Monday, November 10, 2008


An assessment of the Bush Presidency written for a new Chinese magazine

George Bush will leave office as the least popular President in history, tied with President Harry Truman whose administration went on to be re-assessed as among the better examples of political and executive leadership. It is doubtful that President Bush will benefit from a similar reassessment.

The President inherited an economy in surplus, high employment, and a country with a reservoir of prestige around the world. Peace is always relative to the dozens of wars that never seem to end; but the US was not party to any significant conflict in January of 2001 when the new President took the oath of office. The first 100 days of the Bush Presidency were benign, so much so that it takes research to recall what happened.

The President lists his accomplishments as increasing US labor productivity to the highest levels in the world. The war on terrorism leads all accomplishments by the President’s own assessment. Low unemployment (5.4% his first year in office); the education initiative called No Child Left Behind; and the appointment of what President Bush called good judges. An assessment of the President’s judicial appointments over eight years reveals a federal judiciary that is the most conservative in US history, a legacy that will indeed pass into the distant future.
The passage of the Patriot Act was a plus that, according to the President smoothed the way toward better intelligence gathering during these dangerous times. Opponents say the Patriot Act was the first in a series of initiatives that weakened the civil and individual liberties that are the foundation of the US Constitution.
It is worthwhile noting that other than the war on terrorism, there were no foreign policy initiatives or objectives cited in this list.
The President’s critics point to the fact that while the federal budget was increasing at record rates the President did cut many items. 39 million dollars were cut for US libraries. 35 million dollars were cut in a program to provide pediatric training to doctors. Funds for research into renewable energy were cut by 50%, the White house Office for Women’s Health Initiatives was closed.
Most characteristically, the Bush administration systematically reduced government regulation. This met Republican orthodoxy that says less government is good government. In example after example, Secretaries of federal departments (Ministers) were appointed with the task of reducing the role of their ministries in every corner of American life. Having their raison d’etre either reduced or eliminated demoralized government bureaucracies. Many of those appointed to run government departments either lacked expertise in their responsibilities or had been active enemies of their departments during their private careers.
Despite all these steps, the size of the federal bureaucracy grew to record levels.

The President’s first term, and some say the world was changed on September 11, 2001.

The administration went on a war footing and plunged into a series of policies that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, two ongoing wars with little prospect that either would end soon, if ever, and a world anxious as never before in recent history to be rid of an American administration.
What happened?

The answers come back to September 11, an economic policy that counted on theory that is increasingly discredited and an ability to ignore warning signs. September 11 shook the confidence of a country that had never before suffered an attack on its continental soil. The President was challenged to demonstrate leadership and control at a time of fear and confusion. The Bush administration chose the path of least resistance: find a scapegoat. An effective public relations campaign oiled by what we now know to be lies, convinced a nation that wanted answers and action that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein was, if not the cause of the September 11 attacks, complicit and removable. The elusive Osama Bin Laden would have been a more useful target. However the deep valleys and caves of mountainous Afghanistan and the bordering friendly (to Bin Laden) regions of Pakistan made the leader of the Al Queda movement impossible to find. Enter Sadam Hussein and enter the Iraq war.

There were at least four things wrong with the Iraq war.

