"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Interviews with the Empire
President George W. Bush, secure in the thought that he has four more years in the White House and will never have to face voters again, this week has graciously allowed various journalists to interview him at length. The journalists, knowing that continued access to the president depends on their not straying too far from the unwritten boundaries of Beltway opinion, have asked him roughly the same questions, rarely pressing him on anything of real importance. Nevertheless, from these interviews we can gain some insight into the way the president thinks.
Probably nothing tells us more about Bush's mindset than this exchange between him and reporters from the Washington Post:
The Post: In Iraq , there's been a steady stream of surprises. We weren't welcomed as liberators, as Vice President Cheney had talked about. We haven't found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn't gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn't anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq , and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I'm grateful.
In that case, let's try this experiment: In September of last year, Saddam Hussein expressed a desire to run in the upcoming Iraqi elections, and his attorney claimed that 'a recent Gallup poll indicates that 42 percent of the Iraqi people want their former leader back.' (It would not be at all surprising if that number was ever higher now.) Now let's suppose that the 'sovereign' Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi were to allow Hussein to run, and let's further suppose that Hussein were to win. Would the U.S. government and its Iraqi puppet government say, 'We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2005 election, and the Iraqi people chose Saddam,' and then release him from prison and not prosecute him for his crimes? Not on your life!
Apparently, however, that is exactly what those of us who believe in such things as telling the truth, taking responsibility for one's actions, and not sending American soldiers to die under false pretenses'among the very 'moral values' that supposedly secured Bush's reelection'are expected to do. Conservatives excoriated Bill Clinton for failing to fire members of his administration, notably Janet Reno, when they were caught engaging in misdeeds, instead allowing them to get away with simply 'taking responsibility for' whatever had happened without consequence. Bill Clinton was reelected even though many of these misdeeds had taken place during his first term, and yet no conservatives gave him a pass on them simply because he'd won. Let's see some outrage from the Right over Bush's assertion that winning an election absolves him and members of his administration from all responsibility for their lies and misjudgments.
Not only does Bush believe that his reelection absolves him of responsibility for the Iraq mess, he also believes it is an endorsement not just of the Iraq invasion but of 'the American objective to establish democracy around the world,' according to Fox News. This is pure Wilsonian idealism at its worst. World War I was supposedly to 'make the world safe for democracy.' In reality, it merely made the world safe for fascism and communism. One wonders, in horror, what new forms of tyranny Bush's war on terror may usher into the world. (It also bears repeating that democracy and liberty are not synonymous and, as a matter of fact, are frequently the antithesis of one another.)
Furthermore, says Bush, the U.S. isn't going to make the world safe for democracy just because it will purportedly make us safer. Oh, no. 'We have an obligation to help people be free.' (Emphasis mine.)
Oh, really? Isn't it strange how that notion escaped men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison? These were the men who wanted us to mind our own business and stay out of quarrels with other nations, regardless of our government's stated objective for meddling in foreign countries. Then there was the (once) famous quotation from John Quincy Adams, son of a Founding Father who himself became president: 'While we are the well-wishers of everyone's liberty, we are the guarantors only of our own.' But then what do these guys know about freedom and the proper uses of the U.S. government? They only fought a war to obtain their freedom and then founded the government which Bush now claims has a duty to liberate the world.
The president did allow that certain things in the Iraq war didn't quite work out the way he had intended. That, however, is not his fault; it's just the way things are in wartime. 'Listen,' he told the Post, 'in times of war, things don't go exactly as planned . . . . [S]ometimes the unexpected will happen, both good and bad.' Well, perhaps, Mr. President, this is a good argument for not going to war in the first place. If you know that bad, unexpected things are going to happen'and we know, for example, that there will always be death and destruction in a war, not all of it necessarily intended'then maybe you shouldn't undertake the war at all (not that you have that power under the Constitution anyway, but Congress lets you get away with it). Unexpected consequences of earlier wars have been communism, fascism, Nazism, the Cold War, and terrorism against the people of the United States . The law of unintended consequences applies just as much to government's wars as it does to its domestic programs. Sure, your intention may be, as you put it, to 'remov[e] a dictator from power and . . . help achieve democracy,' but there is no way you can be certain that any of this will happen, let alone that it will happen without adverse consequences. Why not avoid the adverse consequences by not invading other countries at all?
Despite all of this, Bush seems sincerely to believe that the problem lies not with his administration's policy but with its public relations.
He told CNN: 'The propagandists have done a better job of depicting America as a hateful place, a place wanting to impose our form of thought and our religion on people.' To this he added: 'We're behind when it comes to selling our own story and telling the people the truth about America .'
