Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"You're mean and arrogant and NOBODY LIKES YOU."

From Slate this morning:

Does Bush really fail to recognize that even the most pro-Western Iraqis might have mixed feelings, to say the least, about America's intervention in their affairs—that they might be, at once, thankful for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, resentful about the prolonged occupation, and full of hatred toward us for the violent chaos that we unleashed without a hint of a plan for restoring order?

Bush may have had a political motive in making these remarks. He may have calculated that Americans would be more likely to support the war if the people for whom we're fighting thanked us publicly for the effort. By the same token, their palpable lack of gratitude, and the war's deepening unpopularity at home, might have heightened his frustration and impelled such peevish outbursts.

But this peevish imperiousness is precisely what's most disturbing about Bush's incessant concern with the proper level of fealty. The word that he repeatedly uses when discussing what he wants from nations he thinks he's helping—"gratitude"—implies a supplicant's relationship to his lord.

As Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York Graduate Center (and generally a Bush supporter), puts it, "Gratitude is something you give to somebody who's superior. It's very different from, say, appreciation, which is something that equals give each other."

Apart from his view of Iraq, Bush may have a point when he complains that America gets too little credit for its generosity (though this is hardly new). He doesn't acknowledge, however, that governments give aid or go to war for their own interests, not just for the interests of others, and therefore don't generally require thank-you notes. Nor does he seem to realize, whatever his motives, that nobody likes a whiner—that donors who demand bowing and scraping are often resented, if not despised.

Not to put the president on the couch, but personality probably plays some role here. I remember watching a White House press conference (looking it up, I see that it took place on April 5, 2004), where an Associated Press reporter started to ask Bush a question without first uttering "Mr. President," the customary preface when addressing the leader of the free world. Bush snapped at him: "Who are you talking to?" The reporter corrected his discourteousness, reciting the honorific, before restarting his question.

It was a startling display of a president who seemed insecure in his authority, bitter that some piddling reporter wasn't treating him (the president of the United States, damn it!) with the proper respect. The same complex may be triggered when piddling nations don't repay his good intentions with the proper "gratitude."

But this tendency reveals something deeper, and more worrisome, than some hypothetical character quirk. It reveals a basic misunderstanding of foreign policy and of the modern world.

In many of his pronouncements, President Bush seems to believe that because America is a good and generous nation, everything done in its name is, ipso facto, good and generous—and that the peoples of the world, if they're honest about it, will view our actions as good and generous, too.

Bush and his team also came into office believing that America had emerged from its Cold War victory as the world's "sole superpower" and that it could, therefore, bend other nations' will by merely flexing some muscle. They didn't realize that the end of the Cold War made America, in a certain sense, weaker. As long as there were two superpowers, the nations belonging to one bloc or the other often felt compelled (or forced) to go along with their protector's interests even when those interests conflicted with their own. With the collapse of the Soviet Union as a common looming enemy and a fulcrum of pressure, nations feel freer to go their own way, with far less regard for what America might think about it.

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