Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Hakki

Record in focus

George W Bush's term will come to an end soon. Catastrophic as it has been, the world is lucky it wasn't worse, writes Mohamed Hakki*

I wonder how president Jimmy Carter is feeling these days. When he uttered the word "malaise" to describe the national mood back in the 1970s, all hell broke loose. It cost him his second term. Now that the US is going through the longest and deepest period not only of malaise but also frustration, dejection, a protracted senseless war and a prevailing feeling of aimlessness in history, the prevailing right-wing forces in power are not only still supporting the most unpopular president in the history of the United States but are also dominating the opposition and the media, leaving nothing for the people to hope for.

And yet walk into any bookstore these days and look at the titles of books and articles handling US policies, both domestic and foreign. From The Pornography of Power : How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America by Robert Scheer to The Worst President in History by Sean Wilentz -- one of America's leading historians. Additional titles abound: Bush's Thousand Days by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Terrorised by a War on Terror; How a Three Word Mantra Has Undermined America by Zbigniew Brezinkski to America's Blinders by Howard Zinn. The titles go on and on.

One of America's leading intellectuals, Ambassador Chas Freeman, spoke at Washington's World Affairs Council recently about the deteriorating image and role of America. He said: "A great many governments abroad now fear that Washington will behave like the ever self- congratulatory Mr Magoo, wandering destructively through a reality he misperceives and wreaking havoc he determinedly misinterprets as success. Few believe that our country can still combine realism with statesmanship. More tellingly, a lot have concluded that, far from involving the United States, dispensing with a role for Washington is the only way to solve problems."

Freeman chose the Middle East as an example because he served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He added: "These US policies have not gone over well. Recent developments strongly suggest that they have resulted in decisions by all concerned in the Middle East to work around the United States rather than with us or through us. Consider Israel's resort to Turkey (rather than US 'shuttle diplomacy') to manage talks with Syria. Or Lebanon's turn to Qatar to broker the peaceful realignment of its politics, notwithstanding our investment in them. Or Israel's reliance on Egypt to mediate a ceasefire agreement with Hamas. Or the Palestinian president's decision to enlist Arab conciliators to work out Fatah's differences with Hamas, rather than concentrating on an American- proclaimed 'peace process' that most in the region have come to view as a cruel fraud. Or Israel's recourse to Germany to reach understandings with Hizbullah. Or Saudi Arabia's effort to reach a modus vivendi with Iran, to align the Muslim mainstream against extremism, and to broker renewed peace between Sunnis and Shias in preparation for interfaith dialog with Jews and Christians. All these political openings touch on interests that Washington sees as vital. All of them are taking place notwithstanding longstanding American objections to them, and all of them are unfolding in our diplomatic absence."

He went on to say: "This is not just because Mr Magoo has succeeded Uncle Sam at the helm. It is because the US has taken sides in disputes with respect to which we had traditionally maintained at least the pretence of even-handedness. We are therefore seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution... Efforts by the US to impose military solutions on problems that force cannot resolve have left no room for American diplomacy. The resulting default on reality- based problem solving by the US has created a diplomatic void that others are now filling. This trend towards working around the United States has been aggravated by widespread distaste for the arrogant and insulting phrasing of US policy pronouncements. The undisguised disdain of some American envoys for the United Nations, the World Court and regional organisations and their open contempt for the views of the international communities they represent has also disinclined others to work with us if they can avoid it. Washington's political marginalisation in the Middle East is a predictable result of such diplomacy-free foreign policies."

Robert Scheer went further. In his book The Pornography of Power, he says: "The disconnect between the arsenal of the terrorist enemy and that which has been arrayed against it in the post- 9/11 years more than affirms President Eisenhower's warning about the 'unwarranted influence' of the military-industrial complex." One wonders how politicians like Senator Lieberman ask for $2.5 billion in submarines to fight terrorists who don't even have a dinghy.

The US military budget is roughly equal to that of all the rest of the world's nations and it is inconceivable that any hostile state could emerge in the next 20 years with the ability to match the United States in a combat zone, even if no new weapons are added to the American arsenal. The proof that Eisenhower's warnings were all too prescient is provided by the 2008 federal budget in which defence spending consumes $217 billion more than the total discretionary funding for all other divisions of the federal government.

One of America's leading historians, Sean Wilentz, assesses George W Bush as "the worst president in history" in Rolling Stone. He says: "George W Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of US presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history."

Wilentz goes on to say: "The one non-corporate constituency to which Bush has consistently deferred is the Christian right, both in his selections for the federal bench and in his implications that he bases his policies on pre-millennialist, prophetic Christian doctrine. Previous presidents have regularly invoked the Almighty. McKinley is supposed to have fallen to his knees, seeking divine guidance about whether to take control of the Philippines in 1898, although the story may be apocryphal. But no president before Bush has allowed the press to disclose, through a close friend, his startling belief that he was ordained by God to lead the country. The White House's sectarian positions -- over stem-cell research, the teaching of pseudoscientific 'intelligent design', global population control, the Terri Schiavo spectacle and more -- have led some to conclude that Bush has promoted the transformation of the GOB (Republican Party) into what former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips calls 'the first religious party in US history'."

Another brilliant historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, writes about the danger of preventive wars. He says: "The issue of preventative war as a presidential prerogative is hardly new. In February 1848 Rep Abraham Lincoln explained his opposition to the Mexican War: 'Allow the president to invade a neighbouring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure... If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.'"

This is precisely how George W Bush sees his presidential prerogative: Be silent; I see it, if you don't. However, both Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower, veterans of World War I, explicitly ruled out preventative war against Joseph Stalin's attempt to dominate Europe. And in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, President Kennedy, himself a hero of World War II, rejected the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a preventative strike against the Soviet Union in Cuba.

It was lucky JFK was determined to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba peacefully; only decades later did we discover that Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons and orders to use them to repel a US invasion. This would have meant a nuclear exchange.

The Cuban missile crisis was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War; it was the most dangerous moment in all of human history. Never before had two contending powers possessed between them the technical capacity to destroy the planet. Had there been exponents of preventative war in the White House, there probably would have been a nuclear war. It is certain that nuclear weapons will be used again. Henry Adams, the most brilliant of American historians, wrote during the US Civil War: "Some day science shall have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race shall commit suicide by blowing up the world."

* The writer is a political analyst resident in Washington.

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