They may have been the most disastrous dreamers,
the most reckless gamblers, and the most vigorous imperial hucksters and grifters
in our history. Selling was their
passion. And they were classic American salesmen – if you're talking about
underwater land in Florida, or the Brooklyn Bridge, or three-card monte, or
bizarre visions of Iraqi
unmanned aerial vehicles armed with chemical and biological weaponry let
loose over the U.S., or Saddam Hussein's mushroom clouds rising
over American cities, or a full-scale reordering of the Middle East to our
taste, or simply eternal global dominance.
When historians look back, it will be far clearer that the "commander in
chief" of a "wartime" country and his top officials were focused, first and
foremost, not on the shifting "central theaters" of the Global War on Terror,
but on the theater that mattered most to them – the "home front," where
they spent inordinate amounts of time selling the American people a bill of
goods. Of his timing in ramping up a campaign to invade Iraq in September 2002,
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card infamously explained:
"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
From a White House where "victory
strategies" meant purely for domestic consumption poured out, to the Pentagon
where bevies of generals, admirals, and other high officers were constantly
being mustered, not to lead armies but to lead
public opinion, their selling focus was total. They were always releasing
And don't forget their own set of soaring inside-the-Beltway fantasies. After
all, if a salesman is going to sell you some defective product, it always helps
if he can sell himself on it first. And on this score, they were world champs.
Because events made it look so foolish, the phrase "shock and awe" that went
with the initial attack on Iraq in March 2003 has now passed out of official
language and (together with "mission accomplished") into the annals of irony.
Back then, though, as bombs and missiles blew up parts of Baghdad – to fabulous
visual effect in that other "theater" of war, television – the phrase was constantly
on official lips and in media reports everywhere. It went hand-in-glove with
another curious political phrase: regime change.
Given the supposed unique technological proficiency of the U.S. military and
its array of "precision" weapons, the warriors of Bushworld convinced themselves
that a new era in military affairs had truly dawned. An enemy "regime" could
now be taken out – quite literally and with surgical precision, in its bedrooms,
conference rooms, and offices, thanks to those precision weapons delivered
long-distance from ship or plane – without taking out a country. Poof! You
only had to say the word and an oppressive regime would be, as it was termed,
"decapitated." Its people would then welcome with open arms relatively small
numbers of American troops as liberators.
It all sounded so good, and high tech, and relatively simple, and casualty
averse, and clean as a whistle. Even better, once there had been such a demonstration,
a guaranteed "cakewalk"
– as, say, in Iraq – who would ever dare stand up to American power again?
Not only would one hated enemy dictator be dispatched to the dustbin of history,
but evildoers everywhere, fearing the Bush equivalent of the wrath of Khan,
would be shock-and-awed into submission or quickly dispatched in their own
In reality (ah, "reality" – what a nasty word!), the shock-and-awe attacks
used on Iraq got not
a single leader of the Saddamist regime, not one of that pack
of 52 cards (including of course the ace of spades, Saddam Hussein, found in
his "spiderhole" so many months later). Iraqi civilians were the ones killed
in that precise and shocking moment, while Iraqi society was set on the road
to destruction, and the world was not awed.
Strangely enough, though, the phrase, once reversed, proved applicable to
the Bush administration's seven-year post-9/11 history. They were, in a sense,
the awe-and-shock administration. Initially, they were awed by the supposedly
singular power of the American military to dominate and transform the planet;
then, they were continually shocked and disbelieving when that same military,
despite its massive destructive power, turned out to be incapable of doing
so, or even of handling two ragtag insurgencies in two weakened countries,
one of which, Afghanistan, was among the poorest and least technologically
advanced on the planet.
The Theater of War
In remarkably short order, historically speaking,
the administration's soaring imperial fantasies turned into planetary nightmares.
After 9/11, of course, George W. and crew promised Americans the global equivalent
– and Republicans the domestic equivalent – of a 36,000
stock market and we know just where the stock market is today: only about
27,000 points short of that irreality.
Once upon a time, they really did think that, via the U.S. armed forces,
or, as George W. Bush once so breathlessly put
it, "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,"
they could dominate the planet without significant help from allies or international
institutions of any sort. Who else had a shot at it? In the post-Soviet world,
who but a leadership backed by the full force of the U.S. military could possibly
be a contender for the leading role in this epic movie? Who else could even
turn out for a casting call? Impoverished Russia? China, still rebuilding its
military and back then considered to have a host of potential problems? A bunch
of terrorists? I mean… come on!
they saw it, the situation was pretty basic. In fact, it gave the phrase "power
politics" real meaning. After all, they had in their hands the reins attached
to the sole superpower on this small orb. And wasn't everyone – at least, everyone
they cared to listen to, at least Charles Krauthammer and the editorial page
of the Washington Post – saying no less?
