The Muddle of the Road

I’ve been reading The Bush Betrayal by James Bovard (Palgrave Macmillan, $16.98, 330 pages) and I’m impressed by the wit, bite, attention to documentation, and eye for moral concerns in James Bovard's approach to things political, here dissecting the Bush White House in cuts more libertarian than conservative.

Mr. Bovard has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Playboy. One of his books, Lost Rights (St. Martin's Press), made him a best-selling author. He boasts that he's been denounced by the director of the FBI, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. International Trade Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Libertarians say he must be doing something right.

Well, what of the Bush White House for the past four years? Our author faults President Bush for braggadocio and double-talk. In his April 13, 2004, press conference, for instance, Bush puffed that "as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom." Bush hailed our troops in Iraq defending "security for America and freedom for the world." Freedom for the whole wide world? A big place. Does this mean, for instance, that the U.S. could turn on dastardly Chavez in Venezuela, another oil-producing state? Or on rank Mugabe in Zimbabwe?

Earlier, on January 22, 2004, Bush justified his preemptive war on Iraq as his way of forging a free society: "Free societies do not breed terrorism. Free societies are peaceful nations." But the question is: Will Iraq, so full of insurgents bent on kidnapping or even beheading their adversaries, ever get to be a free society? Anything but so far. Well, what about after January 2005?

Mr. Bovard isn't holding his breath.

In that regard, he quotes President Bush declaring on March 12, 2004, "I proposed doubling the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy to $80 million. We will focus its new work on bringing free elections and free markets and free speech and free labor unions to the Middle East." So Bush, says our author, sees a surge in propaganda as a blow for freedom. Bush again: "By radio and television, we're broadcasting a message of tolerance and truth to millions of people. . . ."

Tolerance and truth? On February 4, 2004, Bush gloated: "Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell, and Iraqi men and women are no longer carried to torture chambers and rape rooms." True, but along came Abu Ghraib, a U.S. military prison in Baghdad with vile torture photos of stacked, naked, Iraqi POWs in mock electrocutions, forced simulation of sexual acts, cringing before leashed attack dogs, all in gross violation of the Geneva Conventions, all televised to shocked Muslims everywhere and to the rest of a war-weary globe. No wonder the U.S. lacks friends in international society.

Anyway, on May 24, 2004, Bush blamed "a few American troops who disregarded our country and disregarded our values." Our author rightly wonders just where was the supervision, and how far up the Pentagon hierarchy does the blame extend.

Mr. Bovard also wonders how come in March 2002 the White House slapped on a 30 percent steel tariff to protect steel jobs in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – all critical states in the 2004 election. Double-talked President Bush: "An integral part of our commitment to free trade is our commitment to enforcing trade laws to make sure that American industries and workers compete on a level playing field." Sure.

Our author quotes one expert holding that the "new steel tariffs would cost about eight American jobs [in steel-consuming industries such as autos] for every one steel job saved." The World Trade Organization also weighed in, charging the U.S. with violating international trading rules. The European Union threatened retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports. The pressure worked, apparently. On December 4, 2003, the White House dumped the steel tariff

Perhaps you wonder how Mr. Bovard derives his standards for his critique of President Bush. His source is, in a word, liberty, including its theory and application. He finds Bush, for example, fond of holding how much the world has changed since 9/11. Our libertarian author is unimpressed, asking over and over: What about the Constitution? He reminds us that our Founding Fathers taught us that power is a blunt instrument – no matter who wields it – that checks and balances preclude the idea of a power-expedient presidency, that Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution expressly says only Congress can "declare War."

No wonder our author has some nice words for a few Democrats in opposition. He commends Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) for opposing the war on Iraq, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) for opposing the Patriot Act, and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) for opposing Attorney General Ashcroft.

Yet plainly our author is no friend of either major and most interventionistic party, the Democrats or the GOP, or of enforcing the tyranny of the status quo (to use Milton Friedman's phrase), or of the many neocons in high places in both parties who, openly or otherwise, laud the Welfare State, the New Economics, or the so-called Third Way of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

So the plight today of so many polarized Americans – split virtually into two giant 50-50 opposing camps – who seek relief by switching from one party to the other, reminds our author of an alcoholic trying to solve his fix by switching from whiskey to rum.

Our problem, as Mr. Bovard sees it, is increasingly one of unlimited democracy, of public choice ever selling out to special interests, of corruptive power vainly trying to undo the abuses of power, of state spending more and more for less and less, of vice “seen too oft,” to revert to Alexander Pope, "familiar with her face/We first endure, then pity, then embrace."

God save us, says James Bovard in his incisive book, from our self-imposed "moral Dunkirk," from our self-appointed saviors, from the White House down.

November 10, 2004