The failed presidency of George Bush is deftly summarized by a bumper sticker seen in various places around the nation: "Saddam Hussein still has a job –— do you?" For most Americans, the question requires no explication. From the beginning, Bush styled himself as the warrior president who would dauntlessly lead the United States to various triumphs around the world. He wasn't much interested in pedestrian domestic affairs, delegating their management to others. Now he is stuck with the fruits of his neglect: The bottom has fallen out at home, and his foreign-policy triumphs have proved to be dubious, or even fraudulent, achievements.
The nicest thing I can think to say in the president's behalf is that he is a victim of bad timing —– an unimaginative politician caught in the changing tides of history. His career, in which he dutifully served under powerful figures like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, did not prepare him for any of the upheavals he has had to confront in the White House. As CIA director, he embraced the Cold War view of the world. Then the Cold War suddenly ended. As a congressman and vice-president, he absorbed conventional business-conservative financial views. Then the economy collapsed. In both spheres, the old bromides failed him.
This explanation doesn't provide much comfort to voters. After all, a leader's mettle is tested by the unpredictable —– how he responds to new and contradictory realities. Some leaders grow in adversity, staking out new visions of what must be done. Despite his Southern origins, Lyndon Johnson led a revolution in civil-rights legislation. Despite a career of anticommunism, Nixon opened diplomatic relations with "Red China."
Slow footed and out of touch, Bush has been stubbornly dense to the new facts facing him and the country. In foreign affairs, he was consistently behind the curve on the breakup of the Soviet Union and oblivious to the surge of democratic yearnings in China and elsewhere. In economic policy, he still doesn't get it –— still does not grasp why Americans are so worried about their economic well-being or that the nation and the world are flirting with depression.
Bush has responded to all this with petulance, chiding citizens for not being more upbeat about his leadership. Four years ago, when I wrote a column appraising the Republican presidential candidate, an RS editor impishly headlined the piece "George Bush: Is Anybody Home?" I think it is fair to say the question has been answered.
The supposed high point of Bush's first term —– the bloodless victory of Desert Storm —– actually contains the seeds of a great scandal. The president's aides are working furiously to keep it from public view during the election —– and they may succeed —– but the broad outlines are already visible: The Bush administration cozied up to Saddam by guaranteeing $1.9 billion in agricultural loans that were diverted to high-tech military equipment. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, the administration buried the facts by altering documents or smothering criminal prosecutions that might have revealed the embarrassing truth.
Bush's dealings with Iraq involve some of the same malodorous elements of the Iran-contra scandal –— third-country shipments of U.S. weapons to Iraq, illegal exports of military technology and, above all, a policy of wooing a treacherous dictator with money and arms.
The Bush-Saddam affair also poses the same question that brought down Nixon in Watergate: What did the president know, and when did he know it? So far, most of the path-breaking revelations have come from Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas. Among other disclosures, it has been established that the Commerce Department granted 771 export licenses to Iraq between 1985 and 1990 as the Bush administration curried favor with Saddam, despite the fact that U.S. intelligence knew Saddam had used poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war and used it against his own citizens in Kurdistan.
When Congress made inquiries, Commerce officials altered the information on sixty-eight export licenses to conceal the military nature of the equipment. Congressional investigators believe export-control laws on military technology may have been violated and that the coverup itself was illegal. They have evidence that White House officials —– presidential counsel C. Boyden Gray and Brent Scowcroft, head of the National Security Council —– were involved in preparing the Commerce Department responses to Congress. Was Bush?
Bush was certainly aware of the huge U.S. bank loans to Saddam, but did he also know they were systematically diverted to weaponry? Well, the CIA knew. It reported as much to the White House before the last $1 billion was sent to Saddam. The White House ignored the warning. In the same period, Saudi Arabia transferred U.S. bombs to Iraq. Was this a mistake, as the Saudis claim, or was it done at the behest of the United States?
The suspicions about all these and other transactions are heightened by the administration's response: stonewalling as brazen as Nixon's during Watergate. Despite the evident illegalities already disclosed and the heavy political overtones, the U.S. attorney general refused a request from Democrats to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.
Further, the criminal prosecution of an Atlanta banker involved in the Iraqi loans was settled with a guilty plea that did not require the defendant to make a full disclosure of his dealings, even though he had volunteered to. It looks like a case of the Justice Department snuffing out an inquiry before it leads from the lower rungs of government to officials higher up. Maybe it is just an attempt to avoid embarrassment in an election year, but maybe it is about avoiding something worse.
The larger meaning, in any case, is that Bush's bizarre courtship of Saddam —– and his subsequent war against him —– represents the Cold War reflex at its worst. First, the government makes secret alliance with a world-class thug, cementing the friendship with lots of military hardware (an immoral embrace that doubtless encouraged Saddam's reckless aggression). Then, when things go awry, the government buries its mistakes by using military force. In the process, the president grossly deceives the public about why the nation must go to war.
In fact, the sequence of events with Iraq is exactly parallel to what Bush did in Panama. The CIA and the Reagan administration (with Vice-President Bush personally involved) played cozy with Manuel Noriega for years, despite his involvement in the drug market. When Noriega got uppity, Bush bombed the daylights out of him, then arrested him. In terms of producing real change, Panama turned out about as well as Iraq.