1. The United States was already at war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the first and logical target of military action in the wake of the 9/11 attacks just a month before. The US Army and a small group of supporting states, barely enough to call the war an “allied effort”, were quickly bogged down by terrain that was more vertical than flat and the political realities of a country that was more fiefdoms of competing war lords than a nation. The history of foreign attempts at conquest or control of Afghanistan was littered with the remains of small and mighty nations; most recently Russia defeated after years of ineffectual combat against indigenous forces that seem to rule all modern warfare. In fact, US aid had hastened Russia’s defeat, aid that had flowed to the same forces now lined up against the United States. Here too the deadly irony of modern real-politique left an American administration without evident strategies to deal with the complexities of modern warfare.
2. We now know that the Iraq War was undertaken by the Bush administration against the advice of its senior military leaders among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Contrary to the perception of many people, senior military commanders, particularly those with combat experience, do not want to go to war. They prefer high levels of preparedness and training to warfare. And the last thing any military wants is to have to fight two wars at the same time. But the warnings were ignored by what now appear to be the political imperatives of an administration that saw war as a policy that would pull a nation together traumatized by an attack on its national virility.
3. The Bush Administration failed to gain a credible level of international support for the war against Sadam Hussein. Most of the founding nations of the European Union see war as a policy of last resort. In their view the Bush administration was rushing to war. The US found few allies; in fact US warplanes were denied transit rights across the skies of some European nations. An old world that reveres the deliberative process of diplomacy was face to face with an administration that seemed to be following the American frontier spirit of “shoot first and ask questions later.” The then American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld divided nations further when he referred to the fact that French and German leaders both opposed the war as coming from “old Europe.”
4. The American media is generally viewed as having been cowed into submission during the immediate 9/11 period. The Bush Administration had successfully promoted the need for patriotic support during dangerous times when the specter of terrorism lurked everywhere. Times of war were not times when there was tolerance for dissent. The often-contrary media seemed to fall in line with national unity that supported the Bush Administration. The results were a press that seemed to fear the backlash inherent in the art of investigative journalism; and media management that found “going along” with the political climate of support for the President was better than appearing to stand in opposition.
The watchdog aspect of the American system of journalism fell asleep.

It was clear that fear was an instrument of the Bush policy at home and abroad. Aggressiveness against real and perceived enemies abroad, and a reliance on fear of foreign attack to rally support at home. The cost of the twin policies was increasing alienation from former allies, and heightened tension in the United States. Domestic tension produced a political divide that was acerbic in language between Democrats and Republicans at a level older politicians said they had never before experienced.
Politicians who have to stand for political office every few years have a tendency to see the world in terms of being “with me or against me”. This black and white view complicates the ability to compromise. The art of compromise was not the chosen art of the Republican administration. “You’re with us or you are against us” was increasingly seen as US policy around the world. To make matters worse, the administration did not seem to care about the answer.
No small measure of this policy was attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Congressman from the sparsely populated state of Wyoming where the American-western spirit of independence was more pronounced than in Texas that had given President Bush his cowboy image. Thus two cowboys in the White House egging each other along. No one in the Administration had the prestige or power to stand up to these two leaders; least of all Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice whose principal role was to travel the world trying to explain US foreign policy to leaders who were increasingly alienated by a world power that no longer consulted former and potential allies but rather appeared to mandate support “or else”.

The American economy remained robust at the beginning of the second term of the Bush Presidency despite record budget deficits, a government that had grown larger than any government in America’s history, and a balance of payments deficit that set records every month. None of these conditions are unusual in wartime, but cracks were beginning to show that were the precursors of a near fatal economic earthquake.

Quietly, without publicity or much mention in other than the finance pages of newspapers and on financial cable channels, China and Japan had turned into the bankers of the US economy. Between them, Japan and China were buying more than 40% of US debt that financed two wars and an indebted domestic economy. China and Japan together held one and a half trillion dollars in US treasury bonds. What few people seemed to realize or be concerned with was the fact that China and Japan held the keys to the US economy. As long as they bought the rising deficit via T-bills, what some economists saw as a house of cards, remained standing. What was less evident was that this economic hold on the US also served China’s purpose. When Chairman Hu Jintao needed President Bush’s support to calm the independence instincts of the DPP, the former ruling party on Taiwan, President Hu was able to call on an unusual ally.
China had no interest in a war with Taiwan, but the Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, beleaguered by allegations of corruption and increasingly unpopular as he moved toward elections, was fanning the flames of independence in a mirror image of the “fear factor” President Bush was using in the US to keep the support of his own voters.
But the US President recognized his economic and political debt to China and urged the Taiwanese administration in clear and blunt language to cool its ardor. President Hu smiled diplomatically, and the Taiwanese administration got the message and softened its tone.

