Bush's Messiah Complex

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 7, 2008; 1:17 PM

With time running short on his presidency -- and on the eve of a trip to the Middle East -- President Bush seems to have overcome his aversion to talking about his legacy and is now speaking fervently about how he expects to be remembered.

As it turns out, the president sees himself as quite the heroic figure.

"I can predict that the historians will say that George W. Bush recognized the threats of the 21st century, clearly defined them, and had great faith in the capacity of liberty to transform hopelessness to hope, and laid the foundation for peace by making some awfully difficult decisions," Bush told Yonit Levi of Israel's Channel 2 News. Bush held several interviews with Middle Eastern journalists last week in anticipation of his trip to the region, which starts tomorrow.

"When he needed to be tough, he acted strong, and when he needed to have vision he understood the power of freedom to be transformative," Bush said of himself to Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

As for the people of the Middle East, Bush told Hisham Bourar of al-Hurra Television: "I would hope that they would say President Bush respects my religion and has great love for the human -- human being, and believes in human dignity."

The Bush record, the president told Nadia Bilbassy-Charters of al-Arabiya Television, is one of liberation -- "liberation, by the way, not only from dictatorship, but from disease around the world, like HIV/AIDS or malaria."

On a personal basis, Bush told Bilbassy-Charters that he hopes that people would know "that he hurts when he sees poverty and hopelessness" and "that he's a realistic guy."

Bush's self-image contrasts sharply with his image among his fellow Americans. More than 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the job is doing, and a CNN poll in November found that 58 percent of Americans rated Bush either a poor president, a very poor president, or the worst president ever.

Bush's view of himself is particularly delusional as he heads to a region that remains traumatized, angry and distrustful on account of Bush's disastrous war in Iraq, his antagonism of Iran and his perceived crusade against Islam.

Bush on Bush

Here's Bush talking to Nadia Bilbassy-Charters of al-Arabiya TV:

Q. "People know that you are close friend of Israel. What do you want to do to win hearts and minds of the Palestinians, to assure them that the United States is a fair broker in the peace process?"

Bush: "You know, I've heard that. I've heard that, well, George Bush is so pro-Israeli he doesn't -- he can't possibly care about the plight of the Palestinian person. I would hope that my record, one of liberation and -- liberation, by the way, not only from dictatorship, but from disease around the world, like HIV/AIDS or malaria -- is one that will say to people, he cares about the human condition; that he cares about each individual; that my religion teaches me to love your neighbor.

"I have spoken clearly about my belief that -- I pray to the same God as a Muslim prays; that the freedom agenda is really aimed at liberating people, and that the hope is, is that there will be an active, real Palestinian state, so people can realize their dreams. . . . "

Q. "Finally, how do you want the people in the Middle East to remember you, sir?"

Bush: "History is odd. I will be long gone before the true history of the Bush administration is written. I'm still reading analyses of Abraham Lincoln's presidency. I would hope, at least, at the very minimum, people would say that George W. Bush respected my religion, and has great concern for the human condition; that he hurts when he sees poverty and hopelessness; that he's a realistic guy, because he understands that the only way that these extremists who murder the innocent can recruit is when you find -- when they find hopeless situations -- they have no vision that's positive; and that he helped present an alternative, and that was one based upon liberty and the rights of men and women in a just and free society. That's how I hope you remember me."

Here's Bush talking to Hisham Bourar of al-Hurra TV:

Q. "Last question, Mr. President. How do you think people in the Middle East will remember you?"

Bush: "I hope they remember me as the guy who was willing to fight extremists who murdered the innocent to achieve political objectives, and at the same time, had great faith in the people, the average citizen of the Middle East, to self-govern; that the Middle East has got a fantastic future and that I admire the great traditions of the Middle East and believe that the average man can succeed mightily; that societies are best served when they respond to the will of people, and that we must reject the extremists who have a different view of that, the people that only prey on hopelessness. That's what I would hope.

"I would hope that they would say President Bush respects my religion and has great love for the human -- human being, and believes in human dignity. I know my image can be different at times, but I had to make some tough choices on war and peace. On the other hand, I hope people are now beginning to see the emergence of a free Iraq, based upon a modern constitution, is part of my vision for achieving peace that we all want."