I mean, what else would you do, if you suddenly, almost miraculously
(after an election improbably settled by the Supreme Court), found yourself
in sole command of the globe's only "hyperpower," the only sheriff on planet
Earth, the New Rome. To make matters more delicious, in terms of getting just
what you wanted, those hands were on those reins right
after "the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century," when Americans were
shocked and awed and terrified enough that anything-goes seemed a reasonable
It might have gone to anyone's head in imperial Washington at that moment,
but it went to their heads in such a striking way. After all, theirs was a
plan – labeled in 2002 the Bush
Doctrine – of global domination conceptually so un-American that, in my
childhood, the only place you would have heard it was in the mouths of the
most evil, snickering imperial Japanese, Nazi, or Soviet on-screen villains.
And yet, in their moment of moments, it just rolled right out of their heads
and off their tongues – and they were proud of it.
Here's a question for 2009 you don't have to answer: What should the former
"new Rome" be called now? That will, of course, be someone else's problem.
The Cast of Characters
And what a debacle the Bush Doctrine proved to
be. What a legacy the legacy president and his pals are leaving behind. A wrecked
economy, deflated global stock markets, collapsing banks and financial institutions,
soaring unemployment, a smashed Republican Party, a bloated Pentagon overseeing
a strained, overstretched military, mired in an incoherent
set of still-expanding wars gone sour, a network of secret prisons, as
well as Guantanamo, that "jewel in the crown" of Bush's Bermuda Triangle of
injustice, and all the grim practices that went with those offshore prisons,
including widespread torture and abuse, kidnapping, assassination, and the
disappearing of prisoners (once associated only with South America dictatorships
and military juntas).
They headed a government that couldn't shoot straight or plan ahead or do
anything halfway effectively, an administration that emphasized "defense" –
or "homeland security" as it came to be called in their years – above all else;
yet they were always readying themselves for the last battle, and so were caught
utterly, embarrassingly unready for 19 terrorists with box-cutters, a hurricane
named Katrina, and an arcane set of Wall Street derivatives heading south.
As the supposed party of small government, they succeeded mainly in strangling
civilian services, privatizing
government operations into the hands of crony corporations, and bulking
up state power in a massive way – making an already vast intelligence apparatus
yet larger and more
labyrinthine, expanding spying and surveillance of every kind, raising secrecy
to a first principle, establishing a new U.S.
military command for North America, endorsing a massive
Pentagon buildup, establishing a second Defense Department labeled the
Department of Homeland Security with its own mini-homeland-security-industrial
complex, evading checks and powers in the Constitution whenever possible, and
claiming new powers for a "unitary
executive" commander-in-chief presidency.
No summary can quite do justice to what the administration "accomplished"
in these years. If there was, however, a single quote from the world of George
W. Bush that caught the deepest nature of the president and his core followers,
it was offered
by an "unnamed administration official" – often assumed to be Karl Rove – to
journalist Ron Suskind back in October 2004:
"He] said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,'
which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious
study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment
principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really
works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create
our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you
will – we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too,
and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all
of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"
"We create our own reality. … We're history's actors."
It must for years have seemed that way, and everything about the lives they
lived only reinforced that impression. After all, the president himself, as
so many wrote, lived in a literal bubble world. Those who met him were carefully
vetted; audiences were screened so that no one who didn't fawn over him got
near him; and when he traveled
through foreign cities, they were cleared of life, turned into the equivalent
of Potemkin villages, while he and his many armored cars and Blackhawk helicopters,
his huge contingent of Secret Service agents and White House aides, his sniffer
dogs and military sharpshooters, his chefs and who knows what else passed through.
Of course, the president had been in a close race with the reality principle
(which, in his case, was the principle of failure) all his life – and whenever
reality nipped at his heels, his father's boys stepped in and whisked him off
stage. He got by at his prep school, Andover, and then at Yale, a C-level
legacy student and, appropriately enough when it came to sports, a cheerleader
and, at Yale, a party animal as well as the president
of the hardest-drinking fraternity on campus. He was there in the first place
only because of who he wasn't (or rather who his relations were).
