On the Uses and Abuses of George W. Bush

No one listens to George W. Bush in America anymore. He might still be called Mr. President by fawning staffers; he might still get to sit in the Oval Office and fly on Air Force One, but he is yesterday’s man. So, in an effort to find a more congenial environment, and with one drooping eye on November, he has come to Europe to say goodbye. The people of Europe will be almost unanimously pleased to see Bush go. Or at least they think they will.

Bush has been reviled by Europe to an unprecedented extent; he has had a worse press than Satan. He has succeeded in assembling an incredibly catholic coalition of opponents with a medley of incompatible views. To some he has been a world-historical fuck-up; to others a symbol of dynastic mediocrity; to others an irresponsibly elevated cretin; to others still a placemen of the oil moguls; and to some he has been an atavistic Evangelical, puppet of the Religious Right. Bush has been hated richly and variously.

But he hasn’t been hated pointlessly. Anti-Bush sentiment has filled all sorts of psychological and political needs in Britain and on the continent. If we don’t dislike his going, we are at least going to find it disorientating to squint across the Atlantic and see someone else in the White House sitting in his chair.

Bush has been useful to us because he seems to encapsulate so much of what is worst about America. He is an almost unimprovable symbol of America for anyone who wants to mock, traduce or satirise the United States. Firstly Bush is stupid – Daddy-had-to-pay-lavishly-for-my-place-at-Yale stupid. His train wreck sentences and malapropisms are notorious. So: Bush is a hick – boorish and uncivilized, the product of some philistine Texas backwater, lacking the polish of the old world. Secondly Bush is that worst of all things: a patriot with no sense of irony. His mindlessly chauvinistic worship of America and the projection of American power abroad that grows out of this country-vanity have been disastrous for the Middle East. Thirdly Bush stands for greed and turbo-capitalism. The ultimate child of privilege himself, his Presidency has become a front for corporate deregulators and tax-cutters. Bush is a unilateralist, a global bully, a warmonger, a torture-merchant, a dynast, a fool, a reactionary, a corporate shill, a Manichean, a pro-lifer, an Evangelical – a Republican.

If you are a European liberal there is no issue on which you agree with Bush. You don’t believe in his War on Terror; you don’t approve of his attitude to the Kyoto Treaty; you are infuriated by his refusal to abide by the rules of international organisations like the UN; you are horrified by his fiscal policy; you oppose his attempts to privatize Social Security; you are appalled by his attempts to pack the federal judiciary with right-to-lifers. And there is no man who provides a worse model of your ideal political leader than this half-literate, grinning Texan with his cowboy boots and his Southern drawl and his bible-study groups in the West Wing.

It is because of the comprehensiveness of this wrap-sheet that Bush is so useful. Deep down we all long for simplicity. When we look at the world, we don’t want to see it in all of its illimitable, uncognizable diversity – we want to see something that we can grasp. Figures like Bush allow us to look at the world and to bring it to the sort of conceptual order that we all crave. In a world so deeply penetrated by Americana, understanding the US and its place in the world is one of the principal tasks of conceptualisation that we have to confront. If we take Bush as a symbol of America, as a sort of shorthand representation of his country, then there is nothing left to do. We know what Bush believes, the interests that he represents, the sort of man that he is. He is a cartoonish figure and makes available to us a similarly cartoonish understanding of America. In this scheme America becomes an abuser of its power, a psychologically unbalanced global hegemon addled by religion and driven by corporate influences; a country with neither respect for the values of other countries nor doubts about its own virtue. One comes out with an evil imperial America, with an inescapably parochial mindset but a global reach.

And in so characterising it, we solve the problem of conceptualising preponderant American power and diminished European power. Unipolarity is a disaster. America’s status as the world’s pre-eminently powerful nation has corrupted it utterly. Power is poisonous and however well it tries to hide itself behind canting rhetoric it only ever pursues its own augmentation. The great threat to international stability is an illegitimate American power that refuses to acknowledge the authority of international organisations or the civilizing norms of international law: a lawless, wilful child lacking in the maturity to control its own power or the humility to acquiesce in the superintendence of wiser heads.

This sort of off-the-shelf way of interpreting America and international politics is what Bush has made available to us. He has obviated the need for us to look at America discriminatingly as a country of almost unsummarisable diversity. He has given us an American other against which we can construct ourselves as educated, secular, cosmopolitan multilateralists who have escaped the ugly logic of power politics, the disease of corporate influence and the dictates of realpolitik. And he has helped us to come to terms with the still further diminution of European power. If this is how a super-power conducts itself, then who would want to be a superpower? If the corollaries of American cultural dominance, economic prosperity and military dominance are an imperial foreign policy and a politics of greed and ignorance, then who would be willing to pay such a price? Through Bush Europe has been able to rationalize its own relative weakness on the world stage.

