In recent months, conservative commentators have devoted countless words to the American media's open bias in favor of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama. Although there is no question that their criticism is accurate, it is wrong to root that bias merely in the media's leftist sympathies.
The American media's pro-Obama bias is also the consequence of their misrepresentation of outgoing President George W. Bush's record in office. And that misrepresentation, too, cannot be ascribed merely to the leftist sympathies of the media. For the media are not the source of that misrepresentation, Bush is.
Bush's record in office is the key issue in the campaign. The outgoing president's abysmal approval ratings in his last two years in power caused both parties to recognize that to win the election, their candidate had to distinguish himself as much as possible from the current occupant of the Oval Office.
In selecting Sen. John McCain as their party's nominee, the Republicans adopted this approach. Throughout his long career in Congress, McCain has served as the consummate party outsider. Yet, in his own way, and now to his detriment, he has also been loyal. And so until recently he avoided attacking Bush outright, preferring instead to ignore him.
But by ignoring the president, McCain gave Obama full freedom to define Bush's presidency in the manner that best advanced his electoral prospects. And Obama's success in defining Bush has enabled the Democratic nominee to set the terms of debate on the central issue of the campaign: how America finds itself in the situation it now finds itself, and what policies should be adopted to improve it.
Obama has successfully cast Bush's presidency as a repeat of Ronald Reagan's. Obama has portrayed Bush's foreign policy as a reenactment of Reagan's muscular, pro-American foreign policy, which was based on Reagan's belief in American exceptionalism and his willingness to disregard what America's enemies and erstwhile allies thought of US actions. Obama has also portrayed Bush's economic policies as a reenactment of Reagan's policies of free market capitalism characterized by deregulation and tax cuts.
Obama has claimed that European and Muslim estrangement from the US; the increased strength of the insurgency in Afghanistan; Russian aggression; the resilience of the insurgency in Iraq; Iran's unimpeded drive toward nuclear weapons; and every other major US foreign policy problem are the consequences of Bush's embrace of Reagan's foreign policy approach. Obama claims that the financial crisis, too, is a consequence of Bush's Reaganesque tax cuts and his general embrace of supply-side economics and the conservative preference for limited government.
By so defining Bush's record in office, Obama has been able to make a case for his own policies, which are diametrically opposed to those he ascribes to Bush.
THERE IS only one problem with Obama's description of Bush's record. It is utterly false.
During his first term, Bush's foreign policy was raft with internal contradictions and intellectual confusion. Books have been written about the two competing factions in Bush's inner circle. Vice President Richard Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld championed a Reaganesque model of statecraft. And opposing them, secretary of state Colin Powell pushed for a UN-centered, European-style foreign policy more similar to the one adopted by Bush's father.
Throughout his first term, Bush refused to side with one or the other of the factions. Instead he tried to simultaneously implement two mutually exclusive foreign policies. His indecisiveness rendered his foreign policy intellectually incoherent and doomed much that he did to failure. Bush's speechwriters were evidently more sympathetic to the Cheney-Rumsfeld view and so many of his speeches during his first term echoed Reagan's soaring rhetoric. But on the ground, Bush's policies adhered much more closely to Powell's program.
This intellectual disarray was perhaps nowhere more evident than in Bush's refusal to define the enemy in the war. The men who attacked the US on September 11, 2001, were more than simply terrorists. They had a plan and a cause: They were Muslim jihadists. And they were not the ideological fringe of the Islamic world. Their beliefs are propagated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and are advanced in the most prestigious academies in the Islamic world.
By claiming that the enemy in the war is generic "terror" rather than a worldview embraced by millions of people throughout the Islamic world, Bush made it impossible for his advisers to develop a coherent strategy for war. He also denied the American people the tools necessary for understanding either the meaning of the struggle or the necessity of fighting it. He deprived the public of the basic intellectual framework for understanding for instance why he decided to imprison terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
Bush's two-headed foreign policy made it difficult for the public to recognize that the war being waged against the US and its allies in Iraq is not simply an Iraqi struggle, but a battlefield in a regional war fueled by neighboring regimes. His intellectual confusion blinded him to the fact that his democracy agenda was harmed, not advanced, by holding popular elections in which jihadists – whose views and aspirations are inimical to the notion of human freedom – were permitted to participate.
