Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Tragic Legacy by Glenn Greenwald

The subtitle here is “How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency,” and it’s an apt framework for analyzing how America’s 43rd president went from one of the most popular (in late 2001) to one of the least popular (by late 2006).

It’s a downfall that’s quite remarkable in the annals of American history. To illustrate the point, Greenwald begins his first chapter with a series of numbers (86, 66, 59, 48, 39, 32), which represent the percentage of Americans who approved of Bush’s performance in late 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, respectively. I have my own political opinions, and I probably won’t be able to keep them from peeking through in this post, but by any measurement, that is a record that demonstrates how much of the American public turned against Bush and the policies he supported. Greenwald’s book was published in 2007, so he couldn’t add the 25% Bush’s approval rating sank to in 2008, but we can, and in doing so we can marvel at how far he fell.

Does anyone remember the George W. Bush of late 2001? The president who, after 9/11 and its sad but not unexpected backlash against American Muslims, said things like:

I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.

This was a man we were proud to call our president. But now, after so many betrayals of the principles he spoke so highly of, one has to wonder whether he changed, or if he never really understood what those principles were and why they were worth fighting for.

There are still factions in our society who want to perpetuate the myth that he was one of our most popular presidents, and that the American public was behind him and his policies from start to finish. But he wasn’t and they weren’t. In one telling example, Greenwald’s assessment of the 2004 presidential election shows just how unpopular Bush had become even by then.

Incumbent American presidents rarely lose under any circumstances. But Americans have never voted a president out of office during wartime, having comfortably re-elected all four previous wartime presidents who ran again (Madison, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nixon).

Beyond those towering inherent advantages, Bush barely squeaked by despite running against John Kerry, one of the most politically ungifted major party nominees in several decades; despite Kerry’s running an inept and passive presidential campaign, leading former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe to call the campaign’s failure to attack Bush’s record “one of the biggest acts of political malpractice in the history of American politics”; and despite a significant financial advantage. Even with all of those formidable advantages, facing a weak opponent and an unskillful campaign, the War President, after four years of governing, won only two states in 2004 that he did not take in 2000 (Iowa and New Mexico) and even lost New Hampshire for a net gain of only one state.

This fascinates me. Ask a Bush devotee, and you’ll hear how much the country was behind Bush. The facts are he squeaked into office in 2004—just as he had in 2000.

One of the things that fascinates me most about Bush’s presidency is my own belief that, despite all his own rhetoric and that of his political supporters, Bush was not a conservative—at least not in the sense that I understand that term. Here’s how Greenwald defines it. Conservatism is…

… defined by a belief in (a) restrained federal government power, (b) minimal federal taxes and responsible and limited spending, (c) a generalized distrust of the federal government and its attempts to intervene into the private lives of citizens, (d) reliance on the private sector rather than the federal government to achieve “Good” ends, (e) a preference for state and local autonomy over federalized and centralized control, (f) trusting in individuals rather than government officials to make decisions, and (g) an overarching belief in the supremacy of the rule of law.

That sounds like something Barry Goldwater would’ve written. Indeed, Greenwald makes several comparisons between that former senator from Arizona and President Bush.

Despite the continuous and enthusiastic embrace of Bush by the vast bulk of political conservatives, it has long been vividly clear that the president (just as was true for Ronald Reagan) simply does not govern in accordance with the claimed principles of political conservatism as the exist in their “pure,” abstract form. George Bush has presided over massive increases in domestic spending, the conversion of a multibillion dollar surplus into an even larger deficit, the creation of vast new bureaucratic fiefdoms, an unprecedented expansion of the power of the federal government, governmental intrusions into multiple areas previously preserved for the states or off-limits altogether, and a wanton disregard for the rule of law. Whatever political philosophy has propelled George Bush’s governance, it is not the abstract tenets of Goldwater /small-government conservatism.

Greenwald’s book reminded me that there was an interesting time during Bush’s second term when, in fact, his own conservative base seemed to turn against him. They were for a time seemingly bent on dismantling all he was trying to put into place.

