Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bush, The Intellectual President

I never thought a day would come when I would argue that George W Bush was an intellectual.I came to USA in 1998 when the economy was booming and Clinton was widely praised for it. The GOP and Bush were repulsive to me especially with their accent on religion. During a republican presidential debate all candidates were asked to name a political philosopher who influenced them most. Bush said "Jesus Christ" and just looked away into the distant sky (or roof). I was angry at such an answer. Today I do not think so and with that a lot of my perceptions changed about Bush thanks in large measure due to Barack Obama.I used to be virulently anti-Bush and today I am not so. I still have criticisms of Bush's Iraq war and the deficits. I've not changed my views of Bush only because I have a visceral hatred of Obama's policies. I am not doing a volte face either. My views have changed simply because I've become far better informed than I used to be as a new immigrant in the early years of Bush. Second, my animosity towards religion is mellowed down as I see religion as a more constructive force, especially as it is used in USA compared to how Advani used it in India. Third, my understanding of economics has deepened considerably since I came to USA and of course it took some time to really shake off some decades old truisms that were beaten into an Indian's conscience (some of which apply to Americans too).

To define who is an 'intellectual' is a very difficult task. It surely should not be restricted to academic achievements or books that a person digests. It is not even just the ability to formulate ideas. Its more. One should be able to stand up for one's ideas and convince a skeptical audience of those ideas. One should be able to transcend the stereotypical image of the collective group of which one is a member of. And, yes, it includes willingness to change one's ideas in the face of new evidence. Bush has a stellar record on some of those benchmarks and a mixed record on some. How does he measure as an intellectual on balance? Let's see.

Bush campaigned on a humble foreign policy. He declared America will not be a "911 to the world" (referring to the number Americans dial for emergencies). A Republican candidate was arguing for a less muscular foreign policy harking back to the original isolationist tendencies of the GOP. Yet 9/11 prompted an immediate change and Bush realized that, for good or bad, America has to plunge headlong into tackling a global menace. It's like how an aging Godfather feels "just when I want to get out they pull me back right in".

Bush was lauded from the left and right for the moral clarity he brought to combating Al Qaeda. Lance Morrow writing for Time said this is a moment for 'purple rage' and told Americans not to allow themselves to be counseled. Only the far left naysayers like Noam Chomsky writhed in agony. It took a Romney candidacy for New York Times to find something redeeming in the Bush actions immediately after 9/11. NYT columnist wrote of a little spoken about visit by George Bush to a mosque after 9/11 to clearly signal that America is at war only with Al Qaeda and not with Islam. When a Muslim Secret service member was asked to get off a plane Bush, visibly angry, took to the bully pulpit with that agent standing next to him and declared that it was 'un-American' to treat his agent like that. Bush also recognized the need to revamp America's laws and re-organize America's security agencies. To Bush's credit his successor has not changed much of those laws and has only taken them further. Imitation is the best form of flattery.

It is GOP orthodoxy that Federal government should stay away from education which rightly belongs to states to legislate and manage. America's school system, unlike its Universities, suffers from deep malaise. Students not being tested and just moved from one class to another is a common sickness of American education. The man whom liberals love to deride as least intellectual and practically a dumb guy was the one who put education on the table to reform. Bush worked with arch ideological nemesis Ted Kennedy to create 'No Child Left Behind' law. Suddenly all of America was abuzz with talk of 'standardised testing' and 'teacher performance'. Bush stood up to his own party's orthodoxy and crafted a bi-partisan legislation working with Ted Kennedy of all people. Sure, the bill has its flaws and it can be improved. That applies to all legislation. The credit should go to the fact that Bush took an important issue head on and shaped public opinion and in the process led his party against its deeply held beliefs.

Bush's faith based initiatives were widely criticized when he formulated them. Given my experience of seeing politicians use religion to get votes in India I was appalled. I've mellowed since then after realizing how religion has a central and enriching role in the American society. Bush was seeking to use religious institutions, not just churches, as vital organs of society. Mac Arthur genius awardee and Afro-American scientist John Dabiri's interview in NPR was a catalyst in making me understand how churches play an integral role in many blighted neighborhoods in America. To characterise Bush's faith based initiative as theocracy does gross injustice to the program and only betrays the leaden thinking of liberals who wield their atheism as a badge of honor. The answer about Christ as political philosopher is very credible and not laughable I'd concede now. Christ's teachings have influenced many world leaders and it is not an answer to ridicule if one understands the role of religious texts in influencing many a world leader across history. If MLK Jr and Gandhi can draw succor from religion so can George Bush.

Bush's handling of stem cell funding came in for lot of criticism from many, including Nobel Laureate and former member of President's Council on Science, under Clinton, Harold Varmus. Bush, in his first nationally televised address, said he would not allow federal funding to stem cell studies that used embryonic stem cell EXCEPT the then current 2 lines that were being researched. Academics and liberals were in an uproar that the President sacrificed scientific progress at the altar of religious belief and party orthodoxy. I too thought so until I read Bush's detailed analysis in his book 'Decision Points'.