In Bush's second term in office, and particularly since the Republican defeat in the 2006 Congressional elections, Bush abandoned the intellectual incoherence of his first term in favor of a full embrace of Powell's policy preferences now championed by his successor, Condoleezza Rice. Throughout his entire first term, and due to his refusal to adjudicate between two contradictory foreign policy visions, Bush failed to adopt any policy toward Iran. After the 2006 Congressional elections, Bush embraced the Powell-Rice policy of European style appeasement. This has been demonstrated most recently by his stated plan to open a US embassy in Teheran.
Bush's wholesale adoption of the Powell-Rice appeasement policy is also reflected in his policies toward North Korea and the Palestinians. And this week, according to statements by White House officials, he stands ready to apply it toward the Taliban, with whom he is considering opening ties.
In Bush's last two years in office, the only surviving remnant of the Cheney-Rumseld Reaganesque foreign policy has been Bush's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. And in spite of its military success, the fact that this policy is contradicted by the president's policy everywhere else casts doubt on the durability of America's victories on the ground.
BUSH'S ACCEPTANCE of the Powell-Rice foreign policy doctrine has not been widely recognized. In large part this has been due to Bush's own refusal to tell the public that he has in fact embraced appeasement. Moreover, his reluctance to come clean with the public has been exacerbated by the media's denial of the change.
Whether due to blindness fed by an underlying hostility toward the president, or to ignorance of the significance of Bush's policies, the media have failed to report that Bush's policies today are a repudiation of the ideals and policies Bush gave voice to in his speeches during his first term. Those effectively repudiated speeches were the embodiment of Reagan's foreign policy doctrine.
The same pattern has been followed in popular characterizations of Bush's economic policies.
Aside from his tax cuts in his first term – cuts that include a "sunset" provision rendering them temporary measures rather than enduring tax reforms – Bush's economic policies during his two terms have been anything but Reaganesque. Bush has vastly increased the size of the feder
al government, and he has introduced massive new regulation into the US economy.
Emblematic of Bush's eschewal of Reagan's legacy on both foreign policy and economic levels is his newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The establishment of this new position – and the large bureaucracy supporting it – was how Bush chose to contend with US intelligence agencies' failure to foresee and prevent the September 11 attacks.
But like most failures in governance, the failure to anticipate, uncover and prevent those attacks was not due to an absence of bureaucracy. Rather, the failure stemmed from the ideologically-driven unwillingness of the directors of the FBI and the CIA to recognize the threat of al-Qaida and focus their efforts on tracking and capturing al-Qaida members and sympathizers. The proper response to that failure would have been to fire the heads of those agencies and replace them with people who understood the nature of the threat and were capable of contending with it.
Instead Bush decided to increase the size of the government, add a new layer of bureaucracy to the failed intelligence community and staff it with people of the same mindset as those who had failed to anticipate, expose and prevent the September 11 attacks. Not surprisingly, the newly appointed, ideologically uniform bureaucrats continued to underestimate the threats of jihadists and to fail to pay attention to any new significant trends in other areas.
It was this failed bureaucratic groupthink that produced the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program last year. That report, with its demonstrably false assertion that Teheran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, scuttled all of Bush's efforts to use economic sanctions to dissuade the Islamic Republic from building nuclear bombs and pulled the rug out from under any plan to take military action against Iran's nuclear installations in the event of the sanctions' failure.
So, too, led by officials of limited intellectual curiosity and blinding ideological cowardice now sitting atop a new bureaucracy, US intelligence agencies failed to anticipate or prevent Russia's invasion of Georgia.
Bush's establishment of the behemoth Department of Homeland Security was yet another attempt to solve a personnel problem by creating yet another department. And just as the National Intelligence Directorate has failed to solve the problems it was created to contend with, so the Department of Homeland Security has simply continued the same failed immigration policies and domestic intelligence policies that caused the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI to fail to identify and arrest the September 11 hijackers.
In short, both in foreign and domestic affairs, Bush's record is completely at odds with Reagan's record in office. Indeed, his policies have been far more similar to those that Obama – who runs as the anti-Reagan – promises to advance than to those that Reagan adopted.
AND THIS is the great irony of the campaign season. By failing to accurately represent his policies to the public, Bush invited Obama to misrepresent his record and so wrongly ascribe Bush's failures to policies he never adopted – much less implemented. By failing to correct Obama's misrepresentation of Bush's actual record, McCain has allowed Obama to characterize him as the candidate who would continue the Bush presidency, when the fact is that the small-government policies and the relatively robust foreign policy positions that McCain has adopted render him the candidate most unlike the sitting president.
If Obama wins the elections on Tuesday, his victory will find its roots not in media bias, but in Bush's insistent misrepresentation of his record as president.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.