As George W. Bush’s second term in office draws to an end, James Foley examines the legacy of arguably the most hated man on earth
As equities tumbled and millions of Americans faced repossession in late September, George Bush, in his eighth year as de facto world leader, had these words of comfort: “there’s also a lot of sensible homeowners who can make men’s ends meet with a little bit of help.” For the moment, Bush may be remembered as much for his incomprehensible utterances (“working hard to put food on your family”, “too many gynaecologists aren’t able to practice their love with women”, etc) as for his policies.
Nevertheless, in eight years Bush has presided over a remarkable series of world events: two wars, a global economic crisis, and, quite possibly, the irreparable erosion of American hegemony in international affairs. He leaves his successor, Barack Obama, with an “accumulation of seismic challenges”, in the words of a recent New York Times editorial. Bush’s legacy to Obama’s America is an unprecedented debt burden and at least two open and unwinnable military fronts.
While Bush liked to portray himself as an affable and straight-talking frontiersman, he was in fact anointed for political office as a member of one of America’s leading families. His paternal grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a Wall Street executive and a US Senator with alleged industrial and propaganda links to the Nazis. George H.W. Bush, his father, served as US Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of Central Intelligence, and Vice-President under Ronald Reagan before becoming the 41st President. All three Bushes attended the elite Yale University and were members of the Skull and Bones secret society.
After a brief sojourn in the military – where, by most accounts, he led an unusually pampered lifestyle – Bush used family connections to make an abortive bid for Congress. A political failure and something of an outcast due to his alcoholism, Bush turned to industry, again using his social capital to draw Saudi money into his oil concerns. Subsequently, Arbusto (Spanish for “bush”) Energy was forced into a merger and Bush was sidelined. He re-emerged in 1988 as “campaign advisor” to his father, a position that furnished him with the media-savvy to make a second attempt at politics.
In 1994, Bush was elected Governor of Texas. He gained immediate notoriety for replacing social services with “faith-based” (Christian fundamentalist) organisations and adopting a trigger-happy approach to the electric chair. While happy to appeal to a peculiarly American brand of Christian fundamentalism, the major intellectual influences on Bush and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb, came from a small cadre of far-right intellectuals known as the “neoconservatives”, who formed a network of political influence around The Weekly Standard journal and The Project for a New American Century think tank.
The neocons explicitly concerned themselves with declining American power (hence the name, Project for a New American Century). Crudely, they argued that consumerism and individualism had eroded America’s moral fibre, spawning a decadent and nihilistic culture; the entrance of “identity politics” (black, feminist, gay) into the political mainstream was a particularly corrosive influence, they argued. The solution was a mythology of American power and leadership, an extreme nationalism to shore up America’s moral fibre. In practical terms, this meant reaffirming commitment to maintaining an overseas Empire, and willingness to take “strong” leadership decisions against America’s enemies.
By 2000, Bush had defeated competition from John McCain to announce himself Republican candidate for the White House. Facing a weak Democrat opponent – Bill Clinton’s centre-right Vice President Al Gore – Bush managed to scrape a narrow victory after one of the most controversial counts in history. Thousands of Black voters were mysteriously wiped off the electoral roll in Florida to give Bush the slenderest of margins in the decisive battleground.
The Clinton administration had left a peculiar economic legacy to Bush. In the 1990s, America experienced an extraordinary boom in telecommunications and the stock market that spurred the first significant spike in manufacturing profits since the mid-70s. Employment was high in the Clinton years and interest rates were historically low. However, real economic conditions for workers did not improve; real wages stagnated or fell for most of the Clinton years, while social spending declined in many areas as he announced “the era of big government is over”. Clinton presided over a massive distribution of wealth to the rich.
Bush, who presented himself as a “compassionate conservative”, went further. His first significant act in office was a $1.35 trillion tax cut which overwhelmingly benefitted the rich at the expense of the poor and, subsequently, contributed to America’s economic instability by increasing deficits and throwing more money into the stock market bubble.
Bush might have been remembered as an affable if incompetent right-winger along the lines of Gerald Ford, rather than a latter day Caligula, were it not for the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. This unprecedented blow to America’s pride and prestige, coming right at the heart of America’s capitalist world empire, gave the neocons the opportunity they had been looking for to exert control over American foreign policy.
Although the perpetrators of 9/11 were Egyptian and Saudi, America chose to attack Afghanistan, where radical madrassas were supposedly indoctrinating young Muslims in anti-Americanism under the protection of the Taliban government. The Taliban were created by Pakistani military intelligence, with the covert assistance of the American government, in the early 90s to fill the gap left by the Soviet withdrawal. America had major interests in a gas pipeline set to run through the North of Afghanistan. However, the Taliban, whose social basis lay in the Pashtun South-East of the country, proved unable to restore order in this area and American intelligence quietly dropped them as a reliable ally.
In the early Bush years the Afghanistan invasion seemed to be a mere prelude to the real affair: a full scale invasion of Iraq, a neoconservative fantasy since 1992. In 1998, leading neocons – many with strong oil-industry connections – wrote a letter to Bill Clinton urging him to “undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing”. Despite opposition from most world governments and the vast majority of the world population, the neocons were able by 2003 to use the amenable post-9/11 environment to push for “regime change” in Iraq.
America’s unpreparedness for the war is legendary. Bush was already halfway to launching the Iraq invasion before anyone told him that there were Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi, a convicted fraudster who played a key role in orchestrating support for the invasion among Iraqi exiles, managed to convince the American establishment that they would be greeted with flowers and sweets by a grateful population. And it does seem that the world’s intelligence services were seriously duped into thinking that Iraq had a workable program to produce weapons of mass destruction, even though the best evidence of this turned out to be an out of date PhD thesis tracked down with a Google search.
The Iraq War will be remembered as one of the most dismal events in America’s history. As of last week, 4,191 American soldiers are reported dead. Estimates of Iraqi casualties are notoriously unreliable; however, the Lancet Medical Journal, whose methodologies are generally accepted for calculating the human cost of war, put the figure at over a million. The economic cost of war has been astronomical: ex-World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz recently put the figure at a potential $2 trillion.
If two unwinnable occupations were not ruinous enough to America’s reputation, the recent financial crisis could spell the end of the greatest power in world history. Bush is perhaps not directly accountable for the crisis. The erosion of manufacturing at the expense of finance reflects the long-run degeneration of America’s economic base; without this erosion, regulation would not occupy the same social significance.
Nevertheless, Bush has been a particularly disastrous steward of American capitalism. His tax cuts and lax regulation regimes have been contributory factors to the timing and severity of the crisis. His administration is renowned for its associations with corrupt accounting firms, investment banks, and corporations. Under Bush, as under Clinton, real wages stagnated in America. The orgy of household borrowing since the turn of the century stems from the contradiction of trying to sustain a low wage with a high consumption economy, a hallmark of Bush’s own approach to “voodoo economics”.
Millions dead, renewed imperial rivalries, and an economic crisis. This is Bush’s legacy to the world. In policy terms, Obama promises very little. However, as thousands of ordinary Americans – black and white, male and female, gay and straight – streamed onto the streets to celebrate his victory last week, it felt less like a parliamentary election and more like the people reclaiming their public spaces from a vicious tyrant. And, in a way, it was.