Embryonic stem cells are a tricky issue in the frontier of science where very disturbing questions do get thrown up. To be succinct, those stem cells were harvested from embryos that are often discarded after fertility treatments as either surplus or as useless. Bush, as pro-life GOP President, saw that as disturbing. Some of those embryos did hold a promise of life, babies born from such embryos are called 'snow flakes'. Bush was surrounded by 'snow flake babies' when he signed that order banning 'further' federal funds to such stem cells. Note, he only banned federal funds not private funds. Bush had consulted widely with scientists, bio-ethicists and religious people. He arrived at a careful thought out decision. Many cried that this was the end of stem cell research. It was not. Today such embryonic stem cells have been deemed unnecessary. I'd identify this as a key intellectual moment for which the liberal academics have been loath to recognize the president for. Let us also bear in mind that scientists have often egged on Presidents to recklessly pursue courses, like the arms race, in the name of science.

The nuclear deal signed with India was another intellectual moment. Bush nurtured India as a strategic partner and with the weight of the US Presidency he brought India onto the exclusive nuclear club while snubbing Pakistan. Today that deal is in the doldrums thanks to lack of leadership in both countries.

The day after his re-election Bush declared "I've earned political capital and I intend to spend it". He wanted to reform Social Security and Health care. Both proposals had merit to at least be considered. But the downward spiral of Iraq war stopped that.

Iraq is where Bush deserves much scolding. To be brief, no nation at that time could say with certainty that Saddam had no WMD's. All agreed Saddam was gaming the UN inspectors. Where the rest of the world disagreed was on what to do about it. Bush saw Iraq as unfinished job. He squandered US taxpayer money and lives in both countries. It was not a war for oil as Iraq later showed by NOT giving US many oil contracts. Lost in this din is also the fact that Iraq remains the only Islamic middle eastern country where women voted in elections and free elections were held. Bush ignored the Iraq study group recommendation to cut and run. Instead he fashioned the surge that his predecessor later copied for Afghanistan albeit without the political will. Iraq is still far from a liberal democracy but the Iraq that is today is entirely due to Bush. It is up to Iraqis to live up to their historic opportunities.

Bush would ask invitees as to why he is hated overseas, 'is it me or is the US Presidency'. Bush haters reveled that it was Bush who gave US a bad name. Nay. Irrespective of who occupies the White House  they will be hated by a large swath of people simply because its America. This was amply borne out when Obama was no more loved than Bush in the middle east. Bush was very respected in Eastern European nations though for standing up to Russia. Interestingly a Pew global survey indicated Bush was popular in India. Hindu majority population disgusted with the squeamishness of their own leaders in standing up to radical Islamism saw a ray of hope in Bush.

Obama has pulled of a propaganda victory in tying the 2008 financial crises to the Bush era. Bush cried hoarse about the need to rein in the reckless lending by Fannie and Freddie. As I pointed out earlier it was during the Clinton years that Wall Street was deregulated and given a free ride. Bush sacrificed populism to do the unthinkable for a GOP President. He bailed out both Wall Street and Detroit.

The dot-com bust of 2001 started under the Clinton watch and was entirely due to the 'irrational exuberance' of Clinton era yet I did not hear, by hindsight, Bush blame his predecessor as much as Obama whines and groans about his predecessor's 'failed economic policies'. Clinton often brags about the surplus he left behind which supposedly Bush squandered. Clinton's surplus evaporated in the dot-com bust and was totally gone immediately after 9/11.

One of the inflection points in how I viewed Bush was his conduct during the 2008 election season. As the country rapidly slid into a financial morass Bush refused to play favorites. He instructed all departments to keep both Obama and McCain equally informed of what is being done. Aware of how unprepared his new administration was on national security, taking over from Clinton, Bush worked to avoid it. He instructed his homeland security team to work with Obama's transition team on dry runs. Obama team, allegedly, balked thinking "hey what if something happens in the early days of our administration we cannot blame Bush then".

I've never understood how Kennedy, Clinton, LBJ, FDR are all revered as 'intellectuals' but not Reagan or Bush. All those that the liberals love have committed serious acts of omission or racism or plain recklessness and yet we are told to look at them as intellectuals. LBJ would personally pick bombing areas in Vietnam. Kennedy administration dropped orange gas in Vietnam. FDR interned Japanese Americans and embarked on a failed New Deal. Clinton threw away his second term simply because his pants had no zipper.

Bush had his share of omissions. Most notably Iraq but he found his stride on that. Towards the last days of Bush administration many in his circle thought that history will be kinder to Bush as it is towards Harry Truman. I think history will be kinder to Bush and harsher on Obama.

1 comment:

Savitha said...

The is a very big tone of sarcasm on Bush Jr.

How would you handle your personal family members, if they are found as "good" as Bush jr. lately?

Found your article, when I googled on Republican Indian supporters, and saw your name.