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Thursday, September 28, 2006

To Mr. Bush: A Memo from the Boss

In the first days after the terrible events of 9/11, you stood up in fine form. That catastrophe presented a situation and a cast of characters that played to your strength, your instinct for the role of firm wartime leader. The horrendous deed was committed by men delivered as if from central casting, costumed in the garb of unadorned evil, an enemy fit for a clear-cut morality play, inspiring in all of us the feeling of American righteousness and resolve that you expressed so clearly and forcefully in the immediate wake of the disaster. But you have clouded the moral clarity and debased the American righteousness that the whole world then rallied around. Has there been a moment in American history in which such a clear mandate for expressing the best in America, a sort of ugly gift of history, was so spectacularly squandered?

After a brief steady and inspiring start, your performance, in this field suited to your strengths, needs improvement big time, especially in these areas:

Knowledge and application of the fundamental American values for which we stand, in contrast to our enemies.
Stewardship of the American role and standing in the world: how we’re viewed and the kind of cooperation we get from the international community.

Your particular strengths—determination, single-minded focus, and so on—were called forth by this crisis, and you had every opportunity to shine as a principled war-time president. But even with history playing to your strengths, in these areas you have failed to meet performance expectations.

Moreover, in the meantime there have been other failures, most notably in the following:

The nation’s economy: With help from your Republic congress, you’ve turned a robust surplus into a severe deficit. A cynic might wonder whether y’all did so on purpose to ensure that any future “tax ‘n spend lib’rals” would have only a threadbare, paltry purse for socialist schemes. A somewhat less cynical interpretation would be that you did so out of tough love to help wean the republic from the folly of depending on the gu’mint. Either way, or if it was done out of sheer foolhardiness and your own healthy appetite for top-heavy tax cuts combined with expanding the government programs you favor (a sort of non-tax ‘n spend policy), the result is another one on your watch that deeply injures the nation’s standing.
Nature’s economy, the environment. Your administration’s sluggish and dimwitted response to the physical and scientific realities of global warming is an astounding, monumental accomplishment in the annals of blundering by ideologically-driven government officials.

These are cherry-picked issues your political rivals favor, which is not to say that they are no less failures to be condemned. But you have failed miserably the particular interests and the natural, red-blooded American passions of your own political base, too. You’ve degraded the martial and patriotic spirit of the nation by setting it to serve un-American policies and strategies. In my day, kids playing soldier thought of WWII, a just, moral cause. Bringing us into this quagmire of Iraq with your ill-conceived action, miserable and unadaptive military planning, and failures of intelligence and of cultural knowledge, you have badly strained the moral imagination of the nation, especially our youth. They want to be patriotic and brave in a good cause, which is now hard to do. You have crippled good-willed patriotism. In defence of a failed policy, your ideological apparatchiks have invoked the principle of good intentions, the very ploy they disdain as the refuge of liberal folly. Iraq is a disaster we did not have to start, and as it draws on, the unipolar superpower is revealed as an ill-disposed, vulnerable Goliath, a hegemonic, disingenuous, stupid bully militarily stretched thin. That is not the America I know and love and am a passionately patriotic part of. You have through your blundering taken my country from me and sent an imposter abroad in the world, and I deeply resent it. For the first time in my lifetime, it is possible to imagine American decline.

The irony of course is that you are passionately devoted to the idea of America as perennially and providentially dominant, the ordained leader of a world striving toward freedom. But one must take exception to your notion of American exceptionalism.

We are not morally exceptional through force, torture, and “winning the war on terror” by sacrificing our standards of human rights, freedom from government intrusion, and due process. These standards should apply to us at home and to our treatment of those with whom we fight or deal in the international community. Nor is our exceptionalism properly expressed by the self-righteous pursuit of neo-conservative unilateralism in the world. Rather than fearfully pursing this course, a leader who truly understood what it means to be American would call on us to stand fast in our highest standards of civilized conduct even in facing down barbaric enemies. We do not beat them by using their tactics. The burden and privilege of American exceptionalism is that we risk a certain degree of vulnerability by behaving according to the highest ideals and truly leading. Your message to your fellow citizens should not be that we need to condone and practice torture, rendition, secret prisons and lack of due process in dealing with our terrorist enemies. It should rather be that while we use force intelligently and effectively to respond to attacks and threats, we will win the war for hearts and minds around the world by maintaining our commitments to the democratic values we aspire to spread throughout that world. Our citizens should look favorably upon due process for Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Osama bin Laden, should be willing to forego measures that traduce our civil liberties even should that mean that a vicious terrorist attack takes my life or the life of one I love. If we are faithful to our ideals, every good American slain by terrorists is a hero simply by virtue of living by our highly civilized values in the face of a deep existential threat. I would rather die a martyr to true American values, ideals and civilized practices than live in a nation whose safety depends on the betrayal, distortion or debasement of those very values and practices that make us a model of civilization worth imitating. Your and Mr. Cheney’s, your administration’s, embrace of what Mr. Cheney called “the dark side” is as much, or more, a threat to our nation’s existence than the terrorist threat. They can only kill some of our bodies. You are sacrificing the providentially-conceived essence that makes America America and that makes me proud to be an American.

Mr. Bush, fellow citizen, you are my servant; you work for me. Your job performance needs improvement so badly that if I could fire you today, I would. The message from the boss is this: cease hijacking my country or leave your post, letting someone do the job who respects those for whom he works and who understands in his gut the vision, mission and objectives of this proud and noble organization.


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