In a similar vein, when speaking to the Post, he said, 'And there's no question we've got to continue to do a better job of explaining what America is all about . . . . [W]e need to work on a public diplomacy effort that explains our motives and explains our intentions.'
It seems never to have occurred to Bush that the problem lies not in what his administration says but in what it does. As the clich' goes, actions speak louder than words. He can mouth all those wonderful platitudes about 'liberating' a people and bringing 'freedom' and 'democracy' to the world; but when people'and not just people in foreign countries'turn on their television sets or log onto the Internet and see the photos from Abu Ghraib, read about the deaths of potentially 100,000 Iraqis, discover that the U.S. government is looking into building a prison where it can permanently house alleged terrorists who have no further intelligence value, and hear of blood-spattered Iraqi children orphaned by U.S. soldiers, Bush might as well be talking to a brick wall. If he really wants people the world over to believe that America stands for freedom and that, as he told the Post, 'the policies of this government will lead to peace,' then he needs to start rolling back government at home (as he occasionally claims to want to do) and stop meddling in foreign countries, both overtly and covertly. Until his actions match his rhetoric, the actions are always going to win out in the battle for hearts and minds.
Bush does know how to win the war on terror, though. As he told CNN, our government needs 'the ability to get inside somebody's mind, the ability to read somebody's mail, the ability to listen to somebody's phone call.' You needn't worry that that 'somebody' might be you, though, for he hastily tacked onto that list of expanded police powers the phrase 'that somebody being the enemy.' Thus, as long as the president doesn't decide that you are 'the enemy,' you're safe from government surveillance of your mail and phone conversations.
When it comes to domestic policy, Bush had some other, uh, interesting things to say as well.
For example, he told the Post that he'll be 'submitting a budget that will continue to keep the pledge of cutting the deficit in half by five years''a timetable that conveniently includes a year beyond the end of the president's second term, and furthermore, one that is difficult to swallow given his record of outspending every president since LBJ.
'We'll continue to be a free trade administration,' quoth the president to the Post. The word continue, of course, implies that his has been a free trade administration thus far, which must come as quite a shock to all of those steelworkers whose union jobs were rescued, at least temporarily, by the tariffs Bush slapped on foreign steel early in his first term, only to rescind them under pressure from the World Trade Organization.
When it comes to Social Security 'reform,' the chief executive told the Post that 'we have no plans of cutting benefits at all for people with disabilities.' He reiterated that when pressed on the subject. Now, we libertarian and anarchist types would have no problem with cutting benefits, but note how Bush uses the Clintonesque weasel words 'we have no plans' to cut benefits rather than simply ruling it in or out entirely. Once again, it would be nice to hear some critical remarks from those who derided Clinton for similar turns of phrase.
Along the same lines, he said that Medicare won't face the same problems that Social Security will soon face because 'we began a reform system that hopefully will take some of the pressures off the unfunded liabilities.' Just what is this 'reform' that will reduce 'unfunded liabilities?' Why, it's 'a drug benefit''the same drug benefit that the administration estimated will cost some $551 billion over the next 10 years, which estimate it kept from Congress when the bill came up for a vote. That makes sense'doesn't it? Create a new unfunded liability to reduce the problem of unfunded liabilities. I'm sold.
For those voters motivated by 'moral values' to pull the lever for Bush last November, the president has this to say with regard to a question from the Post about whether or not he will 'expend any political capital to aggressively lobby senators for a gay marriage amendment': 'You know, I think that the situation in the last session'well, first of all, I do believe it's necessary; many in the Senate didn't, because they believe DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] will'is in place, but'they know DOMA is in place, and they're waiting to see whether or not DOMA will withstand a constitutional challenge.'
Asked again if he planned to use 'the bully pulpit' to lobby the Senate for the amendment, Bush replied that until the opinion of the senators changes, 'nothing will happen in the Senate,' so he's not even going to bother trying to get the amendment started. Now there is a man who has all the courage of his convictions'you know, the convictions that 11 months ago led him to state unequivocally that 'the Defense of Marriage requires a constitutional amendment' and to 'call upon the Congress to promptly pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of man and woman as husband and wife.' Do you feel used yet, values voters?
All right, so he's a little shaky on the domestic agenda; but, hey, nobody's perfect. At least all of you Bush voters can rest assured that the president knows what he's doing in the war on terror. After all, when the Post reporter asked the commander-in-chief, 'Why do you think [Osama] bin Laden has not been caught?', Bush offered this profound and highly knowledgeable insight:
'Because he's hiding.'