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Once predator, now prey

Dismal Presidency
How Bush Plunged Us Into Polar Nights

Every presidency has its drawbacks. Economic depressions, wars (few of them necessary), hubris and graft could dim the luster on the best of them. But no presidency that I know of, including James Buchanan’s (whose refusal to act in the secession crisis plunged the nation into civil war), Herbert Hoover’s and Richard Nixon’s, can be said to have intentionally retarded progress as we generally understand it — as a social and economic force that makes life better and safer for most. There are quite a few blights on the presumption that the American experience has been a universal pursuit of happiness: Slavery, the genocide of Indians, black repression until 1963, the chronic war on labor and indifference, in the last 30 years, toward the largest underclass in the developed world, among others. But it’s also naïve to suggest that the country as a whole hasn’t generally sustained a course for the better.

It can’t do so forever. No nation ever has. Cultures stall, societies exhaust themselves, empires overshoot. We’re not there by any means. But the last six years feel like a preview. On every issue of national or international importance save perhaps trade, the United States flipped a switch from leadership to inaction or willful regression: In arms control, human rights, civil liberties, global warming, environmental protection, stem-cell research and international relations, the United States is the laggard, the rogue, sometimes the laughing stock. Uncontrollable events aren’t the driving force. In every case, the Bush administration has made a conscious choice to reverse course, sometimes (as when the administration pulled out of arms control treatises or the International Court of Justice or scorned climate conferences) an in-your-face choice to do so. Taken individually, the reversals look like the kind of controversial policy decisions every administration has its share of. Taken together, they add up to a strange dark age of retrenchment in a century that can ill afford gaps of imaginative, humane leadership. Consider the toll.

You’re with us or against us. It was a catchy phrase for a few days in late 2001. Making it policy turned a world of alliances into more opposition — from antipathy to enmity — than the United States has known in its history. The administration takes weird pride in the reversal: “At some point,” Bush told journalist Bob Woodward in 2002, “we may be the only ones left. That’s okay with me. We are America.” Which means what, exactly, if the meaning of “ America” is as diminished as Bush’s standing in the polls?

Global warming. No, Bush didn’t cause it. Nor is he to blame for the 1990s’ Republican Congress that substituted demagoguery for science to blunt efforts at slowing warming. But Bush presided over a make-or-break period if warming was to be controlled. That opportunity is lost, and now the issue is how to manage the consequences.

Embryonic stem-cell research. In August 2001, in a “compromise” putting religiously flimsy arguments ahead of scientifically humane, and proven ones, Bush put a virtual stop to federally supported research in medicine’s most promising field. Millions of terminally ill people who could be helped by advances in the treatment of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other ambushes of healthy lives will likely suffer longer, more pointlessly, and therefore cruelly, because a president aborted scientific honesty in favor of medieval notions of “protecting” five-day-old cells that are destroyed anyway.

Arms control. Terrorism as we’ve known it isn’t security’s greatest challenge. Nuclear proliferation and the possibility of a suitcase bomb exploding in a major city is. Libya’s abandoning of its nuclear program aside, not a single gain as been accomplished on that score, with many losses piling up: North Korea, Iran, and now countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and Kuwait all either planning for or considering nuclear-power capabilities. Of course they all say it’s for peaceful purposes. So does Iran. So does the United States.

Human rights and civil liberties. With Guantanamo, secret prisons, Abu Ghraib, the continuing sprawl of American-run Iraqi and Afghan prisons detaining upwards of 15,000 people without charge, what countries still look to the United States as a beacon of human rights? At home, compared with six years ago, what American feels more free, more secure, less spied on and more assured of fairness should he be unlucky enough (justly or not) to be condemned to the federal government’s asphyxiating terrorist-justice system?

Like an Arctic night in December, the list can go on to depressing lengths. That the Bush presidency is entering its own December should brighten the horizon, if restoring American stature is an objective. But cleaning up toxins in a tract the size of a football field is a notoriously slow process. Imagine the global task ahead, especially when 2008’s potential replacements — Democrats and Republicans — conjure up the likes of James Buchanan.

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