The Incredible Shrinking President

by Alexander Cockburn

Because it’s thirty years since Watergate we’ve been treated to plenty of photos of Richard Nixon, mostly at the moment he was leaving office. I was among those happy to see him go, but today am sad that for obvious reasons the National Archive will never be in a position to release Nixon’s unvarnished comments on the man whose father he made chairman of the Republican National Committee.

How aghast that malign political genius would have been at the ignoramus occupying the Oval Office once fragrant with Dick’s curses. What a falling off is there! From malediction to malapropism. I’m sure W’s speech is less burdened by obscenity than that of the Navy vet and seasoned poker player, but this is the purity of the born-again imbecile. W. has the vocabulary of a 12-year old, though most 12-year olds have an infinitely stronger grasp of world affairs.

Our spaniel press makes herculean efforts to pass over the fact in silence, but the fact is that George W. Bush is the laughing stock of the world, by dint of the obvious fact that his maximum level of competence was that of greeter at the ball park in Arlington, which as David Vest recently remarked on this site, is the only real job he ever had before he met Ken Lay.

Nixon had policies, strategies. Bush has notes (often contradictory) from his staff, which he bears no sign of comprehending for longer than the brief moments in which he lurches his way through them in some public forum.

Take the Middle East. Don’t even go back to last year. Just take the last few weeks, in which Bush told Mubarak of his hopes for a Palestinian state, hopes that promptly vanished with the arrival of his next visitor, Ariel Sharon. How long can Secretary of State Colin Powell endure the humiliation of being dispatched on one ludicrous mission after another, even as press secretary Ari Fleischer, (a man who makes Nixon’s Ron Ziegler look like George Washington) tells the press that Powell’s statements are irrelevant as expressions of presidential policy.

Edward Said puts it well in a recent column: “To say that he and his disheveled administration ‘want’ anything is to dignify a series of spurts, fits, starts, retractions, denunciations, totally contradictory statements, sterile missions by various officials of his administration, and about-faces, with the status of an over-all desire, which of course doesn’t exist. Incoherent, except when it comes to the pressures and agendas of the Israeli lobby and the Christian Right whose spiritual head he now is, Bush’s policy consists in reality of calls for Arafat to end terrorism, and (when he wants to placate the Arabs) for someone somewhere somehow to produce a Palestinian state and a big conference, and finally, for Israel to go on getting full and unconditional US support including most probably ending Arafat’s career. Beyond that, US policy waits to be formulated, by someone, somewhere, somehow.”

Iraq? It was the acme of the axis of evil. Then it wasn’t, because the Joint Chiefs said it would be tough to invade the place. Now we’ve got something billed as a new preemptive policy. What’s new about it? Throughout the cold war America’s strategic policy never set aside the possibility of a preemptive first strike against the foe. We’re now told that the CIA (yes, the same agency that has just made the worst screw-up in its history) should try to kill Saddam, on the grounds that if he makes any move to avoid being killed by the CIA, that can be construed as aggression, meriting assassination.

Never mind that the US has been trying to kill Saddam since 1991, tried to mount coups against through the first half of the 1990s, concluded that it was impossible and that the best thing to do was throw some money around to groups like the Iraqi National Accord. Never mind all that. Here we are in the wake of a terrorist attack on the US embassy in Karachi that killed eleven (another major intelligence failure, right?) and the Bush regime (until it decided to hang Ashcroft out to dry) tries to change the subject with mighty boasts about the capture of a Puerto Rican gangbanger who took an H-bomb blueprint off the internet, and with a “new” finding for the CIA to finish off Saddam.

How about national security? Should Bush have fired the FBI’s and the CIA’s director long since, along with that lunatic Clarke, a White House terror commissar under both Clinton and Bush. Of course he should. Should he have appointed a commission to reorganize America’s intelligence agencies? Of course. But here we are in June of 2002 and all we have is a proposal to create a new alphabet soup of agencies now bracing to spend the next decade battling over bureaucratic and budgetary.

Last time Bush was in Europe, a German newspaper ran a headline on its front page announcing Bush’s bold new vision. Then it left the rest of the page blank. The Europeans are a snotty, self-regarding bunch, but this time they’re on the money. The leader of the World, free and unfree, simply isn’t up to par. He’s not qualified for the job. He never was. And that means big trouble ahead for the World, Free and Unfree. At least Nixon knew what he was doing, which is why the world was frightened by him. When it’s not laughing at him the world is frightened of George W. Bush because it knows he hasn’t a clue. That’s truly terrifying.


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