February 01, 2008

The Bush Foreign Policy Legacy

I think that's a pretty cool title for this essay. It makes me feel like Walter Lippmann or someone like that. Very summary in its breadth.

My hope is that we now know what Bush's foreign policy legacy will be, at least in rough outline. While the Decider talks about "sprinting to the finish" and that sort of thing, it's okay with me (far preferable, in fact) if he just sort of ambles along, taking the time to clear brush and ride his bike and use his elliptical trainer or whatever. I, personally, would have no problem if he collected his 400K now for 2008 and took early retirement. I didn't see the SOTU address the other night (I'd eaten some bad filet of sole and didn't want to risk it), but numerous commentators pointed out that Bush seemed perceptibly giddy with the realization that this was it, he could stop the serious act now and go back to being...whatever he was before.

We probably won't get that lucky, and Bush will "build" on his progress to date. Which consists of: the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Now, you can say whatever you like about our 43rd President (and most people have), but one thing you must admit, if you're at all honest, is that the mustachioed, Ernie Kovacs look-alike, who always wore uniforms that made him look like a generalissimo in Woody Allen's "Bananas," is permanently gone from the scene. Deposed, captured, hanged. Dead as a doornail.

That's it, of course. That's the sum and substance of Bush's record of foreign policy successes. Afghanistan? Um, I don't know. Are the Taliban really gone? I don't think so, principally because they were actually a Pakistani phenomenon, and Pakistan's insidious capacity for generating mischief is as vibrant as ever. Anyway, the Big Cheeses of the Afghan situation, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, are still very much extant, more than six years after 9/11. You can't declare victory in Afghanistan with the Evil-Doers waiting in the wings for a Lib softie to take over in the USA.

But Saddam? He's done for. Kaput, finis, terminado. We took care of that problem. Which was...what again? That's right, he was a despot from the same part of the world that gave us the 9/11 hijackers. Bush used just those words to remind us of his wisdom in toppling Saddam. "Imagine if Saddam was still in power in the same part of the world where the 9/11 hijackers came from," something elegant like that. By the "same part of the world," he means, of course, just north of Saudi Arabia, where Osama and 15 of the hijackers were from, and sort of northwest of Egypt, where Atta and Zawahiri were from. I confess this is a little confusing.

Personally, I think most Iraqis, despite everything, were glad to see Saddam go. Especially if you were a Shiite during his reign of terror. The arbitrary brutality of despots makes everyone nervous. By somewhat similar thinking, I'll be glad to see Bush go because his pattern of routine law-breakinng (FISA, the Geneva Conventions, the 4th Amendment, designation of American citizens as enemy combatants) makes me nervous. Maybe we can get someone in office (Obama, Clinton, either way) who understands how the Bill of Rights works, and sort of gets the whole separation of powers thing. So that when a statute (like FISA or Common Article 3 of Geneva) is inconvenient, you amend the damn thing, you don't simply commit a felony and then ask Congress to exonerate you retroactively.

But we were talking about Saddam. He's gone. We can all agree on that. And he was an Arab, just like Osama and Atta. It's not surprising, of course, that Iraq would have had an Arab as its leader. But still...where was I?

January 28, 2008

Another Year, Another SOTUS

So a rabbi walks into a bar in New York City with a duck on his head. "Where'd you get that?" the bartender asks. "Brooklyn," replies the duck. "There's hundreds of 'em."

That's a pretty good joke and useful for deconstructing the nature of humor. It has the familiar elements: surprise, absurdity and conflict. We're surprised that the duck answers instead of the rabbi. The absurdity and conflict arise because we can't quite make sense of a duck commandeering a rabbi and going to a bar. Your mind races to comprehend a situation made of nonsensical elements and for some reason it makes you laugh.

The idea of George W. Bush mounting the podium and delivering his seventh State of the Union address (which the Washington Post calls "probably" his last - why probably? oy vey) has some of the same feel of a silly joke. If the element of surprise is now gone, the sense of absurdity and conflict is as vibrant as ever. One way or another this country wound up under the bumbling leadership of Chance the Gardener. For seven long years, going on eight. We all have our comical parts to play: Bush will pretend to be giving a serious speech in which he's interested, and the people sitting in the House's chamber will pretend to take him seriously, and then lots of TV pundits will weigh in and dissect another dumb oration which describes a world which doesn't even exist. It is all an exercise in mass delusion and everyone involved knows it's a delusion and they all do it anyway.

If the United States seems completely nuts these days (and it does), I think this process explains how we got there. Our everyday lives are like the rabbi, the duck and the bartender. It is an absurdist farce that is so far out of whack with rationality that we can no longer even get our minds around it. We intuitively sense that the President, instead of reciting a serious speech written by other people who at all costs want to avoid saying anything even remotely connected to reality; about lots of things the President barely grasps; instead of all that, we know that Bush would much rather prepare for his oration by eating Texas-style chili for about three days and then walking around the floor of the House asking esteemed Members to pull his index finger and see what happens. If he did that, we would have a better sense of who and where we are. It wouldn't be so funny, but it would change the joke. The bartender would ask the rabbi where he got the duck, and the rabbi would answer: "What duck?"