Worst President Ever: Here's Why
The emperor has no clothes. George Bush's approval ratings, once above 90 percent, have sunk into the Nixonian 20s. And yet, true to the fairy tale, no one in official Washington wants to talk about it too much, still less seriously analyze the most complete political collapse in American history. Which is why outsiders like Glenn Greenwald -- formerly a constitutional lawyer -- have stepped up to the plate.
Greenwald's first book, How Would A Patriot Act?, addressed the issue of Bush Administration lawlessness and theories of unlimited presidential power in its treatment of alleged terrorists. His new book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency has a dramatically expanded scope.
Greenwald's thesis, simply put, is that Bush's simplistic good vs. evil dualism is fundamentally at odds with America's political traditions. Our foreign policy -- like virtually all nations -- has been based on national interests, not messianic crusades to destroy world evil. Our domestic political order (dating back to its English roots in the Magna Carta) is founded on the recognition that power must be balanced and limited, in order to preserve liberty, and informed by view that liberty is a higher good than mere physical survival.
All this has been forgotten under Bush's rule, especially since 9/11, Greenwald argues. And the reason is simple if one accepts the logic that we are fighting evil itself, rather than a specifically identifiable group of violent terrorists who mean us harm. For if the enemy is evil itself, Greenwald explains, then any limits on how it is fought -- such as the Bill of Rights, or the constitutional separation of powers -- can simply be ignored.
Likewise, from this viewpoint, any criticism is to be viewed as an attack, even if it comes from lifelong Republicans, career military officers, or counter-terrorism experts. The logical response is to smear the character of any and all critics. At best, they are standing in the way of good, at worst they are actively standing with evil.
This insight into the Bush Administration's fundamental logic stands at the core of Greenwald's book, and serves to illuminate both the path taken by the "war on terror" and the administration's utter imperviousness to any of its multiple failures. Where others have been surprised at various turns -- from the indifference to the lack of WMDs in Iraq to the cavalier rejection of Iraq Study Group recommendations following the Democratic landslide victory in the 2006 midterm elections -- Greenwald's explanation makes perfect sense of them, so much so that any other course seems impossible in retrospect.
Lest one think this explanation simplistic, Greenwald explicitly leaves open the question of where this mentality comes from, though he offers some tentative suggestions. What matters is not how complex the motives may be, but how simple a logic they lead to. And lest one think that Greenwald himself is in the grip of a similar black-and-white view of Bush, he makes clear that Bush's simplistic good vs. evil mentality was not expressed immediately after 9/11, nor was his leadership immediately suspect.
In the beginning, Bush spoke out directly against isolated attacks on individuals perceived to be Muslim. After a public appearance at the Islamic Center in Washington, Bush delivered a stinging rebuke to "those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens." Additionally, Greenwald later shows, Iranian cooperation in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan helped bring U.S. relations with Iran closer than anytime since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Yet, plans had already been hatched to attack Iraq before 9/11. And Iran made the list of the "Axis of Evil" in Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address just weeks after it helped us successfully overthrow the Taliban regime with a minimal loss of American lives.
Furthermore, Greenwald makes little attempt to psychoanalyze Bush, to say whether he "really believes" in such a simplistic morality, cynically employs it, or falls somewhere in between. What matters is the historical record of actions taken, including the political and legal rationales advanced to maintain the political power to continue fighting evil as Bush sees it.
The longest chapter in A Tragic Legacy concerns Iran, and looming possibility that Bush could lead us to war with Iran before leaving office. As with the rest of the book, the primary concern is with the logic involved in advancing and changing rationales, rather than with logistical concerns and the like. The Iran chapter follows another on Iraq, and to a certain extent involves a sickening sense of deja vu. Equally important, however, are the differences.
Not only is Iran quite unlike Iraq in a pesky, reality-based sense (far stronger militarily, with numerous significant trade, diplomatic and cultural relations with powerful nations from Europe to China), it differs, too, in the fundamental logic involved, although this is usually deeply hidden. Yet, once Greenwald points it out, the difference is obvious: With Iraq, we were repeatedly told that Iraq had to be attacked because it posed a unique threat. But Iran is clearly not unique. It is, rather, a stark reminder that Bush and his allies have repeatedly talked of a multi-decade, even multi-generation "war on terror," in which the number of governments we might overthrow could run as high as 60.
While most people assume that attacking Iran is "off the table" in Bush's politically weakened state, this assumes a realist logic utterly foreign to Bush's mentality. Just as Bush chose to escalate in Iraq, in the face of the bipartisan opposition of the Iraq Study Group, he might easily do the same with Iran. Indeed, the weaker he might seem, the stronger an imperative he might feel. The logic of fighting evil never leads to retreat.
There are numerous criticisms that could be raised against Greenwald's approach. Some will say he pays too little attention to this faction or that -- whether the religious right, the neocons, oil interests, etc. But such criticism would miss the point. His focus is on a common rationale through which all the forces that have supported Bush have found expression.
While Greenwald has left a vast range of specific topics and arguments largely unaddressed, he has constructed an impressive argument about the basic template of the Bush Administration, and how it has tried to permanently alter America and our relationship to the world. Anyone who wants to successfully challenge and change that legacy owes it to themselves to read this book as an indispensable guide to how to proceed.
A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency
by Glenn Greenwald / Crown Publishers
303 pages/ $24.95