The Bush Administration’s foreign economic policy toward China was built around a song with a single refrain: “Devalue the Yuan.” China knew the Yuan was undervalued. But China also recognized the advantage of a weak Yuan on the export market. Revaluation was in the cards, but like most Chinese policies it would be carried out on a Chinese timetable, not dictated or even influenced by foreign factors or foreign “advice”. The Bush administration also knew that China would not accelerate a revalued Yuan. Both countries recognized the economic and policy realities in their respective countries.

China has to create 22 million jobs a year to stay even with the demands of the annual inflow of new workers. The Chinese economy has to grow between 8 and 10% a year in order to create those 22 million jobs. Export industries are one of the engines of job creation, hence the under-valued Yuan.
The Bush administration was aware that its two wars and strict adherence to a deregulated economy were creating debt that was spinning out of control. In fact, Republican orthodoxy had collapsed. Government was not smaller; it was bigger at record levels. Budgets were not balanced. They were imbalanced at record levels. Yes, tax cuts, a Republican controlled Congress that overrode weak and fearful Democratic opposition leadership passed the heart of Republican orthodoxy. But tax cuts were effective for the rich while the middle class and the lower economic classes were increasingly aware of the gap between rich and poor. Middle and lower incomes were stagnant or falling.

The administration again sought the path of least resistance: find a scapegoat. In this case China, regularly accused of stealing American manufacturing jobs and undercutting American competitiveness via an undervalued currency.
Chairman Hu Jintao and his administration were gaining experience and sophistication on the world stage. They understood the domestic political needs of an American President. The Chinese Central Government calmly repeated the argument that the Yuan would be revalued gradually on a Chinese timetable, as it has been and continues to be. Beyond that, the Central Government tended to ignore the carping from abroad.

The second term of the Bush Presidency, as many second Presidential terms, suffered. Two wars continued without the kind of clear progress needed to gain popular support. American citizens turned against the war in Iraq and all but forgot the stagnant war in Afghanistan. Isolation and alienation from the world community continued. The President’s support eroded because he was in his final term and had diminishing political power. The Administration’s ineffectiveness was reflected in lower and lower approval ratings from his once-supportive population. World leaders distanced themselves more and more from US policies.

The economic shock that all but destroyed the Bush administration threatened to bring the globalized economy to its knees. A chain reaction set off by mortgages to Americans who could not afford to repay them and banks whose bad debts overwhelmed their balance sheets created the worst economic crisis the world has seen since the 1930s.

Lacking coherent economic policy, The Bush administration offered a band-aid approach to an open wound that threatened to bleed the once highly-regarded American capitalist system. It took British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to announce government policies that brought balance back into the world’s banking system. European leaders followed Mr. Brown’s example; the American President and Congress followed along. But following is not where the Bush Administration began its reign of power. The Administration came in like a lion and reacted forcefully to real and perceived threats. But a disdain for compromise and accommodation left a Presidency isolated from its people, isolated from the world, and in the end isolated from its own party that entered the 2008 election year convinced that it faced the worst defeat in modern American history.

Peter M. Herford
November 3, 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The China snowstorms

The general impression created by the reporting from China over the past two weeks has been apocalyptic. Anyone who has ever been isolated, stuck, or lost in a snowstorm, a flood, an earthquake, or other natural disaster knows the hopeless feeling, the powerlessness that nature can impose. The snowstorms and cold that hit China in the past two weeks are no different than similar events  elsewhere in the world. The difference in China, as it aways is, is the impact on a huge population.
More measured reporting beginning today, New Year's Eve in China, is backing away from the apocalyptic picture that has been created.

