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asian affairs Bush Disaster

asian affairs


Editorials and commentaries since 1997


By the time you read this issue of Asian Affairs, the Bush presidency will have ended. The Americans judge the Bush presidency as the worst the USA ever had. His approval rating at the end of his second term was 24%. Only 11% of the population had a favorable opinion of the man. This contrasts with the end of the Clinton presidency when 65 % of Americans approved of his way of doing the job, the best end-of-career rating of any postwar president (one point ahead of Ronald Reagan). While Bush leaves behind a mind-boggling debt of at least US$3.6 trillion - and this figure does not include the trillions yet to be spent on banks and financial institutions - the Clinton administration left a surplus of US$559 billion in the nation’s coffer and a sound economy.

On the international front, Bush has shot down his country’s reputation year after year and his shameful comments about the December attack on Gaza are a fitting final contribution to his reign.

Even though the Americans' top long-term foreign policy goals have always been decidedly America-centric, this legacy is starting to simmer through public opinion. Defending the country against terrorism, protecting American jobs, and weaning the country from imported energy all drew extensive support in the US, but the fact that its public image is seriously tarnished worldwide has great significance.

In 2008, the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked citizens of 24 countries whether they thought they could count on Bush to do the right thing regarding foreign affairs. Majorities in only three (India, Nigeria, and Tanzania) said they had a lot or some confidence. Both African nations have benefited from Bush’s efforts to tackle AIDS around the globe. (President Bush visited Tanzania in February 2008 and the Tanzanian President Kikwete has repeatedly visited the US. His country is one of the major recipients of Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Malaria Initiative (PMI). Nigeria is an oil country, which also a major recipient of PEPFAR and PMI. Furthermore, an estimated one million Nigerians and Nigerian Americans live, study, and work in the United States, while over 25,000 Americans live and work in Nigeria. President Yar'Adua visited President Bush at the White House on December 13 2007). In India, the nuclear deal offered by the Bush administration boosted its image but the confidence in the US administration to keep Pakistan in check may have been lost after the Mumbai tragedy, and the plunge of the BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange) market in 2008 (-53.8%) may have dented Indian confidence in the Bush administration.

On the other side of the ledger, majorities in 19 of the 24 countries in the survey had little or no confidence in Bush. In the four leading Western European countries surveyed, 81% of the population of Great Britain had no confidence in the USA, nor did 85, 87 and 88% respectively in Germany, France and Spain. In Poland, a traditional supporter of the United States,50% had no confidence. And so do 89% of the Turks. In Asia, excluding India, a large majority distrusts the USA (only 30% of the Chinese, 30% of the South Korean people, 23% of the Australians, 23% of the Indonesians and 7% of the Pakistanis trusted the USA). The most damning Bush legacy in the region is that only 25% of the Japanese trusted their ally in 2008. This is a major headache for any Japanese Prime Minister since the Japan-US security pact is the pillar of the US security system in Asia.

In 2008, a large majority in France (68%), Spain (67%) and Germany (64%) said they believed that U.S. foreign policy would improve after the departure of Bush, but this may prove to be wishful thinking in the part of the Europeans. Elsewhere, people are more realistic towards or more attuned to the goals of US policies. In Jordan and Egypt, more people said they expected the new leadership to change U.S. foreign policy for the worse than for the better. Two-thirds of the Japanese (67%) said the new President would not bring about much change in U.S. foreign policy. That was the main opinion in Russia and Turkey as well.

The current drama in Gaza shows that they are probably right. The foreign policy of the United States has been hijacked by Israel a long time ago, with Israel calling the shots whenever it feels its vested interests are in danger. Obama’s presence at the White House is perceived as a danger. Thus, this tiny country of about 5 million people who has been blatantly ignoring countless UN resolutions for the past 20 years without consequences, and killing a civilian population without remorse, has launched a preemptive strike against the Hamas on the basic idea that the new administration in Washington might engage in a great bargaining policy in the Middle East that would reduce its own influence. The Gaza bombing got the approval of the Bush administration and we have yet to hear a word from Bush condemning Israel for actions quite similar to what brought many politicians to the Hague tribunal. One might have to start wondering why Saddam Hussein’s actions in the past were more blame-worthy than effectively creating the biggest open-air prison in the world, in Palestine.

It is fitting that the foreign policy of the Bush presidency ends with the massacre of the Gaza population by Israel. Never since the Nazi era have politicians been willing to bomb people to get their way and protect their benefactors. But for all its bombing and mindless killings, the Bush presidency has achieved nothing. If anything, it laid the foundation of endless and vengeful conflicts. Iraq is no longer a viable country, no matter who is in power in Baghdad. The standard of living of the population has gone back 50 years.

People dream of the Saddam Hussein period when they were living in a modern society providing water, electricity, schools, heath service second to none in the region. This is what the invasion has achieved 8 years later at the cost of about US$585 billion. The Afghan occupation to support the helpless Karzai government has not brought any benefits to the Afghans. An additional 30,000 US soldiers are not going to make much of a difference. In this case, one might suspect history can finally start speaking for itself, after the thwarted English and Russian attempts to sort the region out. If anything, the war will soon spill over into Pakistan and destabilize its own fragile institutions. This may appear inconvenient – Pakistan being the only Muslim country with nuclear armed power, but surely someone in the Bush administration could have pointed out this mess-up was inevitable.

As for the economic agenda pursued by the Bush administration, the results are no better. The silver lining is that the neo-con liberal agenda is dead and that sanity should soon return to the sphere of finance (but will it really?). The damage done to institutions under the Bush agenda has never been more explicit than when the outgoing Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, says that the US government lacks the legal tools such as an adequate special bankruptcy regime, for non-bank institutions (meaning hedge funds). But he was precisely the man who opposed year after year the European proposal to institute a regime for the said institutions. And what to think of a man that candidly declares to the Financial Times (31/12/08)): “we had a hopelessly outdated global architecture and regulatory authorities  . . . in the US.

Not all American presidents have been as misguided or na´ve as Bush. “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies, wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1802. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered”.

Henry Paulson, in Jefferson’ days, might have ended up in jail. But he is going to return to private banking where he made his fortune working for a non-bank institution as Chairman and CEO where he embraced risk-taking on debts and the creation of financial instruments today worthless which are today ruining the real economy. The Goldman Sachs he created between 1999 and 2006 became a bank on November 22, 2008 to avoid the same fate as Lehman Brothers. But yet he sees nothing wrong with his past actions.

There is now in the US an ongoing debate among legal scholars and experts shepherded by Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law who argue that "President Bush’s attack on Iraq is a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and that he is culpable for this as well as for torture and abuse of war prisoners held by the U.S. military and the CI.A." Donald Rumsfeld, former Defense Secretary (2001-2006) fled France in October 2007, fearing arrest over charges of “ordering and authorizing” torture of detainees at both the American-run Abu Graib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

I for one believe that numerous war crimes have been committed under the Bush presidency, not least in Iraq and in now in Gaza, with the US presidency a willing accomplice of such deeds.

But don’t lose sleep over such an issue. Bush is going fishing in Texas. He is unlikely to travel anywhere outside the US once he has retired. In fact he has such a short memory he could probably claim he can’t remember a thing and would get away with anything he signed during his time at the White House. Do not count on our post-Iraqi war Nuremberg. “Yet it is fundamental that the United States restore governmental accountability in the wake of a criminal administration, said Lawrence Velvel “to address the most serious crisis in our nation’s history: the claim that the president and his secret agents can get away with torture, kidnapping, and even manslaughter."

Serge Berthier

Spring 2009