Of hearts, minds and balls
Francis Fukuyama's editorial opinion in the SMH today (http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/wasted-lives-then-wasted-opportunity/2005/09/11/1126377203128.html) reminded me that I have had this recurrent flashback to that event post 9/11 when George Bush was standing amongst the firemen, police, construction workers and other "middle Americans" with his bull horn. You'll remember the occasion, I'm sure. I watched it live, and I have to tell you it gave me chills at the time, but in years since, though I still got chills, it has been of a different sort.
You see, I was, like many, pretty well consumed in grief by 9/11. Call me sentimental. It was an intolerable butchering of innocents, and I felt a kindred wounding. I understood the need to bind to bond the wound. Circling the wagons was not just defensive, it was strengthening. I don't think the crowd behaviour was too very unhuman, in the circumstances.
And I can remember Bush standing there with all those dust-covered guys, who were working their asses off and willing to stop what they were doing if only for a short while to hear the words of the leader. Now, think what you will of the guy, and my thoughts should be fairly apparent to regular readers, we needed to hear from him. For good or bad, on the day, he was our quarterback.
Now, leading up to that event, Bush had been under a bit of criticism. After all, he did a bit of a Houdini after he left that Florida classroom. He was more the ball boy gone to take a wee rather than the quarterback. Giuliani had the podium. Bush had pretty well abandoned it. So this was his big entrance and we all wanted a big performance. We needed him to light up the stage.
And what did he say on the day? Bugger if I know. Good or bad, I only remember the following exchange:
Bush (with bull horn): blah blah blah
Voice from the back: "we can't hear you"
Bush (with bull horn): "well, we can hear you"
And that sent chills up my spine. All of us in the back were being heard! Our pain, sadness, hopes and prayers were being heard. It was truly an awesome feeling of oneness with the wronged that I had at that time on that day.
Then later, it all started going off the rails. Somehow, chasing bin Laden through the wilds of Afganistan gave way to "spreading freedom and democracy" in Iraq, of all places.
One night, lying awake, that bull horn episode played a repeat through me and once again I felt the chill, but this time with the other character. I suddenly vaguely remembered something I had been taught years ago in a public relations (of all things) course I took. It was about communications. It was about sending and receiving messages and the way the message we sometimes receive is not the message the sender intended to send.
That's when I realised that when everyone was gathered at that place of destruction, America's hearts and minds were on their sleaves. When the voice from the back said "we can't hear you", it said to Bush, you have our hearts and minds and we need to hear from you. The chilling part of it is that Bush heard "they will listen to whatever I want to tell them; now I've got them by the balls."
That, to me, looking back, was the turning point in Bush's administration. From that point on, the "close" election with Gore was irrelevant and distant history. It was his blank cheque. That sense of having us by the balls gave him the strength, the political will to push on with a unilateral, with us or agin us manifesto. Not only was America the only superpower then standing, Bush was the only American the American people wanted and needed to hear from.
Fukuyama begins his op-ed with the Socratic question:
"It is tempting to see continuity with the American character and foreign policy tradition in the Bush Administration's response to September 11, and many have done so. Americans have tended towards the forcefully unilateral when we have felt ourselves under duress; and we have spoken in highly idealistic cadences in such times, as well...
All of these paths would have been in keeping with American foreign policy traditions. But Bush and his Administration chose to do otherwise.
"So much attention has been paid to these false policy determinants that a different political dynamic has been underappreciated. Within the Republican Party, the Bush Administration got support for the Iraq war from the neoconservatives (who lack a political base of their own but who provide considerable intellectual firepower) and from what the US foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead calls "Jacksonian America" - American nationalists whose instincts lead them towards a pugnacious isolationism...."
Americans generally have no stomach for empire building wars, holy or otherwise. Fukuyama reckons that it is a mistake to lump Bush's Jacksonian American support and his Robertsonian right wing Christian support together. I'd agree with that distinction; they overlap, but they can also easily separate.]