After Bush, with a different incumbent in the White House we may find that we have to have to try and conceptualise a much more complicated world. And we may find that we have to try and reach a new understanding of the costs and benefits of US power and relative European weakness.

I’m as gleeful a critic of Bush as anyone, but I think sometimes that there is a certain cheapness to criticism of America. In attacking America as an evil empire we get all of the satisfaction of righteous indignation without the psychological price of having to deal with the threat of a truly terrifying enemy. After all, however far the abuse of American power is taken, it’s never going to turn its hand against us is it? We know as well that our opposition to America will only ever be private. We can execrate the American government safe in the knowledge that we will continue to enjoy the benefits of the close relationship that our government will continue to pursue with them. We gain the benefits of an alliance with the US without feeling morally contaminated; just as for so long, Europe has benefited from the protection provided by the American military without having to bear the cost.

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5 Responses to “On the Uses and Abuses of George W. Bush”

  1. Banjo Says:

    Looks as though your remarks have been uploaded twice on this post.

    The obsession with personality that characterizes political discourse is probably more of an indication of the limits of liberalism than anything else, I’d say. Yes, George Bush is obnoxious. He’s also a product of American society. Not an ideal-type but certainly no anomaly. Borrowing from Whitman we can say that the nation ‘contains multitudes’ in every sense.

    American eugenics programs were the model for those implemented by the 3rd Reich. America itself was always imperialist broadly speaking, especially during its ‘expansionist’ phase. A slavish devotion to property guaranteed slavery remained intact for as long as it did, and over 7 million Americans are currently awaiting trial, in jail, or on parole. On the other hand the dream of a better life persists, even in the face of contrary evidence.

    In other words, Bush is merely a more piquant variant birthed by a social logic that has also produced Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and WEB DuBois, a kind of ecstatic anti-communism and labor syndicalism, lynch law and lend-lease. It’s a freakish, even grotesque, amalgamation of conflicting, syncretic tendencies and outcomes.

  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    Thanks for letting me know Banjo.

    I think that your last sentence is one of the best one sentence description of America that I’ve ever read.

  3. wvally01 Says:

    Yes our eugenics programs, a product of the “progressive” movement of the early 20th century, were the model for those implemented by the 3rd Reich. And one of our most famous proponents of eugenics, Margaret Sanger, also founded Planned Parenthood and ushered in the abortion holocaust in our nation.

    To me, it seems that in America, we have a strong left and a strong right. The two sides are in conflict, rise to power cyclically, and act as counterbalances to one another. Europe seems to have a strong left, but a weak and in some cases non-existent right. And so many Europeans seem to have an attitude of outright dismissal, contempt, and loathing for conservative ideas. Ironically, it is the Enlightenment, the birth-child of Europe, that those of us on the right are trying to conserve.

    The seething contempt Europeans exhibit toward America’s conservatives is not reciprocated with contempt, but with a wistful sadness. We see Europe as the foundation of the western world, of liberty, of the enlightenment. And we see Europeans giving up on their heritage, giving up to multiculturalism (i.e. all cultures, even truly mysoginistic ones, are of equal value). We fear for the future of European culture and identity in the face of the massive and accelerating demographic changes that are occurring. We pray that once you have muslim majorities in your countries, that you don’t become subject to Sharia Law.

  4. Dom Says:

    “American eugenics programs were the model for those implemented by the 3rd Reich. ”

    The Armenian genocide was the model, and was said to be the model by most in Germany. The model was encouraged by the Grand Mufti in Egypt.

  5. christianliberal Says:

    Many Americans want to apologize for the tragedy of the Bush years.

    As we approach the termination of the worst U.S. presidency in our history, we, the common people of this once great nation, apologize for the crimes the Bush administration has perpetrated on the world. We ask for your forgiveness, as we step towards the brink of electing a true patriot who holds dear the ideals that America once stood for. With Barack Obama as our new leader, we once again have hope for regaining the role of America as the beacon of justice in a peace-hungry world.

    We apologize for invading other countries.
    We apologize for our role in global warming.
    We apologize for advocating torture and preemptive war.
    We apologize for abandoning the Geneva Conventions.
    We apologize for spying on people.
    We apologize for economic coercion.
    We apologize for alienating our fellow citizens of the world.

    We sincerely hope that the new president will usher in an era of peace and understanding.
    Thank you for your patience over the past 8 years, and God bless you.

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