Here's Bush talking to Yonit Levi of Israel's Channel 2 News:

Q. "You are, you know, reaching the end of your presidency in a year, and it's sort of the season to summarize. Can you tell me what your -- you consider as your biggest achievement, and what, if anything, do you regret?"

Bush: "Yes. First of all, I'm going to get a lot done next year."

Q. "Of course."

Bush: "I really am. You know, there's this great myth about how the President, because there's an election, or because it's the last year of his presidency, not much is going to get done. Quite the contrary. We'll get a lot done.

"I would think that -- first of all, I don't believe there's such a thing as an accurate short-term history. I'm still -- I read a lot of history these days. I like to read a lot about Abraham Lincoln, for example. And if they're still analyzing the 16th -- the history of the 16th President, see, then I -- the 43rd guy just doesn't need to worry about it. I'll be long gone. (Laughter.) But I do believe that --"

Q. "Isn't that kind of sad, that you won't be appreciated enough until after you're --"

Bush: "No, what really matters in life is do you have a set of principles, and are you willing to live your life based upon those principles. That's what matters most to me. My priorities are really my faith and my family. And we're blessed with a lot of friends. I just don't -- I'm not the kind of person that -- I don't spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, I guess is the best way to say it. But I do believe that -- I can predict that the historians will say that George W. Bush recognized the threats of the 21st century, clearly defined them, and had great faith in the capacity of liberty to transform hopelessness to hope, and laid the foundation for peace by making some awfully difficult decisions."

Bush also tells Levi: "I didn't compromise my beliefs in order to be the popular guy, or the hip guy, or the guy that every -- you know, the cultural elite likes."

Here's Bush telling Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer of Yediot Ahronot how he'd like to be remembered in world history:

"I would hope that people, when they look back at this administration, would say that President Bush and his administration worked diligently to protect the American people from harm; that he recognized the threats of the 21st century; that he acted in a -- when he needed to be tough, he acted strong, and when he needed to have vision he understood the power of freedom to be transformative.

"Our foreign policy is more than just confronting terrorists. Our foreign policy is to confront the conditions that enable these ideologues to recruit, such as HIV/AIDS on the continent of Africa, or feeding the hungry, or dealing with malaria. Our foreign policy is based upon our great trust in the capacity of the common person to dictate a peaceful course for government. But just so you know, I fully understand, I'll be long gone before the accurate history of this administration is reflected in the history books."

The Trip to the Middle East

Bush's trip to the Middle East may end up being more about Iran than about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- although Bush may have even less credibility in the region on the former issue than on the latter.

Bush talks a lot about Iran, but when it comes to action, removing Saddam Hussein from power may be the greatest gift he could have given Iran's leaders. And a recent National Intelligence Estimate left even his supporters confused. Among other things, it exposed Bush as having knowingly exaggerated the threat of Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Michael Abramowitz and Ellen Knickmeyer write in The Washington Post: "President Bush intends to use his first extended tour of the Middle East to rally support for international pressure against Iran, even as a recent U.S. intelligence report playing down Tehran's nuclear ambitions has left Israeli and Arab leaders rethinking their own approach toward Iran and questioning Washington's resolve, according to senior U.S. officials, diplomats and regional experts.

"Bush is to leave Tuesday for Israel, where he hopes to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations he launched in Annapolis late last year. But in Jerusalem and some of the Arab countries Bush plans to visit, Iran's growing regional influence looms larger than the peace process or the Iraq war. Leaders in the region are gauging whether the lame-duck administration has the interest and ability to cope with Iran, or whether they should pursue their own military and diplomatic solutions. . . .

"Administration officials have been alarmed by what they see as Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and intimidate its Sunni neighbors. But their efforts to build support for sanctions and other pressure on Tehran took a serious hit last month when a National Intelligence Estimate -- representing the shared view of U.S. intelligence agencies -- concluded that Iran halted its nuclear arms program in 2003.

"Administration officials insist that the estimate showed Iran remains capable of, and interested in, developing a nuclear weapon."

As for real-time views of Bush's legacy, Abramowitz and Knickmeyer write: "In Arab streets, many blame Washington for the plight of Iraqis and Palestinians. Bush's presidency has been 'disastrous,' said Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian journalist who received a National Endowment for Democracy award from him last fall. 'America's neither feared nor loved. It's neither feared by the regimes anymore, and it's hated by the people of the Middle East. . . . That's the Bush legacy.'"

