The paradoxes of the Bush presidency

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In the first presidential debate of 2000, George W. Bush emphasized his military restraint. "I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening...." he said.

That view changed greatly after Sept. 11, when he proclaimed a policy of spreading democracy throughout the world – even, evidently, if it requires US troops to act as nation builders. The part of the world where he chose to start that campaign, however, was one of the areas least attuned to it by culture and history.

This is just one of the many paradoxes that mark Mr. Bush's presidency.

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Another paradox is that, in the name of spreading democracy abroad, Bush is doing things that tend to destroy it at home. One of the first acts of a scared, compliant Congress after 9/11 was to pass the misnamed USA Patriot Act.

Its sponsors said it would be a bedrock of the war on terror; in fact, it is an affront to many rights guaranteed by the Constitution and ingrained in US criminal procedure.

Closely related is a third Bush paradox: In the name of national security, he has asserted the most expansive view of executive power of any post-World War II president. Bush has carried it to the point of saying he has the right to ignore provisions of laws passed by Congress through the use of presidential signing statements.

He has flouted international standards of justice and the Constitution – which he claims to uphold – by endorsing such un-American activities as holding suspects indefinitely with no charges or tapping domestic phone lines to monitor international calls without a judicial warrant.

There was, and is, no good argument that 9/11 demanded retaliation, except against those directly responsible for the attacks. The 9/11 culprits were Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers. They were given refuge in Afghanistan; therefore, a US attack on Afghanistan was appropriate. But there was no reason to attack any other country, no matter how offensive its government.

However, we learn from the memoir of Paul O'Neill, Bush's first secretary of the Treasury, that the president had a long-standing desire to attack Iraq. So he did attack, after getting the CIA's phony intelligence about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

In doing so, he showed contempt for the United Nations and he alienated our most important allies except for Britain. He also did this without enough troops, stretching our forces thin and making them unavailable for other duties.

He has called for public support, which he received in good measure until the public began to tire of it. But he has not called for public sacrifice. On the contrary, he has badgered Congress into cutting taxes, with most of the benefit aiding the rich.

Now, with insufficient resources, Bush is confronting Iran's stubborn refusal to halt its nuclear program. So far, he has the support of allies in the UN. Iran views nuclear weapons as conferring international prestige, rather like the pyramids of ancient Egypt. At the same time, the Iranians show signs of looking for a way to back down if it can be done gracefully. Many would like rapprochement with the US, but not at the cost of national pride.

Bush, on the other hand, has no appreciation for the nuances of diplomacy, for the importance of leaving adversaries ways to back down. He demonstrated this obtuseness when he said that Hizbullah "suffered a defeat" in its battle against Israel. This was after Hizbullah had fought the Israeli army and air force to a standstill. Much of the rest of the world thought it was a victory. What is scarier is the possibility that Bush believes what he said.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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