Wednesday, 10 November 2010

George W. Bush: Memoirs of the Decider

The headlines were awash on November 9 of stories about the release of the Bush memoir, Decision Points. We were all reminded once again of an American leader who managed to polarize not just his own country but the entire world. With Mr. Bush's admission of personally authorising waterboarding - an act of torture and a crime under U.S. and international law - I must remind myself that the W stands for Walker.

The credibility of a leader and the credibility of a nation have fallen during the eight year tenure of a man who says that he hopes history will judge him well but such a judgement will only come after he is long gone. I have to chuckle at such a rationalisation. No matter what happened under his administration, things will eventually straighten themselves out and when they do, this will be proof that the original decisions were sound ones. I find it interesting that according to the New York Times, a televised interview with Mr. Bush with NBC journalist Matt Lauer, meant to promote the publication of the book was apparently beat out in the Nielsen ratings by Fox's House and the CBS comedies How I Met Your Mother and Rules of Engagement and ABC's Dancing with the Stars. This could be interpreted as a telling sign that the public has heard these stories before. Of course it doesn't quite explain how a public who was so afraid after 9/11 voted a man into office for a 2nd term when one should have been enough. Well, maybe even one term was too much.

One thing can be said though; when you're big you don't necessarily have to be right. When the elephant moves, we try to stay out of its way. The United States is without a doubt the last superpower. It has the biggest economy in the world, almost 3 times bigger than the number 2 position. It has the biggest military in the world. With size comes "it just is". After all is said and done, after all the debates have exhausted every possible analysis of right, wrong and alternative scenarios, we must contend with what happened and what is.

I remember Colin Powell at the U.N. holding up a vial of anthrax arguing that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Since then I, probably like a lot of people have discovered the depth of the hatred which exists between the two religious groups in Iraq, the Sunni and the Shiite and how uncontrollable the situation is in the country. I have more than once thought that the only way to keep a lid on such a cauldron of discontent would be to have... ah, a secular dictator in charge. Oh, we had one; now we're trying something else. Estimates vary greatly but I see the number of Iraq's who have died since the 2003 invasion is anywhere from several hundred thousand to over a million. Is the world a safer place?

Canada's own Stephen Harper has been likened to the right wing conservatives of the George Bush era. Has the association done him well? "Steve" seems to have gotten nary a mention in Decision Points which is like testimony of how much Canada was on the "decider's" radar. Obviously the decider was busy elsewhere deciding stuff: the invasion of Iraq when there were no WMDs, doing nothing during Katrina while over 1,300 people died, authorising torture against international law, squandering the surplus of the Clinton administration and removing various safeguards in the financial industry which lead up to the crisis of 2008.

I always try to be generous with a political leader. Running a country is not something which is easy to do. No matter what promises a politician may make out on the campaign trail in an effort to garner my vote, I realise that once that person takes up the reins of power, he or she is going to discover that running the show is not as easy as one would think. I'm going to cut the person a little slack. However, how much slack do I cut before I conclude that the person is in trouble that the person is not up to the job?

The public is very fickle and when times are tough, when unemployment is high, the public can be very impatient. Considering the trouncing Obama just received in the mid-term elections in the U.S., I'd say this all played out true to form. I'll give you a chance to fix things and if the world is straightened out in the next 10 minutes, I'm changing allegiances and voting for somebody else.

However, Mr. Bush and his team managed to transform the fear of a nation into a political asset. 9/11, while one of the most traumatic of events in American history, gave Bush almost carte blanche to do anything and everything. Yes, history will judge George W. Bush and hopefully history will eventually determine for all of us whether the subsequent actions taken by the "decider" were in fact necessary or effective.

On January 16, 2008, CTV reported that the Canadian government had actually put the United States on a watch list for torture.

Canada's new focus on torture was ordered by the inquiry into Maher Arar's nightmare in Syria. U.S. authorities sent Arar -- a Canadian of Syrian ancestory -- to Syria after he made a brief stopover in New York in 2002. They wrongly accused him of having links to terrorism in large part because of information provided by the RCMP.

Arar was sent to a Syrian prison where he was tortured for nearly a year. An inquiry into the Arar affair ordered a new focus on torture, and CTV News has learned that, as part of a "torture awareness workshop," diplomats are now being told where to watch for abuse.

It notes specific "U.S. interrogation techniques," which include "forced nudity, isolation, and sleep deprivation." The U.S. has repeatedly denied allegations by international groups that it tortures prisoners captured in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. However, U.S. officials have refused to comment on the Canadian list.

But international observers say they are heartened by the specificity of the Canadian list. Alex Neve of Amnesty International says he is surprised that Canada would risk offending allies by naming countries that potentially torture prisoners.

"These are countries where, sadly, the record is clear -- torture and ill treatment happens," said Neve.

But it appears that Ottawa may have had second thoughts about being so explicit. After the documents were released as evidence in a court case relating to Afghan detainees, the government tried to get them back. Sources say that Ottawa apparently wanted to black out sensitive parts that may anger allies.

The subsequent political uproar over this list led to the removal of the U.S. and Israel - could they be compared to places like Iran? - but it is a telling revelation of how the Arar story showed how extreme the situation had become after 9/11 under Bush.

The sheer magnitude of the events during the Bush years is "jaw dropping". An article in Reuters of November 9, 2010 pegs the current cost of the Iraq war at nearly 5,800 soldiers killed, close to 40,000 wounded and over $1 trillion. An article in The Washington Post dated March 9, 2008 puts an estimate for the final tally of the Iraq war at 3 trillion dollars. That's trillion. Only World War II surpasses Iraq in cost and with Iraq being the 2nd longest conflict after Viet Nam. The total damage for Katrina is estimated at $82 billion. One estimate of the overall cost of the 2008 financial crisis is the cumulative loss in global output (GDP). If one calculates the sum of the annual differences in global GDP between the April 2008 and the April 2010 IMF World Economic Outlook projections, one ends up with a staggering US$60 trillion (more than annual world GDP) as the cost of the crisis. Don't forget that not only did the crisis truly started in September 2008 under Bush's watch, Bush's eight years in office contributed to producing the crisis by providing some of the deregulation which caused the subprime mortgage fiasco.

Just how much was Bush in control? Just how much was Bush at the top of his game? And just how much was Bush merely an average guy in exceptional circumstances; a man in way over his head?

I still remember from years ago a picture which made all the papers. Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a charismatic personality to the nth degree, was captured by a photographer doing a flip off a diving board in the swimming pool of a hotel somewhere. I remember thinking that doing a flip required a certain degree of physical fitness and agility and I was both impressed and proud that my political leader was capable of doing such a thing. This was a man I wanted to represent me; this was a leader I wanted to follow.

There was a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 20, 2005. Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg and George W. Bush walk out to the podium. During Mr. Bush's talk he becomes, let's say, lost for words and says, "I was going to say he's a piece of work, but that might not translate too well. Is that all right, if I call you a 'piece of work'?" I was stunned at how the grinning Bush captured on camera somehow didn't seem to realise his extemporaneous choice of supposed down home friendly descriptor was in fact insulting the Prime Minister by suggesting he was contemptible.

In over his head? Way over his head!


Wikipedia: Decision Points

my blog: Movie Review: Fair Game
The Plame Affair: the outing of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA operative


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