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Bush's goal of securing an Israeli-Palestinian accord by the end of 2008, the focus of his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank later this week, faces long odds, not least because of doubts about his commitment.

"For Bush, who had disdained Bill Clinton's failed peace effort in the twilight of his presidency, the underlying motive appears to be about using his waning months in office to shape a legacy not completely defined by the unpopular war in Iraq. . . .

"Many analysts say that if Israelis and Palestinians are to resolve differences that have defied solution for decades, it will require direct, sustained presidential involvement to get the two sides to take the effort seriously.

"Bush has made clear, however, that he has no intention of adopting what his administration once derided as Clinton's 'shoot the moon' approach to Middle East peacemaking.

"Though his trip is meant to show a personal commitment, he will find it hard to overcome skepticism in the region over whether he has the perseverance and evenhandedness to shepherd through a deal before leaving office next January."

Spetalnick notes that "Bush and his aides have been deliberately vague about objectives and have set expectations low, dampening talk of breakthroughs or even tangible advances. . . .

"Many analysts think tough negotiating tactics would be of little use anyway since Bush will be dealing with politically weak leaders capable of making good on few of their promises."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune that "analysts say the president will arrive in the region with too little to promise and too late in the game during this -- his first visit to Israel as president -- to offer any real hope of securing a lasting peace. . . .

"'It's just a simple fact of life,' said Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'You can't, as president, leave a legacy in the form of an agenda for the next president. The only legacy you can leave is what you actually accomplished while you were in office. And at this point in time, with effectively a year to go, your legacy is what you've done, not what you would like to do.'"

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The official Arab view of Bush was summed up inadvertently by a diplomat from a major Arab state, who indicated disbelief that the president will use the trip to renew his drive for Middle East democracy.

"'Is that still on?' the Arab official replied sarcastically. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities."

In the Washington Times, Jon Ward and David R. Sands write: "Many Arab analysts see Mr. Bush as a lame-duck president lacking time and political clout at home and still distracted by the difficult military struggle in Iraq. With oil at nearly $100 a barrel, the U.S. economy faltering and Asia the dynamic new market for Gulf exports, Washington's economic clout is waning as well.

"Mr. Bush 'is captain of an administration that looks like a ship stuck in the mud of Iraq, in enormous internal economic problems, in an environmental impasse, and in unprecedented international controversies surrounding his leadership,' according to Hussein Shobokshi, TV commentator on the Al-Arabiya network."

Bush on the Middle East

Bush spent a lot of time in his interviews with Middle Eastern reporters trying to explain away that NIE.

"Part of the reason I'm going to the Middle East is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat, and that the NIE in no way lessens that threat, but in fact clarifies the threat," he told Yediot Ahronot.

He later added: "[A]nd by the way, back to the NIE very quickly. The international response ought to be that, okay, whether or not you agree with the NIE or not, at least recognize that they had a program at one point in time, and demand that Iran explain it. We shouldn't be trying to explain why we know what we know. We ought to be focusing on the Iranians to say, you tell us why you had a program; you tell us about the -- if you want to be an international player, it's up to you to explain."

Bush also spoke at length about what he called "the strategic implications of a U.S. presence in a way that bolsters governments and at the same time helps serve as a bulwark against aggressive regimes such as Iran."

In a roundtable interview with foreign print media he said he "will be also talking to our friends and allies about our strong commitment to regional security, that the United States is engaged and will remain engaged in the security of the region."

He added, somewhat cryptically: "I'm sure that these leaders fear that the United States may become isolationist and basically throw up its hands and say, who cares what happens. I will remind them that what happens in parts of the world matters to the security of the United States of America, and that we look forward to being a constructive force and working with allies like allies should do."

Here's Bush gushing to a Saudi reporter about that nation's leader: "I admire King Abdallah. I admire him because he is a man who commands a lot of respect from me, personally, and a lot of respect in the region. When he speaks, people listen. It's not to say that other people don't listen, as well, but Saudi Arabia is geographically important, is the guardian of holy sites, and he's a well-respected man."

Bush told al-Arabiya TV why he was so confident that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be reached within the year. "[F]or the couple of years of my administration . . . there was a difficult situation, the truth be known. One was the intifada, which made it awfully hard to discuss peace at that time. The other was the Iraq invasion. It just -- it created the conditions that made it more difficult to get people's minds in the right place to begin the process. And so now I think we've got the stars lined up, and I think we got a shot, and I'm going for it."

