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Features March 14, 2003  RSS feed

The Great Divider — The Political Legacy of George W. Bush

By Tom Ethier, Torrington

Of all the hollow platitudes uttered by George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign, perhaps none has been so turned on its head than his assertion: "I am a uniter, not a divider." Now admittedly, with rhetorical gems such as "I’m a compassionate conservative" and "I think we ought to be tough when it comes to our environmental laws," the competition for most outrageous Bush doublespeak is substantial. But by bringing us to the brink of war in Iraq while dividing and polarizing much of the country and the world, George W. Bush has secured his political legacy as the Great Divider.

In his two-plus years at the helm, George W. Bush has adopted the most aggressive, arrogant and militaristic foreign policy in United States history. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and other radical neocons in his administration believe that the rest of the world is there to serve the needs of Washington and woe to anyone who violates their marching orders.

In an earlier day there was a fancy geopolitical name for this—it was called empire. Now they have an even fancier term—they call it hegemony—which is a distinction without a difference. For a study in neo-conservative hair-splitting and historical relativism I refer readers to Kimberly Kagan’s Hegemony, Not Empire. As an aside, some traditional conservative circles oppose these ideas of hegemony or enlightened imperialism. For a much more scholarly look at this condition I refer readers to The Empire Strikes Out by Ivan Eland of the CATO Institute.

In a little over two years George W. Bush has succeeded in turning large portions of the world against the United States—or at least this is the picture that the mainstream media would paint for us. It is more accurate to say that he has turned the people of the world against his foreign policies and those of his administration. There is a difference.

Most of the international community, especially Europeans, have no problem with America; it is George W. Bush that they oppose. They are sophisticated enough to discern the differences between the policies of the leaders and the citizens of a nation, a distinction that we should keep in mind with the situation in Iraq. To many in the world, George W. Bush is a reckless and crude American cowboy who likes to push his weight around.

Bush’s negative international image stands in stark contrast to the previous occupant of the White House, who was generally well liked and respected by the rest of the world, where people judged him by his policies and actions, not his personal shortcomings. To be sure, Clinton’s policies could have been much better, such as on third world debt, corporate globalization and the Middle East, but they appear positively Wilsonian compared to those of George Bush.

Let’s review some of the highlights of the Bush administration in the foreign policy arena since his appointment to the presidency in December of 2000. In early 2001 one of the first actions of the "great uniter" was to announce our intention to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty as a relic of the Cold War so we could build a missile defense shield. It didn’t matter that Russia, China and most of Europe protested a new arms race, or that it didn’t work very well. Various right-wing Washington, DC think tanks said we needed one, so it was on the top of the list for the militaristic Bush administration.

To enhance the myth that we were in impending danger of a missile attack by a "rogue state," the Bush administration pursued an aggressive and belligerent policy toward North Korea. The new approach to Korea contradicted the policy of the Clinton administration, which had managed a modest amount of conciliation on the Korean peninsula—a policy favored by those in South Korea, the people who have the most to fear from the North. Just before he left office Clinton was set to meet with Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea. Since then, George W. Bush’s contribution to the situation has been to say that he loathes Kim, and to refer to him as "that little pygmy." North Korea likely thinks that they are next on the regime change list after Bush included them in his "axis of evil" club of last year. It is no surprise that the seeds of discontent sown in 2001 are bearing fruit in 2003.

The repudiation of the ABM Treaty and the alienation of North Korea were hardly the only pre-9/11 displays of arrogance on the part of the Bush administration. The U.S. also rejected the formation of the International Criminal Court. They falsely claimed that it somehow endangered our servicemen, when in reality it was a threat to national leaders who act beyond the pale of international law—you know, like sponsoring and supporting terrorism or unprovoked military attacks. The U.S. could not go along with the court’s definition of criminals, even though most of the international community could, because it would include past and possibly current U.S. leaders. So we thumbed our nose at that treaty too.

We also cavalierly and indelicately rejected the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming. We didn’t offer any meaningful alternative, we just basically said that we don’t care what happens to the rest of the world ecologically speaking, we’ll just do whatever we please to maintain our standard (and style) of living—no discussion, end of story, the rest of the world be dammed. To complement this newfound international arrogance, we continued our 35-year role as dishonest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, a policy that stokes Anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and Moslem worlds.

Despite the more than six months of heavy-handed and arrogant foreign policy that the Bush administration had put forth, after the attacks on 9/11 the world was rightfully outraged and overwhelmingly sympathetic to the U.S. The day after the attacks, France’s Le Monde ran a banner headline declaring "We Are All Americans Now." Throughout the world vigils and rallies were held supporting the U.S., and countries everywhere pledged to combat international terrorism. In a little more than a year, George W. Bush has managed to squander the empathy of the world and is moving us to a position where we are now perceived as the aggressor and the bad guy.

He has accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction (as if Iraq were somehow unique) and of supporting al-Qaeda, but has never produced any credible evidence substantiating the charges. In his headlong rush to go to war, George W. Bush has tried to convince the world that Saddam Hussein poses a danger to the U.S. and the rest world despite more than a decade of crippling economic sanctions against Iraq. Even if Iraq had the will to attack the U.S., they certainly do not possess the military means. The countries in Iraq’s neighborhood have stated that they do not feel threatened by Saddam, and the citizens of those countries are nearly unanimously against Gulf War II.

If George W. Bush initiates a preemptive attack against Iraq without UN authorization, he puts this country in violation of international law. This is not just the opinion of radicals on the political left. Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, recently said eight out of ten international lawyers would consider a U.S. attack without a new resolution as a violation of international law.

Increasingly across the world and in this country, George W. Bush is seen as walking loudly and carrying a big stick. Even Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar recently urged Bush to tone down the rhetoric. In the United States, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel recently stated that the administration "is seen as bullying people. You can't do that to democracies. You can't do that to partners and allies. It isn't going to work."

As of this writing George W. Bush cannot even find total agreement over Iraq with the British. Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has stated they will accept disarmament without regime change while Bush insists that Saddam must step down. This is not an insignificant point. If we alienate the British, who do we turn to next, New Europe? George W. Bush and his radical imperialist administration are dividers, not uniters.