I am bemused by the fact that news reports seem to forget or ignore the fact that similar circumstances occur every time a part of the US,  Europe, Russia, Central Asia, Africa or Latin America are hit by nature. Power often goes out (it usually takes less time to restore power in the developed world), people die in smaller numbers in smaller countries, transportation systems are disrupted (the early predictions of weeks of outages in China may prove to have been exaggerated).

Yes the snowstorms in China were unusual events, but that is what nature is all about. Averages are made of extremes.

The nasty part is that the government was not prepared. There was no plan (see Katrina). The big difference in China is that the government admitted its lack of preparedness. 

Reports said that news was censored. And yet CCTV television and newspapers in China have been full of reports, images as well as text. The stories have not been as extensive (or as apocalyptic as the foreign press), but the reports were absent 10-20 and 30 years ago were there.

Everything has been on the Internet. The pressure of disclosure from citizen reports, video and still photos has consistently been on the government media. Increasingly, government media bend to those pressures.

Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao and President Hu Jintao both hit the road to meet with people stranded, and suffering. The Prime Minister was prominently displayed with a megaphone at the Guangzhou RR station speaking to a crowd that stretched to 200,000 plus mostly migrant workers who were trying to get home for the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year. Wen Jiaobao had a simple message: "We apologize". The government acknowledged publicly that it was not prepared.

The mantra of all governments caught off guard followed: "...we are now doing everything to put it right." Remember Katrina, the aftermath of which is still playing out two years after the event? Many New Orleanians are still waiting for relief. The US government response has been chaotic, inadequate, and to this day unresolved.
In China 2 million soldiers were thrown into the mess, to shovel snow, to maintain order, and to deliver relief. The mobilization of the Chinese military, which included the movement of massive numbers of soldiers and equipment was accomplished within 48 hours. Trains, planes, etc are now running. 

There is much left to be done, but the difference appears to be that a massive effort is underway to deal with the need to restore electricity to cities, to make sure the flow of coal keeps power plants working, and that the disruption of food and commerce is resolved. The crisis that characterized much of the reporting during the storm has passed. The massive coverage has been reduced to a trickle. We are bored and move on, both the reporters whose worst scenarios did not come to pass and the public whose lives go on.

I am in HK where there is no effect whatsoever, life is normal. My hometown of Shantou about 300 kms up the SE coast of China had lower than normal temperatures but was otherwise been unaffected. This is New Year's eve and celebrations and parades and fireworks are all on track.

The point is perspective, as it always is in daily news reporting. As journalists we are trained to anticipate the worst. Most of us have seen enough natural disasters to understand the individual tragedies they bring, the disruptions that occur. Most of us have also been spun or lied to by authorities who are quick to explain away lack of preparedness or other human failing.
Most of us are also aware of the fact that people living a few hundred yards from a flooded river are unaffected while our pictures may show a world underwater. Most of us are aware of the fact that weather is localized. Even the massive snowstorms in China impacted a relatively small percentage of the country. The personal impact was large because of the size of the population; but on a percentage basis, the numbers are small. This is a difficult concept for reporters and readers and viewers. There are very few places in the world - India and Pakistan are exceptions - where similar reporting challenges take place.

Reporters, particularly foreign reporters are still learning that the scale of all events in China creates a different category of problems and solutions. In the past in China this storm would have created famine and death for millions. Recovery might have taken a decade. This time the immediate impact lasted 36 to 48 hours. This contrast between the China of the past and today's China is a difficult concept for reporters working in their expatriate bureaus in mega-cities and living in apartments that differ little from standards at home. The reporters who do go into the field are limited by experiences that shed little light on nature. Blocked highways can mean that a road trip that normally takes four hours may take 36 hours. These familiar stories to readers and viewers in developed countries are new to Chinese citizens. 

The prism through which many of us have seen this story is a traditional reportorial prism. Yet what seems to have happened in China is that a government admittedly unprepared for an unusually heavy blow from nature, has in the first stages of recovery managed a problem that the richest economy in the world stll has not been able to handle.