Bush told Channel 2 News he's not talking about achieving a completed peace agreement by the end of his term. "I think we can reach a vision of what a Palestinian state would look like," he said.

"One timetable is the departure of President George W. Bush from the White House -- not that that I'm any great, heroic figure, but they know me and they're comfortable with me and I am a known quantity. And therefore the question is will they decide to make the efforts necessary to get the deal done while I'm President, as opposed to maybe the next person won't agree with a two-state, or maybe the next person will take a while to get moving."

Bipartisan Accomplishment

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief -- Pepfar, for short -- may be the most lasting bipartisan accomplishment of the Bush presidency.

"With a year left in office, Mr. Bush confronts an America bitterly split over the war in Iraq. His domestic achievements, the tax cuts and education reform, are not fully embraced by Democrats, and his second-term legislative agenda -- revamping Social Security and immigration policy -- lies in ruins.

"The global AIDS program is a rare exception. So far, roughly 1.4 million AIDS patients have received lifesaving medicine paid for with American dollars, up from 50,000 before the initiative. Even Mr. Bush's most ardent foes, among them Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, his 2004 Democratic challenger, find it difficult to argue with the numbers.

"'It's a good thing that he wanted to spend the money,' said Mr. Kerry, an early proponent of legislation similar to the plan Mr. Bush adopted. 'I think it represents a tremendous accomplishment for the country.' . . .

"Mr. Bush is pressing for a new five-year commitment of $30 billion. He will travel to Africa in February to make his case -- and, the White House hopes, burnish the compassionate conservative side of his legacy."

But even this program is not entirely free of criticism. "Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, an advocacy group here in Washington, says the Bush program has been hamstrung by 'ideologically driven policies.' . . .

"Critics, including Mr. Kerry, are particularly incensed by the requirement that one-third of the prevention funds be spent teaching abstinence, despite a lack of scientific consensus that such programs reduce the spread of H.I.V."

Lawrence Lindsey Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "About six months before the United States invaded Iraq, then-White House economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey famously estimated that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. The prediction ended up being way too low: As of Sept. 30, congressional analysts recently estimated, the war had cost $449 billion, and the number is still rising.

"The episode helped get Lindsey ousted from a White House intent on imposing message discipline and furious about an estimate that, even while low, was the first to hint at the larger budgetary consequences of the invasion."

The White House's official estimate at the time was that the total cost of the war would be $50 to $60 billion.

Abramowitz writes that "in a book being published this week -- 'What a President Should Know . . . But Most Learn Too Late' -- Lindsey offers for the first time what he terms 'the true story' behind his estimate, including what he sees as a mistaken White House strategy to play down the costs of war to maintain public support for an invasion."

It Depends on the Meaning of the Word 'Major'

Ken Herman of Cox News Service profiles White House political strategist Barry Jackson: "Jackson is taking a realistic view of what's possible in Bush's final year in office. He sees little to no chance for a Social Security overhaul but has hopes for other Bush domestic initiatives, including health care.

"'Major is kind of a subjective word,' he said when asked if any major Bush initiatives can win approval. 'I do think there is a chance for things to get done. I don't think you can be in the White House serving the president and not have anything but that feeling.'"

McGovern Urges Impeachment

Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern writes in a Washington Post opinion piece that "the case for impeaching Bush and Cheney is far stronger than was the case against Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew after the 1972 election. The nation would be much more secure and productive under a Nixon presidency than with Bush. Indeed, has any administration in our national history been so damaging as the Bush-Cheney era? . . .

"Of course, there seems to be little bipartisan support for impeachment. The political scene is marked by narrow and sometimes superficial partisanship, especially among Republicans, and a lack of courage and statesmanship on the part of too many Democratic politicians. So the chances of a bipartisan impeachment and conviction are not promising.

"But what are the facts?

"Bush and Cheney are clearly guilty of numerous impeachable offenses. They have repeatedly violated the Constitution. They have transgressed national and international law. They have lied to the American people time after time. Their conduct and their barbaric policies have reduced our beloved country to a historic low in the eyes of people around the world. These are truly "high crimes and misdemeanors," to use the constitutional standard."

Doug Feaver blogs for washingtonpost.com that in the seven months he's been monitoring reader comments he's "seen nothing to match the number of respondents" to the McGovern piece.

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