Epitaph to George Bush

United States: goodbye Bush, hello Obama

The failure of George Bush’s foreign policy was clear from the start. Meanwhile, his repeated failures in economic policy led to the economic recession in which his presidency ended
by Ibrahim Warde

When George W Bush entered the White House, the least that could be expected from his presidency was sound and effective management: he was, after all, the first American president to hold a Masters degree in business administration (MBA) and from the prestigious Harvard Business School. Twenty years after the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions, the election of a president-CEO looked like another nail in the coffin of the welfare state, and a return to an era when the business community was all-powerful – an era when presidents such as William McKinley (1897-1901) could declare that “there must be less government in business and more business in government”, and Calvin Coolidge (1923-9) that “the business of America is business”.

Other quotes have since gained currency, among them Ronald Reagan’s “the government is not the solution, it is the problem”; and its corollary, that the “magic of the marketplace” would resolve all economic and social problems. Or Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”, which brought the logic of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” to politics. There is also Milton Friedman’s line: “what is called compassion is when politicians spend our money” (1).

Paradoxically, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton (1993-2001), who proved most successful at downsizing the state. One of his major initiatives was to “re-engineer government” by introducing the methods of the private sector. On his watch, major strides were made in the financial deregulation process (2). His strategy of “triangulation”, which consisted in positioning himself halfway between Republican hardliners (who had triumphed in the 1994 mid-term elections) and traditional Democrats, resulted in conservative policies (on matters such as family values, police, prisons) accompanied by fiscal discipline. At the end of his presidency, the elimination of the entire national debt was within sight.

At the time of the 2000 election, the “end of history” ideology was well entrenched. The conventional wisdom on the virtues of globalisation and the “new economy” suggested that, in the absence of foreign threats, the principal quality for the leader of the sole remaining superpower should be the ability to manage prosperity. And the MBA became the emblematic degree of that era. Business schools proliferated all over the world; many graduate schools (in particular in the public policy field) endeavoured to resemble them. (3)With finance driving the economy, countless engineers chose business schools where “financial engineering” was the most prized specialisation. The “best and the brightest” flocked to Wall Street and to a handful of “innovating” companies.

Becoming a war president

Enron, the energy giant that succeeded in extending the frontiers of the virtual economy, was one of them. It had also invested heavily in the political career of Bush, who, as president, surrounded himself with some of its alumni, such as Thomas White, the new Army Secretary, who promised to “apply the methods of the private sector to the public sector”.

Less than a year later, Enron collapsed, and filed for bankruptcy in December 2001, but in the post-9/11 era, the scandal was soon forgotten. Bush, who had promised a “humble foreign policy”, had an epiphany: he would be a war president. This aspect of the presidency overshadowed the dramatic increase of executive power as well as the radicalisation of his economic policy. The new imperial ambitions also justified taking leave of the “reality principle”. As a senior adviser to the president (suspected to be Karl Rove) told journalist Ron Suskind: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” (4).

Bush, who liked to remind people that he was “the decider”, kept the beliefs and style of a CEO president. Tax cuts were a panacea, and consumption was to be the sole economic engine of growth. After launching the “war on terror”, he didn’t ask for sacrifice; he wanted people to go shopping (5). And in the summer of 2002, when the time came for a propaganda campaign to convince the American public of the need to attack Iraq, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card explained why such a campaign had to start in September: “From a marketing standpoint, you don’t introduce a new product in August.” Cabinet meetings resembled board meetings where decisions made beforehand were endorsed. Unlike Clinton, Bush was very strict when it came to dress code and punctuality, but he seemed befuddled whenever questions of substance came up. Paul O’Neill, his first Treasury Secretary, said that at such times the president looked like 
“a blind man in a roomful of deaf people” (6).

Countless government officials were chosen solely on the basis of ideological compatibility. Their statements may have been disconnected from reality, but they had some coherence; politically-driven “talking points” were endlessly – and authoritatively – repeated. Following the lightning military offensive of US troops in Iraq, Paul Bremer, another alumnus of Harvard Business School, was appointed proconsul in charge of a gigantic enterprise of pacification, reconstruction and democratisation in Iraq, although he had never set foot in the country. Two weeks of intensive briefings in Washington brought him up to speed. Like a business school student who is supposed to pontificate with great authority after reading a 20-page case study, he flew to Iraq with just enough knowledge to inflict great damage. He charged ahead, gutting existing institutions and dismantling the Iraqi army (part of his policy of de-Baathification) to create a perfect democracy and a capitalist paradise (7).
The failures of Bush’s policies

Although the failure of the Bush administration’s foreign policy was largely predictable, the repeated failures in matters of economic policy, and even simple logistics, came as a surprise. And American public opinion only started doubting Bush’s leadership after Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. The complete failure of the relief effort was truly shocking, but that didn’t stop the president extending his warm congratulations in front of the TV cameras to Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the man who oversaw the debacle (“heckuva job, Brownie!”).

