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“How Bush rules: chronicles of a radical regime,” Sidney Blumenthal

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
17 September 2006

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"How Bush rules: chronicles of a radical regime"

by Sidney Blumenthal

Princeton | August 2006 | ISBN 069112888X

Extract from the introduction to "How Bush rules: chronicles of a radical regime"

The two great epochal crises in American history after the revolution - the Civil War and the Great Depression - were accelerated and deepened by passive, accommodating, or stubbornly out-of-touch presidents - James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover. Political and economic forces they failed to control or understand overcame them. But neither sought conflict or courted turmoil, even though they accelerated it. By contrast, Bush purposefully polarised differences in the country for political advantage.

In foreign policy, Bush has freely appropriated the language of Woodrow Wilson about freedom and democracy. But whereas Wilson sought to bring the United States into a new international system of law, Bush's unilateralism has opposed the Wilson heritage at every turn, a stance exemplified by his appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations.

Bush also claims to stand in the conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan sought to overturn longstanding policies of Democratic and Republican presidents alike in pursuit of a radical and often fanciful conservatism. But when he found himself cornered by realities, Reagan the ideologue gave way to Reagan the old union negotiator, prepared for compromise. Facing reality, he gave up his rhetoric about privatising Social Security to join with Democrats to fund its long-term solvency. After the Iran-Contra scandal, he summarily dismissed his neo-conservative aides and forged a détente with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that helped to end the Cold War. That achievement, which required disenthralling his administration from the right wing, was his finest moment and the enduring basis of his presidential reputation. Had he not cast out the right, he would have remained covered with disgrace.

George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush's father and Reagan's vice president and successor, pointedly blackballed the neo-conservatives from his administration. Yet the son George dusted off Reagan's discredited zealots and their doctrines to provide him with reasons for a war or choice in Iraq. His rejection of his father's realism in foreign policy was pointed, and that rejection signalled a larger radicalism.

Nothing like Bush's concerted radicalism has ever been seen in the White House. One would have to go back to the Civil War era to find politicians as polarised. But not even the president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, ran as extreme and insulated an administration. Davis, a former US senator and secretary of war, appointed experienced politicians and diplomats to responsible positions within his government and kept the radical Fire-Eaters at bay. As soon as the Fire-Eaters' vision of an independent slave republic materialised through secession, they were consigned to the sidelines, where they remained as critics of the Confederate President for the duration of the Civil War.

Never before Bush has a President so single-handedly and wilfully precipitated national and international crises. The tragedy of September 11 cannot be offered as the sole justification for his actions. In his first inaugural address, Bush cited a biblical passage about an "angel in the whirlwind." His presidency has been a self-created whirlwind.

In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt wrote a sympathetic biography of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the short-lived English republic of the seventeenth century. Although Roosevelt admired many of Cromwell's intentions to create representative government, he described how Cromwell's volatile temperament undermined his virtuous goals. But he added: "In criticising Cromwell, however, we must remember that generally in such cases an even greater share of blame must attach to the nation than to the man." Roosevelt continued:

"Self-governing freemen must have the power to accept necessary compromises, to make necessary concessions, each sacrificing somewhat of prejudice, and even of principle, and every group must show the necessary subordination of its particular interests to the interests of the community as a whole. When the people will not or cannot work together; when they permit groups of extremists to decline to accept anything that does not coincide with their own extreme view; or when they let power slip from their hands through sheer supine indifference; then they have themselves chiefly to blame if the power is grasped by stronger hands."

The tragedy that Theodore Roosevelt described is not restricted in its broad dimensions to Britain. Roosevelt wrote his history as a lesson for Americans, who had been spared the travesties of the English revolution. Instead of Cromwell, we had George Washington. Ultimately, a people is responsible for its leaders. Bush's legacy will precipitate a crisis over democracy that only the American people can resolve.

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About the author: Sidney Blumenthal, former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton, is a regular columnist for openDemocracy, Salon and the Guardian, and has been a staff writer for the New Yorker and the Washington Post. His books include How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Princeton University Press, August 2006) and Clinton Wars (Plume, 2004). He is currently a senior fellow at the New York University centre on law and security.

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