Bush’s Final “State of the Union”: Exiting With a Whimper
Mr. Bush’s last State of the Union address last Monday was the most forgettable of the lot. A tax cut here, an education program there, a few healthcare benefits here and some global warming platitudes there—it was all pretty small stuff, especially compared to Mr. Bush’s world-historical grandiloquence of the early years. It looks like he won’t be doing much for the next 11 months and three weeks, which is just fine. An exit with a whimper by this troubled and inadequate man is preferable to yet another doomed attempt to make history.
Mr. Bush urged Congress to pass the $150 billion stimulus package quickly and to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. His wish may well be granted, but it may not be enough to affect the economy: tax rebates arriving in mail boxes next May or June won’t have an impact on the next three critical months.
More seriously, however, Mr. Bush’s statement on the economy failed to address the deeper malaise that this country faces, more acutely now than when he came to the helm in January 2001. Under his predecessor millions of Americans sought to maintain effortless prosperity by investing in dot.coms that produced no profits, and then using them to generate spending cash. Instead of helping America sober up, however, Mr. Bush presided over the similar misuse of the housing stock. The underlying financial malaise that he neither understands nor cares about is still there. That malaise is moral and spiritual: the impossibility of ever consuming enough goods and services to feel sated, and the unwillingness to settle the bill for those goods and services in cash. The tab has ballooned under Mr. Bush to nine trillion dollars—that’s a 9 followed by a dozen zeros—and it keeps growing. When mere servicing of the ever-growing tab leaves nothing for further consumption, the end will be nigh; but by that time Mr. Bush will be spending his golden years at his Texas ranch.
The President went from behemoths to peanuts by asking Congress to support a $300 million “Pell Grant for Kids” that would give low-income children in underperforming public schools a chance to attend a private, religious or out-of-district public school. If approved, the scheme would be worth one-hundredth of one percent (one 10,000th) of the 2008 Federal budget submitted by Mr. Bush (3 trillion). The President devoted two minutes to this program; if he were to devote equal attention to each and every expenditure worth $300 million, his speech would have lasted 333 hours, or two weeks flat. Furthermore, Mr. Bush knows he is getting nowhere with this one: he has proposed a federally funded private-school voucher each year since coming to the White House, and all he got—in 2004—was a five-year pilot program serving fewer than two thousand students in the nation’s capital.
Mr. Bush’s pinch of incense on the altar of Global Warming was embarrassing. Sounding earnest, he called for an international agreement to “slow, stop and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases” and proposed “a new international clean technology fund.” It’s all worthy stuff that would play well in Davos, but Mr. Bush has stopped short of endorsing mandatory limits on gas emissions—and U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases are still growing.
When the President said that “the other pressing challenge is immigration” he sounded like a reasonable man at first, asserting that “America needs to secure our borders — and with your help, my administration is taking steps to do so. We are increasing work-site enforcement, we are deploying fences and advanced technologies to stop illegal crossings.”
But when he went on to claim that “we will never fully secure our border until we create a lawful way for foreign workers to come here and support our economy,” he was back to his old tricks, mixing apples and pears—border security and guest worker programs—for the sake of commercial special interests, and their appetite for cheap foreign labor. In reality the need for effective border security is clear, while the “need” for more foreign workers is non-existant. When the President calls for more foreign workers “to support our economy,” he is perpetuating a lie that is deliberate, premeditated, and pernicious.
On Iraq Mr. Bush said the increase in troops is working, although the enemy is still dangerous and there will be more fighting. Almost five years since starting the unnecessary war against Iraq, the President apparently remains oblivious to the fact that, in geopolitical terms, the main beneficiary of that war has been Iran. The United States removed its arch-enemy, Saddam, and replaced him—in the name of “democracy”—with a Shia-led government that seeks to remake the whole of Iraq in the image of the Islamic Republic across the Shat-al-Arab. Mr. Bush is still staying the course, predicated on the creation of military preconditions for an elusive political solution, and he has no exit strategy. But even after he leaves the White House there will be no precipitous withdrawal and the drain on American resources and willpower will continue.