The president’s campaign to overhaul Social Security—his flamboyantly touted second-term “legacy” program—flopped from the start, his proposals pushed away even by his own party…

The failed Supreme Court nomination of his loyal aide Harriet Miers was fueled almost entirely by his own supporters…

The fiasco over his attempt to turn over America’s port operations to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates even raised questions about whether he was sufficiently committed to protecting the country against the threat of Islamic terrorism…

I remember the conservative pundits going apoplectic at the time for each of these items. I specifically remember the triumph they proclaimed when they were able to get Bush to withdraw Miers’ name from consideration. I think it was then that the true conservatives—the Goldwater libertarian wing of the party—began to realize that Bush, despite his constant use of the word conservative and their unfailing support of him for the previous four years, was not, in fact a conservative. Not a Goldwater conservative, at least.

But by that time the term “conservative” had been hijacked so much that those who honored the tradition that invented it were seen as the lunatic fringe by the powerful establishment who had redefined it to allow them to publicly act in opposition to every one of its original principles.

Greenwald is writing in 2006 or 2007, before the rise of the Tea Party. He is very critical of the neo-conservatives, whom he lambasts for praising, supporting and re-electing Bush in 2001-04 as a conservative hero, and then throwing him under the bus in 2005-06 as an arch anti-conservative. He writes as if these neo-cons are the conservative base of the Republican Party, but of course they are not. Bush and his neo-con supporters are cut from the same cloth. Election cycle after election cycle since Goldwater’s defeat, they have been changing the definition of conservatism from small government libertarianism to big government empire building.

That is because “conservatism”—while definable on a theoretical plane—has come to have no practical meaning in this country other than a quest for ever-expanding government power for its own sake. When George Bush enabled those ends, he was the Great Conservative. Now that he impedes them due to his unprecedented unpopularity, he is the Judas of the conservative movement.

The truth is that the “conservative movement” that Bush and now Obama leads is not rooted in the Republican Party, the way Goldwater conservatism was. It’s a new kind of conservatism—and it’s not compassionate as Bush tried to brand it. It transcends political party. Under this new “conservative” banner we see Republicans acting as bigger spenders than historical Democrats and Democrats acting as bigger warmongers than historical Republicans. They can each get away with their non-traditional excesses because neither one truly has the opposition they once had from the other party to hold them in check.

The political doctrine that drives this “neo-conservatism” is not conservative. Greenwald claims it is evangelical. That is, it is committed to the use of government power as a force to promote a particular conception of God’s will. And there is very little that is more anti-Goldwater conservatism than evangelicalism. As the Senator himself said:

Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them…

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.

Which is as good as any segue back to Greenwald’s subtitle: “How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.”

…what lies at the heart of the Bush presidency is an absolutist worldview capable of understanding all issues and challenges only in the moralistic, overly simplistic, and often inapplicable terms of “Good vs. Evil.” The president is driven by his core conviction that he had found the Good, that he is a crusader for it, that anything is justified in pursuit of it, and that anything which impedes his decision-making is, by definition, a deliberate or unwitting ally of Evil. This mentality has single-handedly prevented him from governing, changing course, and even engaging realities that deviate from those convictions. The president’s description of himself as “the Decider” is accurate. His mind-set had dominated the American political landscape throughout his presidency, and virtually all significant events of the Bush Era are a by-product of his core Manichean mentality.

Manichean is a reference to a religion founded in the third century by the Persian prophet Manes, in which the world was cleanly divided into two opposing spheres—Good and Evil; God and theDevil—and in which they fought a dualistic battle both in heaven and on Earth. It was a new word for me. One I was glad to learn. And it was Bush’s Manichean morality, Greenwald argues, that rendered inevitable…

…some of the most amoral and ethically monstrous policies, justified as necessary as a means to achieve a morally imperative end. The Bush presidency, awash in moralistic rhetoric, has ushered in some of the most extremist, previously unthinkable and profoundly un-American practices—from indefinite, lawless detentions, to the use of torture, to bloody preventive wars of choice, to the abduction of innocent people literally off the street or from their homes, to radical new theories designed to vest in the president the power to break the law.

