Awake now! So goes my two-year-old’s announcement every morning around 6. She wakes up, crawls out of bed, walks down the hall into our room and, putting her face as close to mine as she possibly can, declares the entire truth as she sees it at that moment. It is a microcosm of her every action, for she is saying, in essence, This is me, this is my world. Here, you must share in it. Her words faithfully reflect her worldview, the scope of which is small but at the same time unlimited.
In this sense my daughter half resembles President Bush, whose worldview is narrow andhow shall I put it?not unlimited. The bombing of Iraq, the expulsion of Russian diplomats, promoting drilling in arctic wilderness and the rejection of the Kyoto agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gasesthese actions suggest the This is my world mentality of a two-year-old, but with one important difference. Unlike the child whose mind is fired by the freedom of imagination, Mr. Bush appears, as he did throughout the 2000 campaign, to be a scripted puppet who, when forced to speak extemporaneously outside the tethered confines of what he knows, stumbles through a most unimpressive display of halting and faltering speech replete with banalities. Moreover, everything seems either good or not good to himas in We won’t do anything that might not be good for the U.S. economy or I feel good about appointing him; he’s a good man who’ll do a good job for the American people.
In his defense, this kind of un-nuanced, uncomplicated talk is what many voters liked and chose in November. Part of the Clinton backlash (remember his parsing of the word is?) was that many voters embraced the idea of a president who was an unabashed linguistic simpleton. And Bush is following through on the content, tone and style he established in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. He declared, for instance, that now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people, and so he has vowed vociferously to pursue the antimissile shield, over the strong objections of allies.
On the other hand, he has reversed himself on a campaign pledge to seek major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants. Most elected officials fail to fulfill everything they promised on the stump, but far more disturbing in this case is the international reaction and ramifications. The administration’s myopic decision provoked a stunned and angry reaction among America’s allies in Europe and Japan. As The Washington Post put it, To U.S. allies, the decision confirms a troubling willingness by the new occupant of the White House to take the United States off on solo tacks, without consultations with trusted governments.
As illustrated by the recent standoff with China, being the lone superpower and would-be world policeman makes the United States as much resented as it is envied. What is required of the American president is a subtlety in and relish for international affairs. It should be a cause of concern for us all that the problem the U.S. increasingly faces on the world stage is exacerbated by the fact that our current president is so ill-suited to act on that stage.
I may be wrong. Bush may overcome the odds, for as he said back in August in that Philadelphia convention hall, Greatness is found when American character and American courage overcome American challenges. But what does this mean? The hackneyed heaping of American this upon American that reveals more than his tireless reliance on tired clichés; it also demonstrates his simplistic articulation of any issue, policy or problem that extends beyond his script, his borders, his personal experience. Considering how little of the world outside the United States he has ever seen or, dare I say, read aboutand how readily, even proudly, he admits this factit is both unsurprising and extraordinarily inauspicious to hear the way he speaks, and fails to speak, about America in an international context.
I will bring honor and dignity back to the presidency was Bush’s rallying cry throughout the campaign. But where is the honor and dignity in appearing to be a provincial, ill-informed nationalist posing as leader of the free world? While honor and dignity, in the narrow sense in which Mr. Bush uses the terms, cannot help but fare better in this White House (it wouldn’t take much), he has a long way to go before he demonstrates the capacity and awareness to bring to the presidency the kind of honor and dignity that is respected by people other than the conservative right wing. It may well come as a shock to the president to learn that to most people and most governments in the world, honor and dignity entail more than just refraining from sexual acts in the Oval Office.
The American president must possess the ability to articulate and contextualize issues and problems, for the sake of Americans as well as hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. He is by default, if not by definition, the most powerful person on the planet. Mr. Bush leaves little doubt that he truly believes his presidency is about American character and American challenges that have very little to do with being a participant in the world community. His visible discomfort with entertaining or discussing ideas and topics that pull him beyond his safe and predictable confines is more than just an American concern.