorism would not be tolerated. (Grade: A)
The Iraq War: Alas, for reasons never clearly explained, his real target was Saddam Hussein. There shouldn't be any question any longer that, with Cheney & Rumsfeld, Bush manipulated intelligence findings to justify the war. When European powers asked for more time for the U.N. to complete its weapons of mass destruction mission, all the while acknowledging that war was probably inevitable, Cheney, in particular, treated them like tired, old nations not worthy of our time. Likewise, the failure to engage any of the Arab powers made it easy for the radical Islamists to portray this as a war against Islam. And he pulled some of the best troops out of Afghanistan (premature ejectus?) before the job was done and especially before Osama "Up Yours" Bin Laden was captured. We're now fighting a new Taliban menace, poppy production is soaring, and the future of Afghanistan looks bleak.
The war in Iraq, by any standards, has been a military and diplomatic disaster. Why, for example, did Rumsfeld reject the calls for more troops by his generals? Why did he dismiss out of hand any plan for the post-war rebuilding of Iraq, i.e. winning the peace? Why didn't Bush insist on it? His father, according to some accounts, never followed up after the first Iraqi war because he and his advisors knew that Iraq wasn't really a country, but a collection of rival tribes held together by a violent dictator. To this day, no one seems to have a plan. The administration is talking about a South Korea-type long-term engagement, which completely ignores the differences between the two regions, and liberal and conservative comments have degraded to name calling and fear mongering. (Grade: F)
The Ongoing War on Terror: There should be no question any longer that we've created more terrorism with the Iraq war and have given al Qaida a new lease on life. Internally, we're misspending money with abandon, sending millions to risky cities such as Omaha, Little Rock, and Poughkeepsie while chemical, nuclear, and manufacturing plants, railroads, our electrical system, our computer networks, to name but a few, all remain vulnerable.
The balance of security and freedom is a difficult one in times such as this, but the failure of the Bush administration is that it rejects open debate about such issues, issuing fatwahs that, in effect, say, "here it is. Love it or leave it." The treatment of prisoners, the use of torture, the expanded eavesdropping on Americans' communications (one element of which even former Attorney General John Ashcroft, from his hospital bed, rejected), the Kafkaesque ability of various federal agencies to arrest and detain at will in violation of the Bill of Rights and especially habeas corpus…all these are legitimate subjects for debate. It's not only the actions of the administration that cause concern, it's the living in the bubble and being closed to any disagreement that's most disconcerting.
However, are we safer? Why haven't there been more attacks on American soil? Are we so wired and under surveillance that we've given up too much freedom? (Grade: C?)
America's Image Abroad: The Bush administration, until recently, made it clear that it didn't give a damn about what others thought. We were the sole superpower, and we didn't need allies, just toadies. The 2006 America Against the World, by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, supported by mountains of research by Pew Research Center, cited not only attitudes towards the U.S. government declining dramatically across the world, but also attitudes about the American people, although not as great. For the first time, our very culture is being seen by many as toxic.
For instance: Naming Karen Hughes our ambassador abroad to fix relations after the equally ham-handed New York advertising exec demonstrates how far removed Bush is from the real world and communication theory. On the other hand, probably too late, Secretary of State Rice is at least beginning to open discussions with Iran and Syria, which is a step in the right direction.
At this point, there's probably nothing Bush can do about our image abroad. It will require a new administration, but we need to take a hard look at why Americans and American culture are creating greater concern. (Grade: F)
Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Russia: At least and at last, we're working with our allies to do something – anything – about these four countries, but, again, the question must be asked if it's too little, too late. Especially with Russia, the planned anti-missile sites on that country's borders are difficult to understand. Who believes they're going to defend us against missiles from Iran and North Korea? Iran doesn't have missiles that'll even reach Israel – yet, and it'll be years before they're a threat to the U.S. And North Korea would probably take the shorter route across the Pacific even if they had working missiles.
Yes, we've asked the Russians to join the program, but why have they said no? And why is the anti-American rhetoric in Russia heating up to Cold War temperatures? I must confess, I don't know enough about the situation, but Bush's recent efforts to calm tensions don't seem to be helping.
The biggest problem with the Bush administration, both home and abroad, has been its arrogant refusal to engage people before taking action, as if they just expect folks to fall in line after the fact. (Grade: D)
There are many areas I'm leaving out, such as Latin America, Israel & the Arabs, China, and others. It's more a matter of time than lack of opinion or interest.
The biggest flaw in this exercise is the humbling reality that they really do know more than the average American or even the well-read and well-educated American. However, given the conflicting messages, poor communications, and perceived lack of honesty, one wonders what or whom to believe.
Next up in the series: The Bush administration's domestic story.