Why re-electing George Bush
is a bother for the world
Colin James's NZ Herald column for 26 October 2004
In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books there is a chart of polls of 34,000 people in 30 countries of opinion on the United States presidential election on November 2. Only three are coloured red for President George Bush.
For Bush are Poland, the Philippines and Nigeria. India and Thailand are evenly balanced. The rest are blue, most very blue, for John Kerry.
Australia and New Zealand are missing. But New Zealanders I asked in a poll recently were decisively against Bush -- and most also said the election was important for this country.
Yet Bush appears set for re-election. Americans, self-absorbed in their paranoia about Arab muslim terror, don't give a damn what the rest of the world thinks.
And why should they? Their election is their business, just as one here is our business (though Bush aides whacked Mark Latham in the Australian election).
Moreover, the United States is militarily dominant. What it wants it can force. That encourages Americans to dismiss or despise other countries.
And the United States is economically pre-eminent, the engine of the world economy.
Put all that together and you get an empire. That is how its current neoconservative ruling caste thinks of it and it is as an emperor that Bush conducts his foreign policy. Empires are self-centred and expect other countries to pay their respects or pay for their disrespect.
But even so, why would Americans re-elect a man who declared war on terror and then ducked off on a side-campaign to topple Iraq's dictator on "evidence" of terror shown to be false and without a clear policy of occupation and exit, with the result that American solders are still dying there?
Wouldn't you, if you were an American voter, wonder for a moment if someone thoughtful and subtle might be better equipped to steer the war on terror back on course? If you genuinely fear attack day by day at home, has Bush proved the right man to lessen that danger?
Listen to this from the prominent American commentator Russell Baker: "He makes grave decisions on the basis of inadequate or incompetent advice, wilfully persists in them though they prove mistaken and surrounds himself with people careful not to unsettle his views."
Or this from Bob Woodward who chronicled the aftermath of 9/11 from the inside: "In my case," Bush told Woodward, "I pray to be as good a messenger of his [God's] will as possible." Americans applaud: 42 per cent told a Gallup poll recently they see themselves as evangelical or born again.
And don't counterpose "reality" to God. Former Wall Street Journal reporter and author Ron Suskind, no ranting Michael Moore, quotes a Bush White House aide (who typecast Suskind as being in "what we call the reality-based community"): "We're an empire now and when we act we create our own realityŠ"We're history's actorsŠand you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
And that clique, author Mark Danner writes, inhabits a realm "not of politics or strategy but of metaphysics". The enemy is evil incarnate. Bush and bin Laden are matched opponents.
The big plus in this style of rule is resoluteness in difficult times; give Bush that. The problem for those in other countries who prize and celebrate the American values of liberty, democracy and the rule of law is that God-given certitudes, set in "our own reality" conjured from a titanic clash of good and evil, obscure those very values.
Listen to Ian Buruma, outstanding analyst of Asia and self-styled Americophile: "Turning the United States into an armed fortress, making it harder and harder for foreigners to enter the country, is the opposite of defending an open society. Legal sophistry in defence of torture casts a dark stain. Harassing harmless campaigners for causes not popular with the current administration damages not only the beauty but also the substance of the American idea of freedom."
And is the world safer for this sacrifice of values?
Give Bush the benefit of the doubt: we can't know yet. But, while we should thank him for removing a tyrant, the Iraq campaign distracted him from the real war, the war on terror, and for now has created a new playground for terrorists.
No cascade of democracy is likely in the Middle East after Bush's troops leave Iraq. Instead, there has been a worldwide cascade of distaste for Americans.
Moreover, the Iraq campaign has cost as much as 1 per cent of the United States' GDP, the Brookings Institution calculates.
Which brings us to what may be Bush's more serious error: the dangerous cantilever of debt he has built, which hangs over the world economy. His unwise fiscal policy has pumped up enormous deficits in the Budget and the external accounts.
Bush's cantilever has dangerously unbalanced the world economy. It might be gradually dismantled. But if it crashes, it will wound us all. It will not help to know, as the American people seem set to tell us in effect next week, that it is God's will.
Any wonder the world wants Kerry?