Faced with the crises of the Vietnam era, he joined the Texas Air National
Guard and more or less went
missing in action. Faced with life, he became a drunk.
Faced with business, he failed repeatedly and yet, thanks to his dad's friends,
became a multi-millionaire in the process. He was supported, cosseted, encouraged,
and finally – to use an omnipresent word of our moment – bailed
out. The first MBA president was a business bust. A certain well-honed,
homey congeniality got him to the governorship and then to the presidency of
the United States without real accomplishments. If there ever was a case for
not voting for the guy you'd most like to "have a beer with," this was it.
On that pile of rubble at Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001, with a bullhorn
in his hands and various rescuers shouting, "USA! USA!" he genuinely found
his "calling" as the country's cheerleader in chief (as he had evidently found
his religious calling earlier in life). He not only took the job seriously,
he visibly loved it. He took a childlike pleasure in being in the "theater"
of war. He was thrilled when some of the soldiers who captured Saddam Hussein
in that "spiderhole" later presented
him with the dictator's pistol. ("'He really liked showing it off,' says
a … visitor to the White House who has seen the gun. 'He was really proud of
it.'") He was similarly thrilled, on a trip to Baghdad in 2007, to meet
the American pilot "whose plane's missiles killed Iraq's al-Qaeda leader, Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi" and "returned to Washington in a buoyant mood."
While transforming himself into the national cheerleader in chief, he even
"his own personal scorecard for the war" in a desk drawer in the Oval Office
– photos with brief biographies and personality sketches of leading al-Qaeda
figures, whose faces could be satisfyingly crossed out when killed or captured.
He clearly adored it when he got to dress up, whether in a flight
suit landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in May 2003, or in front
of hoo-aahing crowds of soldiers wearing a specially tailored military-style
jacket with "George W. Bush, Commander In Chief" hand-stitched
across the heart. As earlier in life, he was supported (Karl Rove), enabled
(Condoleezza Rice), cosseted (various officials), and so became "the decider,"
a willing figurehead (as he had been, for instance, when he was an "owner"
of the Texas Rangers), manipulated by his co-president
Dick Cheney. In these surroundings, he was able to take war play to an
imperial level. In the end, however, this act of his life, too, could lead
nowhere but to failure.
As it happened, reality possessed its own set of shock-and-awe weaponry. Above
all, reality was unimpressed with history's self-proclaimed "actors," working
so hard on the global stage to create their own reality. When it came to who
really owned what, it turned out that reality owned the works and that possession
was indeed nine-tenths of one law that even George Bush's handlers and his
fervent neocon followers couldn't suspend.
Exit Stage Right
The results were sadly predictable. The bubble
world of George W. Bush was bound to be burst. Based on fantasies, false promises,
lies, and bait-and-switch tactics, it was destined for foreclosure. At home
and abroad, after all, it had been created using the equivalent of subprime
mortgages, and the result, unsurprisingly, was a dismally subprime administration.
Now, of course, the bill collector is at the door and the property – the USA
– is worth a good deal less than on Nov. 4, 2000. George W. Bush is a discredited
president; his job approval
ratings could hardly be lower; his bubble world gone bust.
Nonetheless, let's remember one other theme of his previous life. Whatever
his failures, Bush always walked away from disastrous dealings enriched, while
others were left holding the bag. Don't imagine for a second that the equivalent
isn't about to repeat itself. He will leave a country functionally under the
gun of foreclosure, a world far
more aflame and dangerous than the one he faced on entering the Oval Office.
But he won't suffer.
He will have his new house
in Dallas (not to speak of the "ranch" in Crawford) and his more than $200
million presidential "library"
and "freedom institute" at Southern Methodist University; and then there's
always that 20 percent of America – they know who they are – who think his
presidency was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Believe me, 20 percent
of America is more than enough to pony up spectacular sums, once Bush takes
to the talk circuit. As the president himself put
it enthusiastically,"'I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol'
coffers.' With assets that have been estimated as high as nearly $21 million,
Mr. Bush added, 'I don't know what my dad gets – it's more than 50-75' thousand
dollars a speech, and 'Clinton's making a lot of money.'"
This is how a legacy-student-turned-president fails upward. Every disaster
leaves him better off.
The same can't be said for the country or the world, saddled with his "legacy."
Still, his administration has been foreclosed. Perhaps there's ignominy in
that. Now, the rest of us need to get out the brooms and start sweeping the
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt