George W Bush’s nemesis

Tom Burgis
31 January 2006

The woman who answers the phones at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was taken aback to be asked whether her organisation – known for its "cloak and ballot" techniques for fostering democracy overseas – had an opinion on President George Walker Bush's victory in the third Bad Democracy poll. Surely the NED has a specialist on North American democracy? "Well, no," came the riposte. "We don’t really need one."

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Confusion was similarly rife at the National Security Council. "The worst democrat of the month? But he’s a Republican." Even the Democrats themselves were retrospect about mouthing off against the forty-third president in print. The office of the party's rising star, Barack Obama, decided to "take a pass on that one", as did the national committee.

By contrast, Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was more forthright:

"Bush trashed traditional American values. He is basically just a device to read a teleprompter. He appeals to the Caliban instincts in American public life, not those of Ariel. He's a surprisingly unsophisticated guy; he's a consumer of instructions, one of the first examples of a committee president, invented on a daily basis to deliver a rightwing credo."

This is a notion of Bush to which many outside the United States have become accustomed – the buffoon, the puppet – even if Tony Blair reputedly considers him one of the sharpest characters he's ever met. He is frequently and often brilliantly ridiculed. It started when the Democrats were trudging from office after Bush Jnr's first victory in 2000. The mischievous among them removed the "Ws" from every computer keyboard. Since then, the worst outrages of the Bush administration have been met with hoots of derision.

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It's hard to resist. This is, of course, the man who gave us: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." But this may be part of the problem, as Naomi Klein opined before the 2004 election. After all, how could a bungling cowboy with the syntax of a chimpanzee be all that bad? Why should we need to engage him on the content – however scrambled – of his pronouncements?

Take his pronouncements on democracy. Bush has insisted that his mission – given to him, incidentally, by God himself– is to bring democracy to the corners of the Earth that are shackled by despotism. If that means bullets first, ballots later, so be it. Naturally, hearing this we fall about. You can't shoot democracy into people, we sneer. But a neo-conservative foreign policy has, over the past three decades, become the dominant ideology of western governments and Bush is its present talisman. Indeed, Oliver Kamm has argued that "tough liberals" should be right behind the president's ethos. If democracy is what we most value, shouldn't we stop at nothing to bring the oppressed under its mantle?

That said, there remains the distinct possibility that altruism is not all that flows through Bush's veins. Says Birns: "The administration has never been interested in democracy – at least, only in the form, not the substance." He recalls a conversation two years ago with the director of the Organisation of American States' democratisation programme, during which he asked the size of the project's budget. "It's zero" said the harassed official," and you get what you pay for."

Bush has surrounded himself with those who render his rhetorical commitment to democracy grimly risible. He sent John Bolton to the UN, his suitcase full of disdain for multilateralism. To marshal the US' s increasingly bolshie backyard were installed Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, both of whom had a hand in channelling funds to the Contras and other such delicacies of Ronald Reagan's Latin American policy. It is no wonder that the Bush administration threatened to cut off aid to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Bolivia if their electorates chose candidates who did not prove compliant to Uncle Sam's intentions. "They want fair elections", Birns says, "provided they get who they want – people who open up to American investment and pay homage at the feet of the Washington Consensus."

All the same, lest we forget, the people of the United States – land of the free, home to the world's finest halls of learning, the great melting pot, the cauldron of modern democracy – have elected him, twice. True, his brother ran the crucial state, his cousin was a big cheese at the crucial news network and one of his campaigners bossed the crucial count, but this was hardly Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe.

Don’t miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:



Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

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GeorgeK's objections

Here we must answer to GeorgeK, whose contribution to the Bad Democracy forum has been fascinating: "I imagine you've started these awards to drum up controversy and draw more people into these forums, and that may work. But they have another, unfortunate effect. Your awards will always slam the politicians who win free and fair elections, and ignore the ones who brutally suppress all democratic opposition."

George suspects that voting for our monthly gong, so far bestowed upon three white, western, middle-aged and democratically elected men, is "driven by frustration with a democratic process which has seen a politician [voters] despise re-elected". How is it that openDemocracy, champion of liberty that it claims to be, can suggest that such constitutional leaders are worse democrats than Islam Karimov and Robert Mugabe?

It is, I suspect, a question of the scope of power. This is the age when power's reach is amplified through technology, finance and globalised structures of influence and dependency that make the arm of the mighty very, very long. Only sixty years ago, Gandhi's strategy of non-violent resistance, of withdrawing consent from imperial rule, could work. "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?" he asked. But such is the reach of power today that it is only with the consent of Washington that some of the world's most persistent atrocities – in Palestine, in Colombia – can continue. That the downtrodden in Jenin or Cali do not consent to the dominance of their domestic oppressors is an irrelevance to Bush's White House.

February's nominations

One thing that is clearly of import on Bush's Capitol Hill is cold hard cash, which brings us to this month's crop. Jack Abramoff looks set to take the fall for a culture of influence trafficking that the Republican dynasty has bred in Washington. Vying with him are Wal-Mart, the corporation that regards workers' rights with an aversion Bush reserves for Fidel Castro or national service, and Vladimir Putin, for whom the Beatles might well have written Back in the USSR. Then we have Vlad's mate Alexander Lukashenko, still flying the flag for autocracy in Europe; Hun Sen, Cambodia's latest nightmare; and Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian president similarly set on reopening the wounds of his country's recent past.

One last word. January saw the accession to power of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, the first women to to be elected president in Africa and South America. In the United States, the next election may well be between two women. Yet no woman has yet been honoured with a Bad Democracy nomination. We need not go so far as enforcing all-woman lists, but perhaps, in the interests of equality, readers might care to seek out those members of the fairer sex with whom power has had its wicked way.

Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

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