These measures were pursued not despite the moralistic roots of the president’s agenda, but because of them. Those who believe that they are on the path of righteousness, who are crusaders for the objective Good, will frequently become convinced that there can be no limitations on the weapons used to achieve their ends. The moral imperative of their agenda justifies—even requires—all steps undertaken to fulfill it. As the president ceaselessly proclaimed the Goodness at the heart of America’s destiny and its role in the world, his actions have resulted in an almost full-scale destruction of America’s moral credibility in almost every country and on every continent. The same president who has insisted that core moralism drive him has brought America to its lowest moral standing in history.

A lot of this, a lot of the embrace of Evil in order to do Good, is given room to flourish because of the neo-conservative theory that there are different truths for different kinds of people. As Greenwald quotes the neo-conservative spokesperson, Bill Kristol:

There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Of course, the self-designated “highly educated adults” take responsibility for hiding their truths from the ignorant masses, worried that too much of their truth in the wrong hands will lead to political unrest. Here, Bill’s father, Irving Kristol, lauds the perspective of political philosopher Leo Strauss:

What made [Strauss] so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that “the truth will make men free.” … Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that “the truth could make some minds free,” but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.

Let me take a quick aside here. I know that whole books have been written about these ideas, and I don’t have the scholarship to speak to it authoritatively, but still…how do people delude themselves into thinking these things could possibly be true? Obscuring “truth” from the masses may help you achieve certain objectives—but human happiness isn’t one of them.

But my point in going down this particular neo-conservative rabbit hole is to say, whatever your political or philosophical position may be, it’s much easier to claim your wholesome ends justify your nefarious means if you also subscribe to the idea that there are certain bits of knowledge that your political underclass needn’t worry themselves about. Knowledge, say, of your nefarious means. It’s much harder to justify Evil, in other words, if you don’t get to perpetrate it under the cover of night.

This all would be one thing if we could ascribe this political philosophy to one man—to President Bush, who’s now gone and no longer able to affect United States policy. But that, sadly, is not the case. Greenwald’s criticism of Bush and his view are less about Bush as an individual and more about the political movement that embraced him.

George W. Bush is a single individual, who will permanently leave the American political stage on January 20, 2009. But the political movement that transformed Bush into an icon—and which loyally supported, glorified, and sustained him—is not going anywhere. Bush is but a by-product and a perfect reflection of that movement, one which has been weakened and diminished by Bush’s staggering unpopularity but is far from dead. It intends to rejuvenate itself by finding a new leader, one who appears cosmetically different from the deeply unpopular Bush, but who, in reality, shares Bush’s fundamental beliefs about the world (which are the core beliefs of that movement) and who intends to follow the same disastrous course Bush has chosen for this country.

To understand Bush and his presidency, then, is not merely a matter of historical interest. Examining the dynamic driving his presidency is also vital for understanding the right-wing political movement that has dominated our political landscape since the mid-1990s—a movement that calls itself “conservative” but which, as many traditional conservatives have themselves complained, has no actual allegiance to the political principles for which conservatism claims to stand. That is the movement that George Bush has come to embody, and the attitude of the Bush presidency, the ones which have spawned such a tragic legacy for our country, are the same attributes driving the movement that created, supported, and sustained that presidency.

Greenwald calls this movement evangelical, and I think he means that in more of a political context than a religious one. But religious belief is a big part of what drives it. And those religious beliefs have what I think could be frightening consequences for our world.

That faction is driven by the general theological belief that God’s will is for Jews to occupy all of “Greater Israel,” which will occur only once the enemies of Israel are defeated. There is no question—because many of their key leaders have said so themselves—that evangelicals, who compose a substantial part of President Bush’s most loyal following, have become fanatically “pro-Israel” in their foreign policy views because they believe that strengthening Israel is a necessary prerequisite for Rapture to occur—for the world to be ruled by Christianity upon Jesus’ apocalyptic return to Earth—and they believe that can occur only once “Greater Israel” is unified under Jewish control.

