President Bush has a well-deserved reputation among the high brows as uncultured. While he may not have the intellect to distinguish between Shakespeare and Ogden Nash, he has certainly immersed himself in the culture of power–in the narrowest sense.
For Bush–after 9/11– power means simply command, not responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Indeed, by waging unprovoked war against Iraq, he discarded decades of legal culture established by conservatives. He acted radically, ignoring the wisdom of conservative icon Edmund Burke: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
Nor did the unrefined wielder of power pause to interpret King Henry V’s words about the nature of war before his battle of Agincourt. “I am afear’d there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument?” Henry and Bush, both fun-loving princes, who hung out with low-lifes in their youth, fell into their positions as heads of state.
But unlike Bush, Shakespeare’s Henry fought alongside his men and respected his enemy. In contrast, after the successful invasion of Iraq, when the resistance to US occupation began, Bush taunted those his army had vanquished. “Bring ’em on,” was his response to the growing US body count at a July 2 White House press conference, as if he were John Wayne starring as a US Marshall in Baghdad, Wyoming.
King Henry, however, dealt with consequences. For example, he could have simply claimed the French Princess after victory, but instead, thinking of future relations with France, wooed her. Bush, the leader of the world’s most prolific military power, after winning against an effectively disarmed third world nation, did not reestablish the rule of law.
Quite the contrary, he had already amply demonstrated his lack of respect for legality. In his first two years in office he withdrew from more international treaties than any president in US history. After the 9/11 events, he squandered vast international good will by taking a military rather than a judicial path toward “fighting” terrorism. His aggressive western movie stance, his dissing of the UN and those allies who disagreed, and his threatening approach to smaller nations who refused 100% obedience gained him and his government world wide animosity. He has weakened the UN to a point of near irrelevance.
As US forces illegally invaded and then occupied Iraq, he continued to shred the fabric of world law by ordering the assassination of Uday and Qusai Hussein, the deposed ruler’s sons. How much more instructive for the world to have prosecutors present the evidence against these men in international court!
Previous presidential graduates of Harvard and Yale did not elevate assassination to the open and highest level of policy. They kept it covert, fearing its effect on the foundations of law. Albeit sneaky and treacherous, Bush’s predecessors understood the repercussions that would result from making coups and murders as normal instruments of state policy. Under Bush’s culture of power, members of the US army should feel no shame when their commanders order hundreds of them armed with heavy fire power to execute two men. One wonders if the Israeli assassination method has become contagious!
The media, which adapts in a Darwinian fashion to cultural shifts in the White House, seemed unmoved by this sea change in US policy whereby hunting down an enemy without recourse to trial becomes acceptable behavior. Indeed, the mainstream editorials seemed to accept as legitimate international practice the Hollywood formula of hunting down the black hats and killing them.
The Dow Jones average responded to the murder of Saddam’s sons by rising over 100 points. The President seems unconcerned that his actions might set a precedent. One of his enemies around the world might well copy him and offer a bounty for the heads of his twin daughters. Indeed, Texans especially should understand that. Anyone who has read the “eye for an eye” passage of the Bible will get the point.
But that’s not how Bush thinks. Thinks? I have used too strong a word. The nature of Bush’s knowledge, his presuppositions and underlying foundations, can be reduced to one simple word: power. He doesn’t understand complicated or even less than complicated ideas, but he does grasp power viscerally. He possesses it. Therefore, he commands. “Leaders lead,” he reminded Al Gore during the 2000 presidential debates.
Conservative columnist William Safire has yet to write his Sunday New York Times Magazine language column about Bush’s epistemology. I could imagine Safire toasting the President’s virtues, loyalty to friends and donors–the same people–and certitude about the conduct of his war of terror.
Critics and partisans alike should avoid certain words to describe Bush’s decision-making process. For example, words like think, study, reflect, calculate, reason and deduce have little impact on the chief executive. If the President doesn’t engage in what we would ordinarily call “thinking”–as in undergoing the mental processes of formulating, reflecting or pondering–we ought not criticize or praise him for such mental dynamics. For example, who in his right mind would tell Bush to “think the matter through” before making a decision? The exceptions that come to mind would involve him “thinking up a plan to get rich quick” or “thinking himself into a panic” after the 9/11 events. But rather than exercising the power of reason, he feels more comfortable exercising raw power. We have no evidence that Bush conceives actual ideas or draws inferences or calculates consequences.
But so what? He’s not an intellectual and doesn’t pretend to affairs of the mind. An unnamed White House official told inquiring journalists regarding Bush’s apparent lapse on the yellow cake uranium clause in the State of the Union speech: “The president is not a fact checker.”
When he said in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 7, 2002 that “the evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program,” did he ask for facts? When he claimed in his January 28, 2003 State of the Union Address, that “Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent,” and “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” did he ask any questions of his intelligence specialists?
The unnamed White House official might have added that the President doesn’t check facts because he doesn’t care about them. George W. Bush seems to have a characterological disinterest in what scientists consider the core of knowledge. Indeed, Bush seems to view facts as distractions in the face of what he knows to be good and right. Such a mindset might well have led him to invade Iraq.
I don’t think the President ignored facts presented by the CIA that cast a dubious light on Bush’s weltanschauung. The facts just whizzed on by. He knows, in his gut, right from wrong, good from bad. Why listen when you know the answer?
He has surrounded himself with neo con policy analysts, people who conservative pundit James Pinkerton said “possessed more books than common sense, let alone actual military experience. Disregarding prudence, precedent and honesty, they went off–or, more precisely, sent others off–tilting at windmills in Iraq, chasing after illusions of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and false hope about Iraqi enthusiasm for Americanism, and hoping that reality would somehow catch up with their theory. The problem, of course, is that wars are more about bloodletting than book learning.” (Newsday July 19, 2003).
Bush apparently did not understand that his advisers had exaggerated or perhaps invented facts that would bolster their arguments for making war against Iraq. They persuaded the President by appealing to his gut feelings. Since neither he nor his key Cabinet advisers thought to check facts, they all went along with the fabrication.
So, I conclude, Bush didn’t lie because he didn’t know the truth to begin with. Indeed, he had no interest in what intellectuals or scholars, lawyers or scientists might call discernible evidence. He simply ordered the generals to attack–after his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld micromanaged and second guessed the Pentagon’s plan of action.
Likewise, does Bush realize that he has spent the U.S. surplus, bankrupted the Treasury and created the largest annual deficit in US history? Under his watch some 2 plus million Americans have so far lost their jobs.
While Bush praises our troops, his budget cuts benefits for war veterans. The man who campaigned as a fiscal conservative has led the nation to the biggest annual spending increases in US history. The man who attributed 9/11 to “them” hating “us” because we’re free has removed more freedoms for Americans than any other president–via his Attorney General John Ashcroft’s use of the Patriot Act and his Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s understanding of security as incompatible with freedom.
Is he aware of any of these “accomplishments”? Does he know that his “assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring,” as the July 15, 2003 Washington Post put it. “Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors,” the Post reminds us “and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective.”
Like the Shakespearean King, Bush assigns blame for the war on others. Henry sends French King Charles a message: “Deliver up the crown, and…take mercy / On the poor souls for whom this hungry war / Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head / Turns he the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries” (2.4.103-106). As if Charles somehow forced him into aggression!
Similarly, Bush blamed Saddam. Don’t bother him with facts since they do not appear to determine his judgments. I shall refrain from calling him a liar and table my idea for a bumper sticker that says “At least he didn’t lie about sex.”
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For more of Landau’s writing visit: www.rprogreso.com. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, will be published in September by Pluto Books.