The crowning achievements came in the last year of Bush’s second term of office when economic recession and financial meltdown requiring a massive government bailout revealed the bankruptcy of the administration’s policies. Still, following the election of Barack Obama, Bush appointees spent their final days in a frenzied effort to impose “midnight regulations” in areas such as the environment and labour laws, to ensure that the Bush ideology would survive well into the next administration (8).

Two recent books help explain all these dysfunctions. Economist James Galbraith chronicles the rise of the “predator state” (9) as a successor to what his father, John Kenneth Galbraith, had called the “new industrial state”. Where a powerful business community once had to contend with counter-powers, such as unions or a relatively autonomous state, the weakening of those counter-powers has given a reinvigorated business community free rein.

As a result, the traditional discourse of the Republican Party on matters such as fiscal discipline, the free market and the downsizing of the state lost substance (10). Even before the massive bailout of the financial system, the Bush administration had presided over one of the greatest expansions of federal spending in history, much to the benefit of politically connected corporations. Indeed, with the steady decline in the number of civil servants, many key state functions were outsourced, especially in homeland security and national defence, to firms such as Blackwater, which have enjoyed spectacular growth (11). Bush himself, son of a president and grandson of a senator, hailed from a family where politics and business were intermingled (12) and owed all his successes – his admission to prestigious universities, his enrichment despite a less-than-distinguished business career and his entire political career – to these connections (13).

The other book, The Wrecking Crew by historian Thomas Frank, describes how a small band of radical conservatives engaged in a systematic dismantling of the liberal state that had grown out of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (14). The book focuses on a few of those anti-government “revolutionaries” who came to Washington in the 1980s to help dismantle the government, and two decades later were busy milking what was left of it.

One of them is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (and a Harvard MBA), who wanted a government so small that he could “drown it in a bathtub.” Following the gutting of the civil service and purges of liberal civil servants, a new generation of bureaucrats have appeared who regard business, as opposed to the public, as the government’s “customer”. In a system of “misgovernment for profit”, their calculation is often that, following a stint in government, they will be hired by one of the firms they used to regulate. Indeed, if there is no such thing as the public interest, why work for the government if not to benefit 
from it?

One of The Wrecking Crew’s other central characters is Jack Abramoff, once the head of the Young Republicans (a movement lavishly financed by the business community), who later sought enrichment in Washington before finding himself at the centre of the largest corruption scandal of the last few years. He is now serving time in prison.

Frank exhumes quotes from an era when the business community spoke bluntly of the virtues of mediocrity in politics. He cites, for example, Homer Ferguson, a former president of the US Chamber of Commerce, who said in 1928: “The best public servant is the worst one. A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive. He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater the danger” (page 129). Based on this criterion, Bush was truly an exceptional president.

Ref: Le Monde

Ibrahim Warde is adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts).

(1) Richard Farnetti and Ibrahim Warde, Le modèle anglo-saxon en question, Economica, Paris, 1997.

(2) Notable legislations include the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernisation Act in 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act in 2000.

(3) “Irresistible business schools”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2000.

(4) Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt”, New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004.

(5) Frank Pellegrini, “The Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation”, Time, 21 September 2001.

(6) Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004.

(7) “Iraq: a licence to loot the land”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2004.

(8) Rosa Brooks, “Bush’s land mines for Obama: Last-
minute rules and regulations by the Bush administration 
could take years to undo”, Los Angeles Times, 20 November 2008.

(9) James K Galbraith, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, 
Free Press, New York, 2008.

(10) President Bush leaves to his successor a deficit approaching $1 trillion for 2008-09 and a national debt exceeding $10 trillion.

(11) Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Army, Nation Books, New York, 2007.

(12) Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, Penguin, 
New York, 2004.

(13) Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W Bush, Random House, New York, 2000.

(14) Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2008.

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