I don’t wish to offend. But, when I read things like that—that there are people who with the earnestness that is necessary to drive a nation’s foreign policy believe that strengthening Israel is a prerequisite for Rapture to occur—I can’t help but wonder if they are grown-ups. Adults in the same sense that I understand that term. If they believe that, I wonder, what other myths from Sunday School do they still believe? Not unexpectedly, Greenwald provides a kind of answer on the very next page.

After President Bush’s 2000 election but before his 2004 re-election, General [William G.] Boykin [the Bush administration’s deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence] appeared in full military uniform before evangelical congregations and insisted that President Bush was installed in the White House by God:

“Ask yourself this: why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? … I tell you this morning he’s in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this. God put him there to lead not only this nation but to lead the world, in such a time as this.”

As [Gary] Wills reports [in a November 2006 New York Review of Books article], Boykin, in part of his stump speech in churches, would typically present a slide show with photographs of individuals such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and various Taliban leaders while asking if each was “the enemy.” He “gave a resounding no to each question,” and then explained:

“The battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan. … Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

This is what frightens me about evangelicals in positions of political power. If they honestly believe this stuff, which I have to assume they do, then what kind of decisions would they be willing to make with regard to our nation’s foreign policy, armed forces, and nuclear arsenal? There’s likely to be no limit. I think that’s the key point that Greenwald wants to make with this book, and which he summarizes so well in his concluding paragraph.

The Manichean warrior recognizes no limits on the weapons he uses to annihilate the Evil enemies. Those who begin with the premise that they are intrinsically and by divine entitlement on the side of objectives Good view any weapons they use as, by definition, just and necessary. Thus, the president who vowed to the world that he would demonstrate the values that have made this country great, thereafter systematically violated those very values to the point where our country is no longer defined by them. The epic challenge in the aftermath of the Bush presidency is the restoration of those national values, a rehabilitation of our national character, so that American morality and credibility are, once again, more than empty slogans in presidential Manichean war speeches. This is the tragic legacy George W. Bush leaves behind for America.


Greenwald is a writer, like Huxley and Harris, that I could quote at tremendous length (as I have in this post) and be hard pressed to find anything of substance to add. One thing I really enjoy about him (and about Huxley and Harris) is the way he speaks very plainly in his writing, offering a clear perspective on what others obscure by design or by incompetence. Here are just a two examples that struck me:

Not only American political discourse but also American Culture generally are suffused with an endless parade of fear-inducing images, of constant warnings of latent dangers—the terrorist “sleeper cells” lurking in every community, the sex predators living covertly on one’s own street, drug gangs and violent criminals and online pedophiles, radical tyrants seeking nuclear weapons. Basic human nature dictates that a world that seems frightening and hopelessly complex always engenders a need for both protection and clarity.

Religion—a belief in an all-powerful, protective deity and a clear, absolute, and eternal moral code—powerfully satisfies those cravings. True faith in an all-powerful, benevolent God alleviates both fear and anxiety and produces an otherwise unattainable tranquility and feeling of safety. Identically, a political movement built on a strong, powerful, protective leader—one who claims that the world in morally unambiguous, who insists that it can be cleanly divided into Good and Evil, and who promises “protection” from the lurking dangers of Evil—fulfills the same needs. Those who lead the group—the Protectors—will inspire great personal loyalty, while those who oppose it will be viewed as mortal enemies.

+ + +

The Bush presidency has fundamentally transformed the way we speak about our country and its responsibilities, entitlements, and role in the world. In reviewing the pre-Iraq War “debate” this country had both on television and in print, one of the most striking aspects in retrospect is the casual and even breezy tone with which American collectively discusses and thinks about war as a foreign policy option, standing inconspicuously next to all of the other options. There is really no strong resistance to it, little anguish over it, no sense that it is a supremely horrible and tragic course to undertake—and particularly to start. Gone almost completely from our mainstream political discourse is horror over war. The most one hears is some cursory and transparently insincere—almost bored—lip service to its being a “last resort.”