Monday, August 11, 2008


This is not the post to enumerate the things I haven't liked about the Bush administration. I'll admit, I was a lukewarm supporter in the 2000 campaign, the Clinton/Gore administration not exactly overwhelming me with awe. I saw that he was a limited man, but felt that he would reach into Dad's Rolodex and surround himself with people who knew what they were doing. I was completely wrong, Cheney and Rumsfeld turned out to be more scary than competent, and, while I'm not in the camp that believes that eight years of Al Gore would have been milk and honey, I have certainly come to regret that support.

If there's one thing, though, that I can pick out of the rubble that is U.S. foreign policy in 2008 to criticize, it is our total lack of ability to take the high road. There has always been a certain amount of pomposity (and, to a degree, hypocrisy) in our dictating to the rest of the world what is and isn't acceptable behavior. It's facile to wander about the globe, pointing out human rights violations and the like, while we conveniently forget our record on slavery and civil rights. To criticize other countries for building their economies in the same way we did, when we renounced such behaviors only after we already had some security and wealth, is too easy, and has long created tension with other nations.

However, presenting the ideal has fallen to us, and, despite some clear logical problems, we have fulfilled that role.

But, at this time, after eight years of chipping away at Constitutional rights, the approval of torture, our inability to do anything systemic about our disproportional share of energy use, the consignment of our own people to go without medical care because our wealthy nation "can't afford it," and, most importantly, our invasion and occupation of a country that never attacked us, we have lost any moral standing to decide what is and isn't acceptable by other countries. This is the saddest legacy of the Bush administration, that the nation that has done the most to improve conditions in the world is now forced either to stand idly by while bad things occur, or rage impotently, standing on no legs at all.

At least, that was my reaction to President Bush when he was interviewed by Bob Costas during yesterday's Olympic coverage. (Added note: I noticed that the Dallas News transcript to which I linked was edited. Oddly enough, the White House transcript is better.) My first visceral reaction was one of extreme discomfort to see the famous Bush smirk when the conversation got serious, but maybe it's time I forgave the president for that - maybe it really is just a kind of facial tic, an unconscious pattern of response (no less inappropriate, however; has no one ever told Bush that the smirk is supercilious and makes him look uncaring or ignorant?).

No, what was worse was Bush's reaction to Costas's question about the Russian invasion of Georgia (side note: we see all too little of the full ability of Bob Costas. It used to show up on his late-night interview show, Later, now occupied by the mysteriously successful but completely unnecessary Carson Daly. He's knowledgeable about things beyond sports, and a very incisive interviewer. Maybe NBC should slide him over to Meet The Press, instead of giving it in dynastic succession to Luke Russert. And Costas could get away from having to chat it up with Cris Collinsworth.)

Costas asked, "What did you say to Putin?" Bush's answer:
I said this violence is unacceptable -- I not only said it to Vladimir Putin, I've said it to the President of the country, Dmitriy Medvedev. And my administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire, and saying that the status quo ante for all troops should be August 6th. And, look, I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia....I was very firm with Vladimir Putin -- he and I have got a good relationship -- just like I was firm with the Russian President. And hopefully this will get resolved peacefully. There needs to be a international mediation there for the South Ossetia issue.
This is all well and good and, in an earlier time, would have seemed like a principled statement from an American president (leaving aside the unnecessary "good relationship" part; I'm not sure Putin is a guy we really want to buddy up to).

But what can Bush say that will seem remotely credible any more? His administration has done everything it can to extend executive power beyond anything in or intended in the Constitution. He has arrogated unto himself the right to do anything he wants, in total contravention of American or international law. Why would Putin or Medvedev or anyone else listen to this "do as I say, not as I do" garbage?

Realistically, we need to cooperate and compromise with increasing numbers of countries around the world. The global economy, for all its benefits, has made us reliant on other nations far more than before. Our leverage, once maximal, is now greatly reduced. So we can't get on our high horse about the practices of Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and on and on.

If you believe that the U.S. and its values are forces for good, then this is a disturbing trend. Our moral clarity, even if not 100% backed up by our own actions, was a beacon, a model for the way the world could be. If it sometimes came off as naive, well, someone had to do it, some nation had to provide the aspirational words.

But two trends, our interdependence and our own Bush-era indiscretions, have undercut any possibility of our being convincing when we try to impose our theoretic values on the rest of the world. We tell China that they shouldn't build their economy on the back of fossil fuels, while we do very little to reduce our own dependence. We tell Russia that they should leave Georgia alone, while we continue to insist that we won't leave Iraq until the job is done, whatever that is. We tell Iran that they shouldn't have nuclear weapons, while we do very little to get rid of our own and support India in their program.

Increasingly, and in different ways, the world is telling us to shut up. Because we've done so little to maintain our global standing, both moral and practical, we have to take it. Russia, no matter how warmly Putin feels toward Bush personally (no, I don't believe that for a second, either), isn't going to change its policy toward South Ossetia on our say-so; we just don't have that kind of standing any longer.

Maybe, in the long run, this is a good thing. Maybe having a better balance among the powers of the world will end up positive.

But it's hard not to see that as yet another loss for the United States, another example of the way we're letting our status diminish. You'll excuse me if I find that unfortunate.

No comments:

Clicky Web Analytics