Low Expectations, Indeed

Once the upcoming election has been conducted and the results made known, and as we get closer to inauguration on 20 January 2009, you can expect the usual flood of articles in all the world’s media evaluating the eight-year presidency of the departing George W. Bush. It’s been an eventful eight years, no? For some reason or another, though – apparently because he recently caught sight of Bush on TV looking “tired” and “grey” during his latest address to the nation about the financial crisis – the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung’s Washington correspondent Matthias Rüb has decided to get a jump on the competition with a new piece: What remains of George W. Bush? A man of great expectations.

But don’t worry: the FAZ will surely find itself having to try again later. For what Rüb has come up with is an article that may offer a few interesting perspectives, but which first and foremost suffers from a worrying short-sightedness about what this man has done to the country for which he served as president. (Could it be a coincidence that the pronunciation of this journalist’s last name is basically “rube”? And as to that illustration at the top of his article: it’s obviously supposed to be George W., but in fact looks nothing like him.)

Rüb knows enough about Bush to bring up early on his “arrogant streak,” supposedly arising from his origins (however much suppressed from public view) in the East Coast establishment that routinely sends its legacies to private schools and elite Ivy League universities. And it’s very true, as he notes, that this president has largely dispensed with the compromise and give-and-take most American chief executives realize is supposed to be a given in their relations with the Congress. (What he fails to bring up is the power Bush presumes he has as president to simply ignore anything that Congress passes that he doesn’t like through the issuing of “signing statements.”) But maybe there is more to this self-righteousness than that, for Rüb also notes the religious impulse that fused with Bush’s establishment upbringing, specifically in 1985 when he had his noted “born again” experience that turned him away from what had previously been a dissolute, alcohol-soaked life. As Rüb writes, “The impulse not to ever let loose, simply not to give in, could also have to do with the experience of a recovered addict, who knows that even the smallest falling-back lets the dependency-monster back in: so either go all the way, or don’t bother at all.” Maybe this explains Bush’s notoriously-ornery approach to governing.

Double Bankruptcy

Rüb identifies what he considers to be the two aspects of Bush’s “vision” of what he was trying to accomplish during his administration. One has to do with foreign policy – the “Freedom Agenda” – and one with domestic policy: the “Ownership Society.” Bush had already written in his 1999 book A Charge to Keep that “Freedom is our greatest export,” and had gone on to declare during his presidency that “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, but the gift of the Creator to every child of man.” While clearly any other president than Bush would have attacked Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, Rüb puts forth this “Freedom Agenda” as what impelled Bush to go ahead and launch an attack Iraq afterwards. That itself is, of course, a somewhat dubious reading of events – if anything, this alleged desire to “spread freedom” was adopted rather late in the game, when all the other plausible explanations for attacking Iraq had collapsed. And then Rüb goes on to somehow see the possibility for an American “victory” there: “The situation [in Iraq] is by no means hopeless, on the contrary. The way out is open, Freedom could win.” Clearly, this Washington correspondent has spent too much of his time listening to Republican talking-points rather than consulting people who know what they’re talking about. (As usual, “winning” in Iraq he does not define. And Rüb might also want to pay a little more attention to the ongoing US-Iraq SOFA negotiations and the associated mandatory troop withdrawal)

Then there’s Bush’s second big idea: the “Ownership Society.” People should own their houses, they should own shares of companies, because that strengthens their involvement with society and their own responsibility for themselves and lessens their dependency on the State. In the last month or so we have seen what has become of all of that! “Instead of the ‘Ownership Society’,” Rüb does admit, “what is growing in American before everybody’s eyes is the State as leading shareholder, the country stands before the ruins of the financial markets and the people worry about a new Great Depression.”

Rüb seems particularly enchanted in this article by one of George W. Bush’s pet sayings, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and rather strangely (and, I think, incorrectly) posits this idea as the driving force behind his drive for that “Ownership Society.” (You might recall that Bush himself rather employed it in connection with his “No Child Left Behind” education initiative, but that legislation is not addressed in this piece.) Ironically, if anything this “soft bigotry of low expectations” is most apparent in his article as the general attitude Rüb takes towards the president whose disastrous term in office he is reviewing. The latest Oliver Stone movie on George W. Bush, W. (Salon subscription required), also is said to go rather easy on our 43rd president: what is with this seeming inability to look back and call a spade a spade? No, if you want a cold-blooded appraisal of what George W. Bush managed in eight years to do to the country he professes to love, then I would refer you to Scott Horton and his merciless bullet-point list.

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