The pattern fits most of Bush's conduct of foreign policy, with one important exception: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given the end of the Cold War, the administration seized the opportunity, and Secretary of State James Baker III successfully nudged both sides to the bargaining table. While there is no agreement yet, Bush deserves credit for fostering what may prove to be a historic breakthrough.
The central problem with Bush as leader of the New World Order is that for him it's just a slogan. He cannot tell us what it means, because he's still relying on Cold War methods —– military muscle, covert action and diplomacy without principles. George Bush is a commander in chief stuck fighting the last war.
Just as the president struggles to revive his popularity, the economy has once again turned ominous. After a brief upturn in the spring, consumer confidence started falling again by midsummer. The employment outlook has darkened to the point where forty-four percent of the public says it is hard to get a job. The most threatening indicator is the steady fall of commodity prices, from coffee to platinum to gold, which signals deflationary forces and weakness worldwide. Commentators in Europe speculate routinely on the potential for global depression. The president, meanwhile, makes happy talk about more tax cuts.
As a political fact, the collapse of prosperity is the main reason why Bush will likely be a one-term president. Through the Eighties, the Reagan prosperity was distributed very unevenly, but the gaudy wealth-making at the top at least allowed opinion leaders in business and the media to proclaim "good times."
Four years ago, Bush outlandishly promised 15 million new jobs during his first term; he has delivered virtually zero. And job losses haven't been confined to blue-collar workers or the working poor. Unemployment is hitting the white-collar professionals and managers in business and finance, the Republican suburbs and such GOP strongholds as Southern California. The "job machine" celebrated in the Reagan years has stopped cold.
None of this is going to change between now and the election, but the risks are now much larger than Bush's fate. For the next two or three quarters, if the stagnation continues, there is the danger that things will turn much worse. "Depression is simply a recession that you can't get out of with fiscal and monetary policies," says Edward Yardeni, chief economist at C.J. Lawrence, a Wall Street firm. "There's a 50-50 proposition in the first half of next year that this thing will drop off again. And if that happens, I don't know how we get out of it."
The lame excuse offered by the president's fans is that it wasn't his fault: The economy was overwhelmed by the accumulated greed and excess of the Reagan years, especially the mountain of debt. That's true, but it neglects the fact that as vice-president during those years, Bush was a faithful cheerleader for the froth that set up the nation for this pain.
The excuses also ignore the strategy Bush has pursued as president. The recession, after all, was not caused by "forces of nature." It was man-made. Despite his feel-good rhetoric in 1988, Bush supported the Federal Reserve's campaign to slow the economy with higher interest rates —– a two-year squeeze that eventually created the recession. Then Bush added further injury by raising taxes just as the recession was taking hold. Now he wants to be forgiven for these pivotal errors.
Above all, Bush has failed because he did not recognize the unfolding reality. Even this summer, he was still whining about public misperceptions. "I happen to think the economy is better than most of the people in America think," he told the New York Times.
Every time Bush denies the reality known to ordinary Americans, he only makes things worse. People recognize that the economy continues to be sick, and when they hear the people in charge claiming otherwise, it adds to the public's fears. Bush's myopia is a leading contributor to the loss of consumer confidence.
The president's long-term vision is not much better than his short-range perceptions. His idea of confronting the global economy is to let the multinational corporations and banks work things out for the rest of us. That is the underlying meaning of his new free-trade agreement with Mexico and his proposals for banking reform —– more deregulation after a decade in which deregulation produced one disaster after another.
In terms of rebuilding the country's manufacturing base, Bush has no proposals except to rely on the Gipper's old bromide about "the magic of the marketplace." That "magic" has lost its charm. As prosperity continues to erode, people want a government that will take responsibility and act. Taking responsibility is not George Bush's thing.
A president who fails on the two big-ticket items –— foreign policy and the economy —– naturally disappoints on many other matters. A second term will simply give Bush the opportunity to tilt the Supreme Court even further to the right and harm individual liberties, including the right to choose abortion. Bush will also continue his deceitful posture on the environment –— promising one thing while doing what he can to help corporate polluters. The big-money interests that have been in the saddle in Washington for twelve years will remain there. And the divisive politics of race and right-wing social issues will continue.
These are all good and sufficient reasons to send Poppy back to Kennebunkport but not quite a guarantee that the voters will retire him this fall. Any challenger must cross one final hurdle with voters in order to unseat an incumbent president —– the risk of putting a new and untested leader in the Oval Office. Bush is counting on that to save him. "In the final analysis," he told the Times, "people are going to say, who do you want sitting at that desk? Who has the experience? Who do we trust? That's why I'm going to win this election. You watch."
Bill Clinton's virtues –— his youth and activist energy, his enthusiasm for new departures –— will scare off some voters. But my sense is that many Americans are so anxious for serious change that they've already crossed that bridge –— they're ready to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. As early as June, when the Clinton campaign polled voters about whom they most feared in the White House for the next four years, Bush came in first, Ross Perot second and Clinton third.
Yes, a Clinton presidency does pose risks. But would they be worse than another four years without a leader at all?