What Has Bush Learned?
December 2, 2004
Freud once described neurotic behavior as persisting in doing the very thing that caused the problem in the first place — keeping on digging when you’re already in a hole. By that standard, government may be the most neurotic behavior of all. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.A neurosis is a mental block against learning from experience.
Some years ago The Atlantic Monthly ran a long article showing that government programs to redistribute wealth don’t reduce inequality at all; they leave it about what it was in the first place. Everyone would be just as rich or poor if they didn’t exist. (Everyone would also be freer.)
Now the Bush administration has announced that 12,000 more U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq, swelling the total to 150,000. This comes after all those boasts about how well the war was going; but that was before the election.
Odd. The other day in Canada President Bush claimed that his victory in the election was a mandate for his foreign policy. Of course it wasn’t. He won in spite of the Iraq war, and he knew it, which is why he has delayed telling the public he planned to send additional troops until now. About three quarters of the voters for whom the war was the most important issue voted for John Kerry.
This war is what Freud would call neurotic. It’s not solving the problem of terrorism; it’s aggravating it, while causing new problems. One thing we know Bush won’t do is step back and rethink the whole thing. Why did the 9/11 attacks occur in the first place? Because U.S. Government interventionism has made us hated around the world, particularly in the Muslim world. So what is Bush doing about that? Everything he can do to intensify that hatred.
It would be tedious to list his other blunders, chiefly his strained attempt to connect Iraq to 9/11. We have hailed our victory over the Iraqi army, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the “transfer of sovereignty,” and we’re getting ready to hail the January elections. And what has really been achieved? Are we expecting any good to come of all this, or are we merely waiting for a chance to withdraw gracefully?
[Breaker quote: Stubborn, yes; but stupid?]Bush himself probably wouldn’t be foolish enough to do it all over again. Maybe in his private moments he wishes he could go back to 9/11 and handle it differently; maybe he would ignore the neoconservative fanatics who immediately tried to turn a terrorist attack into an excuse for the war they’d wanted — a war on Iraq. Following their advice nearly cost him reelection.
Now the neocons want to expand the war to Iran; but Bush’s caution so far suggests that he has learned a lesson. Besides, American forces are already stretched too thinly for a similar war on Iran. We should notice what the president isn’t saying these days: He’s not talking about “preemptive” war on Iran, or suggesting that “regime change” there would protect our own freedom; he no longer speaks of an “axis of evil” of which Iran is a charter member.
Bush is a stubborn man, but there are subtle signs that he’s also, in some respects, a changed man. These may not be the most important respects, but they may save us from a wider and much worse war: the neocons’ coveted “World War IV,” which was to transform the entire culture of the Middle East.
Instead, Bush will have his hands full leaving Iraq with some plausible semblance of the American-style democracy he has promised. He still insists that the scheduled January 30 elections, even if they are boycotted by eligible and terrorized voters, will go on, and will change Iraq’s character; but at least he no longer has similar delusions about magically transmuting Iraq’s neighbors. It’s one thing to talk hopefully about change, progress, and democracy, the mashed potatoes of political rhetoric; implementing them among passionate people is another matter.
Bush has had a lot of experience of democracy lately. What has he learned from it? He has witnessed the difficulties of fostering democracy in Israel and the occupied territories as well as Russia and Ukraine. What has he learned from these encounters?
Probably nothing that can be easily put into words, except perhaps the difference between mashed potatoes and hot potatoes.