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The Dry Hole in the Oval Office

President from Podunk Drilling, Inc.

by JOHN CHUCKMAN

Thinking people aren’t surprised to be told that failed-oilman George Bush qualifies as a moral and intellectual dry hole.

Bush’s halting words come from a mouth so long smugly-set it can scarcely form the shapes of vowels, but enormous ignorance also manages to come through. Still, it never hurts to have a first-hand account, expert testimony, to reinforce even our strongest perceptions, and former Bush Cabinet-member Paul O’Neill has now supplied that in spades.

As to the moral portion of Bush’s substance, it is an interesting phenomenon that a President who claims Jesus as mentor thinks nothing of lying, enjoys bloody revenge, and shows little tolerance for those who disagree. Not that any of that matters to his spiritual advisors, all CEOs of major fundamentalist conversion-operations: their bond to him is not one respecting truth but knowing what’s good for business. You can only stage profitable theatrics like tears running down your cheeks for the boys battling damned heathens with a man of Bush’s caliber in office. He is good for collection-plate take.

Paul O’Neill, in interviews to publicize a new book, offers candid snapshots of a President who doesn’t even discuss policy with some of his highest officials. It is interesting that O’Neill got himself sacked as Treasury Secretary for voicing sound and traditional conservative views on two Bush economic policies, the imposition of import tariffs against steel and a gigantic, irresponsible tax-cut.

Bush’s tariff against foreign steel violated basic economic understanding and the rules governing international trade, and it was repealed after the WTO declared it illegal. While those rules permit tariffs as a response to dumping (selling a product abroad below its domestic production cost ), often what is called dumping by the United States is not dumping at all, but simply lower-cost, more efficient production. So it was with foreign steel, and one does not expect sound conservatives to support tariffs under these circumstances.

It does not take an education in economics to understand how irresponsible Bush’s monstrous tax cuts are at the very time American military spending is exploding. The economic mumbo-jumbo of the Reagan era that tax-cut induced growth generates a revenue greater than the lost taxes has been thoroughly discredited by Reagan’s legacy of gigantic deficits. No so-called "tax and spend" liberal ever produced such astonishing piles of debt.

I would add, that at a time when economic disparity in America is growing vigorously (in good part owing to the effects of globalization on employment and wages for those with the least skills), it is poor public policy to reduce the tax burden on the well-off, especially when that burden already was low by world standards. These taxes finance many forms of needed redistribution including education and healthcare, services already starved of funds, but this kind of thinking is social and could not be expected to carry weight with most Republicans.

Many contemporary Republicans seem to reject classical economics, and balanced budgets with sound accounting have evaporated as fitting national responsibilities. Tax cuts have become a form of buying votes, an inverted form of what liberals were long accused of when they promised new programs. And just as with careless promises of new spending, the tax cuts are never done with sound accounting. Voters are not told what services should be cut as the price for reduced taxes – only the vision of lower taxes is dangled before them. Perhaps voters should know better, but they are conditioned to slick promises of gain twenty-four hours a day on television, including from Bush’s spiritual advisors.

To a considerable degree, taxes cut at the federal level since Reagan’s time have had to be made up by local communities, the very political entities with the least flexibility and wherewithal to increase taxes since they depend largely on property taxes. Maintaining even a token sense of equal opportunity across a large nation in basic services like education and healthcare can only be done with transfers from higher levels of government. But what is true for many communities, whether blighted or small, is true also of states with unfavorable ratios of resources and obligations.

You might think a Treasury Secretary with a successful background in international business (quite unlike the President’s failed Podunk drilling company, failed, that is, for investors but not for Bush who bailed out with handsome profits) worth listening to on such matters, but Paul O’Neill tells us that this President engages in little discussion, sitting mainly in silence at high-level meetings. O’Neill felt in one-on-one meetings as though he were having a conversation with himself.

One suspects from what O’Neill relates that Bush’s modus operandi consists of having his eminence grise, Dick Cheney, tell him in a private conference after any meeting of experts what in fact the policy should be. That is not the kind of consultation he would want to share with others.

O’Neill forcefully comments on the invasion of Iraq, telling us that despite seeing high-level intelligence on Iraq as a member of the National Security Council, there was never evidence of dangerous Iraqi weapons. The President simply was determined from the start to topple Hussein. Indeed, Bush began his first National Security Council meeting with a demand that those around the table find a way to get rid of Hussein.

Bush was fixated on his father’s failed policy in Iraq, perhaps attributing to it his father’s failure to be re-elected – something Bush pere is known to have taken very hard. If you add Hussein’s purported assassination plot against Bush pere, the stain on the family escutcheon must have been troubling, although I still do not believe personal matters motivated the invasion. The neo-con institute crowd had been whining and puking about Iraq for years, despite all the horrors inflicted on that country by the First Gulf War, including tens of thousands poor draftees and civilians incinerated by American bombing, but there is never enough war and death to satisfy these grasping, manipulative people.

O’Neill’s revelations imply three years of dissimulation by Bush. They imply also months of intense and steady lying as non-existent weapons were talked up, and, of course, Bush’s lying to this day about Hussein’s non-existent connections to terror. But they imply something more profound that goes to the very meaning of democracy. Bush never submitted the prospect of a conflict to voters. Had he done so, I doubt he could have successfully argued his case, something he hasn’t done to this day.

O’Neill’s account of the first National Security Council meeting has been confirmed by another official who attended but remains anonymous. Bush’s lying about Iraq’s weapons has been confirmed by a study of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace which concluded that the threat from Iraq had been systematically misrepresented. The stupidity of Bush’s invasion has been confirmed by the observations of a professor at the Army’s War College who characterized it as a costly, pointless distraction.

One of the White House’s immediate responses to the press about Paul O’Neill was along the lines of, "Nobody ever listened to him when he was in office. Why would anyone listen to him now?" Snotty, eighth-grade stuff, nothing to do with facts, having about the same moral tone as candidate Bush’s calling a New York Times reporter "asshole"

Bush’s smarmy White House isn’t content with efforts to insult O’Neill, he is to be investigated for inappropriately using Treasury material marked "secret." This from the same crowd who revealed the secret identity of a CIA agent, the wife of someone else whose honest words they scorned. Watch your back, Paul.

JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada. He can be reached at: chuckman@counterpunch.org