Democracy Arsenal

« When is it safe to say we're less safe? | Main | Moment of Truth: Missile Defense or Stopping Genocide »

September 20, 2006

A Bush in the China Shop
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

So today President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela got up behind a podium at the UN's General Assembly and called President Bush the devil.  The awful thing, of course, is that while the rhetoric is outrageous, much of the world's reaction will be that they know what he means.  If you doubt that, check out what the foreign media's been saying about the US in recent days on this site. 

Chavez faulted Bush for acting like he "owned the world."  You'd think that, under the circumstances, Bush would have bent over backwards to convey the opposite, with Chinese influence at the UN on the rise given the isolation we face and its debilitating effect on our policies on, at the top of the list, Iraq and Iran.

So, what did Bush say?  Was he as tone-deaf as his detractors claim?  Or did he, as so often in the past, use language that could have come out of a liberal internationalist playbook to describe policies and attitudes that would make FDR rotate in his grave?

Let's look at a few of his turns of phrase:

"it is clear that the world is engaged in a great ideological struggle, between extremists who use terror as a weapon to create fear, and moderate people who work for peace . . . I want to speak about ... world beyond terror, where ordinary men and women are free to determine their own destiny, where the voices of moderation are empowered, and where the extremists are marginalized by the peaceful majority." - Would that this were how most of the world sees it.  Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is viewed, abroad and increasingly at home as well, as anything but moderate and peace-seeking.  This has allowed the likes of Chavez to recast the battle as one of superpower dominator against the defenseless and disenfranchised who can only stand up for their rights by, for example, building nuclear capabilities. Bush's language shows his tone-deafness, practically inviting opponents to turn his words against him.

"Every nation that travels the road to freedom moves at a different pace, and the democracies they build will reflect their own culture and traditions. But the destination is the same: A free society where people live at peace with each other and at peace with the world."  The first sentence is a good one, seeming to recognize the democracy cannot be imposed by force.  It follows an impressive-sounding list of nations in the Mideast that have seen some form of political opening in recent years.  But the proclamation that the destination is "the same" belies the point, implying that culture and tradition somehow disappear once freedom is realized.  This perception is one of the primary impediments to democratic transformation, something one would hope Bush understood by now.

Bush then went into a series of entreaties directed at various peoples around the world:  the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Afghanis, the Syrians and the people of Darfur.  He compliments each for something, and then goes on to say what needs to happen next in their country or region.  On the one hand, there is an element of humanity in reaching out to ordinary citizens.   On the other side, the comments were pitched to fly over the heads of the nearly 200 heads of state filling the room, dis-intermediating them from their populations.  There is nothing wrong with appealing directly to foreign populations, particularly in undemocratic countries where there's no reason to believe that government policies and public attitudes dovetail.  But Bush's tone was preachy and condescending.  He proceeded to tell ancient cultures what they had a right to be proud of, and presumed to tell beleaguered populations what there biggest problems are.

What didn't Bush say?  Despite a withering 5 years, there was not a moment's introspection, no nod to the challenges we have faced fighting terrorism, trying to foster freedom in far-flung places, or holding things together at home.  There was no nod to any global issue apart from terrorism and the spread of democracy in the Middle East.  Nothing on AIDS, global warming, economic development, trade, or poverty.  In other words, no real message to Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union or much of Asia.

Devilish?  No.  Disappointing?  Yes.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A Bush in the China Shop:


Great piece! You underscore what is lacking perfectly.


Okay, I give up. Why hasn't Bush's performance been devilish? Why hasn't he been the personification of evil in regard to every major issue: war, environment, domestic surveillance, corporate welfare, health care, drug war, national debt, education, Palestine, global warming, torture, international relations, etc. etc.? So he's just been "disappointing" as a speaker, because he hasn't been introspective enough? Horsepucky. Let's call a spade a spade--George W. Bush is an evil war criminal, a certain devil and undoubtedly the worst US president to date. Viva Chavez!!

I agree with much of what you say here, with a few exceptions. Here's one: You cite Bush's statement:

"Every nation that travels the road to freedom moves at a different pace, and the democracies they build will reflect their own culture and traditions. But the destination is the same: A free society where people live at peace with each other and at peace with the world."

about which you say:

The first sentence is a good one, seeming to recognize the democracy cannot be imposed by force.

I don't think this sentence is a good one at all; rather it reads as irritatingly condescending and chauvinistic. Given the total lack of any expression of national self-criticism from Bush, it is another instance of the American habit of setting up the US system as the universal goal of all other peoples "on the road to freedom." While insinuating this US cultural supremacy, Bush goes on to portray these other peoples in a patronizing fashion as traveling the road "at a different pace" - as though they were disadvantaged children at some sort of Special Olympics of global democratic progress!

Unless Bush's speech contained language describing our own failures to achieve "freedom", it is hard to avoid giving it a reading of arrogance and supercilliousness. One might want to reflect on the many ways in which civilized corners of the world view the American system as lacking in or harmful to freedom. For example, much of the world sees the US as practicing an extreme form of laissez faire capitalism that leaves its people not free, but as slaves to the cold, inhuman and volatile market. It views the US political system as a tool of the wealthy, and as a means for the corporate exploitation of foreign peoples, and the expropriation of their wealth. It also sees Americans as living in a most unfree fear of guns and violent crime. And then of course their are the more grotesque displays of US illiberality, where, for example, individuals are mistakenly labelled as having ties to terrorist organizations, and arrested and rendered to foreign countries for torture.

Why not just speak to the world about how we plan to work with them as equals in the search for solutions to common problems, rather than belittle them with comments about how their cultural differences have made them slow pokes on the road to freedom.

I wonder if Suzanne Nossel and Shadi Hamid have ever met. The reason the administration has no message about any other issue but democracy and terrorism in the Mideast is that it thinks these are the most important issues we face. Hamid appears to agree; Nossel appears not to. Or perhaps she just thinks Bush should have added to his UN speech a laundry list of statements on other issues, like a State of the Union speech.

I don't mean to be nasty, but this is a fairly important disagreement. Just where on America's list of true priorities should democracy in the Mideast stand? Is it more important than any other issue? More mportant than all others combined? More important than genocide in Darfur? After a few weeks of tracking DA I'm pretty sure I know Hamid's answers to these questions: respectively, "first", "yes", "yes" and "what's a Darfur?". Suzanne suggests here that her answers might be different, but not really what they might be.

My favorite line:

Freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed -- it must be chosen.

Unfortunately he still thinks that the people of Iraq and Lebanon are on our side, so the statement is more ironic than evidence of self-awareness.

There are certain things in life related to smoking that simply cannot :)
parça kontör
parça kontör bayiliği
parça kontör bayilik

Since I entered into this game, I learnt skills to earn Entropia Universe Gold. My friends sometimes give me some Entropia Universe Money. Buy Entropia Universe Gold is a good way. I like to search on Internet to find where to buy cheap Entropiauniverse ped.

I always heard something from my neighbor that he sometimes goes to the internet bar to play the game which will use him some rf gold

I hope i can get GuildWars Gold in low price.
i buy Guild Wars Gold for you.

Once I played wonderland, I did not know how to get strong, someone told me that you must have wonderland online Gold. He gave me some Runes of Magic Gold .

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use