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When Silence Isn't Golden

September 4, 2002

Nelson Mandela, whose struggle against white supremacy in South Africa inspired people all over the world, says he was rebuffed in an attempt to call George W. Bush, whose life of entitlement stands in marked contrast to Mandela’s personal sacrifice.

Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent more than two decades in prison, said Bush was not available when the former South African president called to discuss the Bush administration’s threats to mount a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Unable to reach Bush, who has spent the last month on vacation and raising money for Republican candidates, Mandela said he spoke with Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, about his son’s behavior. Mandela says the younger Bush “is introducing chaos in international affairs.” [AP, Sept. 3, 2002]

Blowing off Mandela is just the latest example of George W. Bush’s unwillingness – or inability – to engage the rest of the world in a discussion about his administration’s international agenda. Rather than hearing out the near unanimity of opposition to his go-it-alone foreign policy or articulating a defense of his doctrine of unilateral invasions, Bush has chosen to avoid spirited debate and to duck unscripted questions.

In his recent stage-managed public appearances, Bush has repeated shopworn applause lines about hunting down terrorists and punishing corrupt corporate executives. He avoids news conferences with reporters and shuns traditional state dinners that involve diplomatic chitchat with world leaders. Instead of the strain of these conversations with foreigners, Bush opts for informal meals and small talk with old friends before turning in at an early hour.

More than a year and a half into his presidency, Bush seems less -- not more -- engaged about the domestic and international issues pressing in upon the country. One of the few recent interviews in which he seems to have cared about the topic under discussion was his commentary about his exercise regimen with a running magazine.

“As the summer has drawn to a close, Mr. Bush has nurtured silences that even Calvin Coolidge would envy,” wrote New York Times correspondent David E. Sanger in a White House Memo column. “Ensconced on his ranch last week, he kept reporters and bay and let Vice President Dick Cheney do all the talking about the administration’s thinking on Iraq.” [NYT, Sept. 3, 2002]

Sanger’s column also noted that Bush avoided questions about criticism of his Iraq policy from veterans of his father’s administration, including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former secretaries of state James A. Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger. "If we are so clear in our own minds that this is a real danger, why can't we convince our NATO allies of that fact?" asked Eagleburger on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Bush has skipped questions, too, about the ballooning federal budget deficits and the stern court rulings against his policy of secret detention of terrorism suspects. Associates describe him as almost petulant about these reversals and his responsibilities as president.

“This hasn’t been the most pleasant summer” on Bush’s ranch, said one confidant, who added that Bush “doesn’t sound like a man eager” to get back to work on the contentious issues that he faces on Capitol Hill and with U.S. allies.

“This is a president who doesn’t like policy issues and fissures in his own team being aired in public,” said one senior official. [NYT, Sept. 3, 2002]

Bush is facing widespread opposition, too, from longtime U.S. allies over his repudiation of measures to address global warming. But the focus of concern among the allies is Bush’s flouting of international law in his assertion of a unilateral right to overthrow any government that he judges to be a threat.

Mandela’s lecture was echoed by other heads of state attending the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, while Bush stayed close to home.

“We are really appalled by any country, whether a superpower or a small country, that goes outside the U.N. and attacks independent countries,” said Mandela in a reference to Bush’s threats to invade Iraq. “No country should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. … What they are saying is introducing chaos in international affairs, and we condemn that in the strongest terms.” [AP, Sept. 3, 2002]

Lacking both rhetorical skills and intellectual firepower, Bush has shied from the debate, falling back on a mix of slogans and silence. One result has been an unprecedented spread of anti-Americanism around the globe from Asia to Latin America to the Middle East to Europe.

Still, even as the world turns against the United States and the long-anticipated U.S. economic recovery sputters, Bush has shown no retreat from his personal certainty that he should possess the unlimited power to wage a semi-religious “crusade” against evil in which he acts as judge and jury. He just doesn't want to discuss it.

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