Has George Bush Been a Great President, or What?

My claim—please hear me out—is that George W. Bush has done great things for this country:

  • He's discredited the idea of pre-emptive military action pretty much completely. For the next couple of generations, bringing up the idea of pre-emptive war will immediately result in invidious comparisons to Bush (if there's a free press).

    This revulsion is likely to fade over time, but there's only so much one man can do.

  • He's created a quagmire in Iraq that is sufficiently similar to Vietnam to have brought up all those old unresolved issues. Many who tried to cover up the lies and the failures of the US government at the time are extremely uncomfortable now. As an example, look at the coverage, or more accurately the lack of coverage, of the Tiger Force story. The newspaper got a Pulitzer prize for the series, but most Americans never heard about it.

    I think such discussions of recent US history are very healthy. Although I'm not that excited about John Kerry, I do appreciate it when he says it's not an issue to him whether you served in the military (Kerry) or the national guard (Bush?), or were a conscientious objector (me). I think his attitude is pretty close to that of the mythical “average American”: we went through some heavy shit back then, and we learned from it (though we wouldn't all agree precisely what those lessons were).

    Naturally some people were able to use their connections to avoid going through any heavy shit, and as a result did not learn. But I think the American public did learn then, and is learning now; and my guess is it's going to be reluctant to support military actions in other countries for a couple of decades. Somebody attacks us, we'll show no mercy; but our record for picking out which countries to invade is not good, so maybe it's better we just hang out here a while. “Isolationist” and “interventionist” are not the only two categories.

  • He's united the rest of the world against imperialism. This “international front” won't hold together for long, but it's a step in the right direction. For example, look at Haiti: the US couldn't really afford openly to send troops there to get rid of Aristide, even though you know Bush “and his henchmen” (to use the term the administration applies to associates of those they don't like) wanted to do so. But at the time they were trying to get the UN to take over the mess they made in Iraq, invading another country was not likely to move the ball down the field. So they were forced to resort to kidnapping, which they were not able to hide from the world community.

    This is exactly the sort of action the International Criminal Court was established to dissuade. Bush reneged on Clinton's commitment to the Court because he knew he'd be committing actions that would bring him up before it.

  • He's united Europe around the idea that the world needs a countervailing force to that of the US, not just economically but militarily as well. Whether it will ever become “The United States of Europe”, or whether that would even be a good idea, the area does have some common interests, including defense. And it's clear that the affections of the United States of America are malleable and untrustworthy.

    The people who think of themselves as realists in the Bush administration are said to refer to themselves as “the Vulcans”. The irony, as I see it, is that, given the direction and reliability of American foreign policy in this administration, any self-respecting Vulcan in Europe, or indeed any part of the globe that might interest the US, would have, or be developing, nuclear weapons. After all, it worked for North Korea.

  • He's united the Democrats, a feat long thought impossible. The traditional circular firing squad was only used this primary season to take out Dean; after that, it was more or less abandoned, to the point that Sharpton and even Kucinich were allowed to join the debates; they weren't asked many questions or allowed to speak much, but they were allowed to attend. Hey, the Republicans talk about a big tent, but we really have one…

    It's conceivable that Bush might even make me vote for a Democrat. Haven't voted that way for President since, let's see… Dukakis—anyone remember him?

  • He's engaged the country in the issue of climate change. I only recently heard about the Apollo Project, which is a great idea that could really work. Then there's the study commissioned by the DoD, about which the Observer says:
    The findings will prove humiliating to the Bush administration, which has repeatedly denied that climate change even exists.

    Rarely has humiliation been so much fun to watch and so useful at the same time.

    When the DoD says that climate change is a major national security issue that ranks with, or perhaps even surpasses, terrorism, the White House cannot ignore it, especially with the President's numbers dropping below fifty percent on everything but war and terrorism. How can you claim to be better at defending the security of the nation if you claim that the Pentagon's number one threat doesn't exist?

  • He's killed the idea of a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Various bloggers have pointed out that at least thirty-four Senators have already made some sort of statement opposing the amendment. Even those who oppose civil unions are often uncomfortable with amending the Constitution for such reasons.

    At the same time, Bush's wingnut constituents are pushing him to promote an amendment that bans even civil unions, because it “devalues the institution”. (New Yorker cartoon: “Gays and lesbians aren't a threat to the sanctity of my marriage. It's all the straight women who sleep with my husband.”) Giving ground to such pressure ensures that he'll lose, and they'll be further marginalized. I can almost feel a little sorry for them.

  • He's got whistle-blowers coming out of the woodwork. As of yesterday, Richard Clarke's book (Against All Enemies) had sold 700,000 copies so far and is still leaping off the shelves. Booksellers in Utah (!) report having trouble keeping the book in stock.

    It's a bull market for telling (your version of) the truth, which bodes well for sales of the upcoming book by Joseph Wilson, The Politics of Truth. You remember Wilson, the diplomat who outed Bush's false claim that Saddam tried to buy uranium from Niger, and whose CIA-agent wife was outed in return? I'm not sure he's completely over that feloniously low blow; we'll soon find out.

    There are even reports that Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is reading Mother Jones to find out what Karen Kwiatkowski is saying.

  • His administration's approach has resulted in a new focus of the national consciousness on the idea that the President's people spin the news. Not that this is news; any fan of West Wing knows all this stuff.

    But remember when Gov. Thompson questioned whether there is one standard of morality and truthfulness for Presidential advisors, and another for everyone else, and Richard Clarke answered, “I don't think it's a question of morality, I think it's a question of politics”? The applause that followed shows that more people are paying more attention than in the past. People are being radicalized by events, and the acute perception that those entrusted with protecting us failed us and are now trying to distract attention from that failure.

    During the war in Vietnam, Americans realized that their votes sometimes made more difference in the world than in their own communities, and that they therefore had a responsibility to the world. I think Americans do recognize that they live in a country that makes a difference. Now they have to accept that they can make a difference in their country.

Given all these fine contributions, not to mention Garry Trudeau's characterization of him as the gold standard for comedy, it'll almost be a shame when he loses the election. (One of my neighbors here in the staunchly Republican San Francisco is sporting a “Let's not elect him in 2004 either” bumper sticker.)

But realistically, in which areas will Kerry be much better? If I were a reporter, I'd be looking for a chance to ask The Uncomfortable Question: “Will you commit the United States to whole-hearted support for the International Criminal Court?”. I can imagine supporting a candidate who answered “Yes” to this question; I cannot imagine voting for a candidate who answered “No”. Thus, I'm not sure I want to hear Kerry's answer. Fortunately, I probably won't have to, at least not before the election.

What I really do want was perfectly put by Bob Kerrey, the 9/11 commission member and former Senator from Nebraska, describing what he sees as the correct counterterrorism strategy: “We do not need a little more of the same thing. We need a lot more of something completely different.”

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