On another and even more vexed regional issue, Mr. Bush asserted that the security of every nation in the Middle East would be helped if Israel and the Palestinian Authority can sign a peace agreement this year that will create a Palestinian state and provide increased security for Israel. That, of course, will not happen. It is far less likely in 2008 than it had been in 2000 under Clinton, and even then it seemed unlikely. The dispute is structurally imporrible to resolve without an external honest broker perceived by both parties as (1) equidistant; and (2) able and willing to distribute rewards and punishments even-handedly. Another country, perhaps, or this country under another president. The dispute is also impossible to resolve for as long as Hamas persists in regarding it as a religiously mandated, rather than geopolitical dispute.
After seven years in power Mr. Bush should have given us a more impressive performance. In those seven years he has not grown, however, as a leader or as a thinking man. Let us recall that during his first campaign back in 2000, Mr. Bush was saying that we needed a “humbler” foreign policy than that conducted under Bill Clinton. That now seems light years ago. After Dr. Jekyll’s brief early spell Mr. Hyde took over, fortifying himself with ever-larger doses of the potion.
The first disquieting signs came before 9-11, with Mr. Bush’s strong advocacy of further NATO enlargement and with his support for the missile defense system that demanded American abrogation of the 1972 Antibalistic Missile Treaty with Moscow. Its chief proponent was Donald Rumsfeld, who argued that it was needed to maintain global hegemony.
A reasonable and responsible president would have treated 9-11 as a wake-up call to revise the nation’s strategic priorities. In particular he would have sought to eliminate unnecessary strains in America’s relations with two major powers—Russia and China—whose active help, or at least supportive benevolence, would be needed to meet the deadliest threat of the new century. In the event, the failure to define a viable strategy in what is commonly known as the War on Terror was Mr. Bush’s major conceptual shortcoming. It stemmed from his inability to grasp the nature and motivation of the enemy.
In the months leading up to 9-11, and contrary to conventional accusations that the U.S. is hostile to Islam, Bush was eager to reach an understanding with the Taliban regime as part of the strategy to keep Caspian energy sources and pipelines out of Russian hands. After 9-11 Bush turned the pre-existing pattern of pro-Islamic favoritism into an obsession. According to a GOP insider, seven years of non-stop pronouncements from Bush on down regarding Islam as a religion of “peace and tolerance”—in which the factor of jihad ideology is ignored in favor of reference to a generic “terrorism” committed by “evildoers”—display the extent to which U.S. policymakers became fixated on the notion that victory in the misnamed “war on terror” could only be achieved by getting the Muslim world on our side. The key assumption of this approach, that generosity and appeasement—notably in Bosnia and in Kosovo—would be rewarded by friendship, was mistaken: loyalty to unbelievers is not a Muslim trait. Pragmatism is, and it prescribes that when dealing with fools, one milks them for all one can get. His never-ending attempts to bring the Islamists into the tent have played right into the hands of global Jihad (notably in Turkey), or else caused instability (Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority).
The President’s specific policy blunders stemmed from his conceptual failure. He used 9-11—or else blithely allowed Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle et al to use it—in support of an unrelated and unjustified war in Iraq. At the same time he has continued to act in relation to Russia and China as an antagonist. His actions are directly contributing to the emergence of a new global balance, and in particular to the growth of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a major economic, political and military counterweight to the United States.
Mr. Bush may yet make things much more interesting in his final year by attacking Iran, which is exactly what our Jihadist enemies would like him to do, and which the intelligence community has done its best to prevent. The return of Paul Wolfowitz to the scene is a most disquieting sign, however. The danger is that he and his promoters may convince the President to give another war a chance in his final months—not because it would be a feasible military-political project, but because Mr. Bush’s foreign policy premises, and the strategies derived from those premises, have grown more perilously sincere with each passing year of his presidency.
Mr. Bush’s successors will be forced to operate within a global system very different from the one conducive to his claim that “History has called America… to fight freedom’s fight.” If there is one thing to be thankful to Mr. Bush, it is for his unwitting contribution to the emergence of a multipolar world. External restraint, unimaginable a decade ago, is being imposed on America. It is dictated by the perfectly normal desire of Russians, Chinese, Indians and many smaller nations, to prove that “History” has not called America to anything. A new global balance will also help re-legitimize the notion of America as a nation among other nations and a state among other states, with definable and limited national interests as the foundation of its diplomacy. Contrary to what Mr. Bush and his dwindling band of apologists may claim, this is neither defeatism nor isolationism; it is sanity.