World according to Bush
George W Bush just landed in India as the chief guest of the Hindustan Times Leadership Initiative. Unsurprisingly there’s been a lot of “Aaargh, how can you invite him?” but also a fair amount of “Good someone is giving credit where credit is due.”
Combining what surveys I’ve read and my own experiences traveling the world I would say Bush is popular in sub-Saharan Africa and most of Asia. He’s hated in Europe, Latin America and what Indians call West Asia (ie the Middle East). There are pockets of exceptions everywhere, of course. Israelis are West Asian and they like him. Indonesians are Asians and didn’t. And some countries have gone back and forth during his presidency – like Russia. China is kind of difficult to measure because they didn’t allow most polls to ask that question. After talking with journalists whom I’ve met from there, official Beijing likes Republicans in general and the average Chinese was pretty neutral.
I think there are three levels of Bush dislike-cum-like.
One was his personality. Bush doesn’t sound suave or intellectual. He’s inherited his father’s twisted syntax but never developed his sophistication.
I generally find middle class professionals find this discomforting. They want their leaders to reflect their value system, sound like statesmen and professors. And even though I think history will judge him as being better than his contemporaries do, I have to admit I don’t think I would have too much to talk to Bush if we fished up on a desert island together.
As you go down the social ladder and support starts to pick him. Bush talks at a certain proletariat level. More importantly, they like the fact he has strong convictions and acts on them. None of that “let’s think about this til we paralyze ourselves” stuff.
Two were his policies. This is certainly a mixed bag. He will be blamed for Iraq, the economic crisis and, by some, Afghanistan. Though this is probably exaggerated, he will be associated with a sharp decline in America global influence. I personally think his failure to move some of the US’s excess capital into long-term technology investment was his worst legacy – but I admit that’s pretty abstruse.
But I think his instincts were better than people give him credit for. And this is important. As Bob Woodward once told me, “Bush is a guy who went almost solely by instinct.”
Here’s where I think his gut was right about the world.
One, he distrusted China. He didn’t want China to fail. But his instinct, as a number of his advisors have told me, was to believe that a one-party dictatorial China success story would be a big negative for the security of democracy and the US in general. And if you wanted a hedge against China, then India was the obvious answer – nearly as populous and a democracy to boot.
Two, he thought the Europeans were a lost cause. Especially after 9/11, the Europeans showed they had remarkably little to offer to US interests given their wealth and capabilities. But Europe has been the US’s main ally for half a century. What could replace them? Again, one of the possible answers was India. “The president wants India to be as important to the US in 20 years as Europe is today,” said one of his senior officials. Pretty extravagant in my view, but there was a kernel of foresight in all that.
Three, he believed the lack of democracy lay at the heart of the malaise that continues to inflict the Arab world. I think that’s true. As one Arab academic told me, “I look at the leaders of the Arab world and think to myself: there isn’t one who is worthy of admiration.”
The record of imposing democracy is better than most people realize. I think it was Seymour Martin Lipset who showed that the strongest statistical indicator that a country will be a democracy is the fact it was at one point in its history it was ruled by the British. But I would have stuck with imposing that democracy on Afghanistan and worried about Iraq later. It wouldn’t have been an Arab democracy, but nonetheless would have had a big impact.
I also feel Bush had a very American belief in democracy. It really was a cure-all. There was one interview where he was asked: what if the elections throw up a fundamentalist Islamic regime? His response was: if that’s what the people want, then that’s fine. A belief unfortunately very few in his administration shared.
Which was once again why India had so much traction with him. It had already made its political decision: it was going to be a democracy. Somewhat undiplomatically Bush told an Arab audience that they should look to India as an example of how to run their polities.
Put these elements together, and toss in a general free trade instinct (he was once urged to at least make a rhetorical statement against outsourcing but refused), and you have a worldview. It don’t come from the top down, but comes together from the components that arose from Bush’s instincts.
But if you match this grand strategy with the countries involved, you get a sense of why certain countries liked him and others didn’t. Europe gets short shrift. West Asia is disciplined with a stick. Latin America is simply ignored. India gets a huge thumbs up – and responds with 70 per cent plus approval ratings. Africa got a lot of attention as well. The only thing that doesn’t quite fit is China. He didn’t like them, but they didn’t seem to mind him. A topic for another day.