24 October 2003

The main game

The pundits' claims that September 11 made terrorism the defining issue of the Bush presidency are completely wrong. The Bush Administration deliberately rejected the counter-terrorism opportunities of post-September 11 to return to its pre-existing agenda of extraordinarily aggressive political and geopolitical activism: an agenda not even remotely connected to terrorism; an agenda squarely devoted to entrenching Republican power at home and US power abroad.

Of course, the administration is also pursuing some genuine counter-terrorism measures. But these are the added extras, not the core agenda. And even the counter-terrorist extras were not enough for Bush's White House chief of counter-terrorism, who resigned in a fury of frustration and went to work for the Democrats.

The full scope of the Bush agenda may also flow in part from the personal convictions of the president himself. In his 1999 pitch for office, a book titled A Charge to Keep (Perennial, 2001), Bush wrote that he learned from his father's experience as president that political capital was not a collectible to hoard but a currency to be used. His father had not spent the political capital he had earned in winning the first Gulf War, and W was determined not to make the same mistake.


"My faith frees me," George W. Bush wrote in his memoir. "Frees me to make the decisions that others might not like." The world, preoccupied with Bush's apparent feeble-mindedness, has failed to grasp the true breadth and boldness of his ambition. Bush is a shrewd and ruthless risk-taker. Not content to be in power, he is using his presidency to make the Republicans the party permanently in power. Not satisfied with America's status as the superpower, he is working to make it an unchallengeable superpower. Bush might not have hit on the precise formulation but he certainly does seem to have reached the right conclusion about the way the world views his presidency: "They misunderestimated me.

We are a strange people. We are unsurprised when politicians behave badly. We seem to have made two senatorial hecklers into national heroes. I suspect much the Bush speech fell on deaf ears because messianic arrogance and blatant partisanship just does not fly in Australia. Howard has, until now always, carefully avoided it, although he did indeed, as one letter to the Canberra Times said, look as if he'd died and gone to heaven.

The alleged security measures, closing the parliament and removing demonstrators out of sight and sound, could perhaps have been justified. But why was it necessary to insist that if any loudspeakers were used they must be turned away from Parliament House?

This was not security, it was propaganda. As Salon reports today:

Since then, Presser charges, the Bush administration has continued the strategy of using the Secret Service and cooperative local police departments to keep protesters at bay, and not incidentally, out of easy range of the media. "People used to say that Ronald Reagan's was the most scripted administration we ever had," the attorney says, "but this Bush administration has gone way beyond that." Presser adds that he was told by William Fisher, a senior Philadelphia police captain and head of the department's Civil Affairs Unit, that the tight restrictions and decision to cordon off protesters during presidential visits have come "at the Secret Service's direction." Fisher declined to be interviewed for this article, but when asked, did not deny Presser's account of their conversation.

But then the entire visit, like the War on Terror, seems to be about politics rather than policy. Once upon a time a visiting chief of state would not have dreamed of offering political support to a domestic political leader. Times have changed. But the Russian for 'Man of Steel' has not, and it does not mean 'fair dinkum'.

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