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COLUMN

Bush in the Eye Of History

Basil Enwegbara

I have spent much time following the presidency of George W. Bush. My curiosity about this man began as far back as 2000 at the early stage of his campaign for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world. Like most who followed that process, I felt disappointed with the handling of the election procedure.

But Sept. 11’s terrorist attack on America quickly changed my perception of the president. Surprisingly, I discovered great leadership in Bush: how he handled that terrible event; how he cried; how he brought a terrified people together; how he sought and embraced the collaboration of the international community; and most importantly, how he made sure that innocent Muslims in America never became scapegoats. In short, President Bush won the admiration of the world, including his arch-critics and political opponents, and even those who were hurt by the way he was elected. All came to support his government with almost no criticism.

Another surprising episode was how the president handled Senator Trent Lott’s racist remarks that sparked anger around the country. Blacks and whites alike denounced the senator for admiring the segregationist policies of the past. To everyone’s surprise, President Bush handled the episode to everyone’s satisfaction. Not only did he disagree with his party’s Senate leader, but he also denounced Lott for not understanding the horror of America’s segregationist past. More to come was in his State of the Union address, in which he surprised everyone by declaring a war on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He allocated $15 billion to fight this battle over the next five years in Africa and the Caribbean. The announcement showed President Bush’s great moral capital and his sincere intention to help bring smiles to the faces of forgotten fellow human beings dying of AIDS.

But the question remains: why is it that after all these gestures, many people not only still doubt his leadership but oppose it? Isn’t his moral leadership enough to convince them that he is truly a compassionate president, learning how to lead America in today’s complex world? At the end of the day, people seem more interested in his weaknesses than his strengths, especially because of the growing belief that he is a president who favors the interests of his friends and the privileged few. On the economic front there is a strong feeling that he has failed. Critics suggest that his economic stimulus plan, rather than boosting the economy, will drag the country deeper and deeper into debt. Without a comprehensive plan, skeptics believe that Mr. Bush’s stunning boldness won’t be effective enough to jump-start business investment, which is believed to be the key to coming out of the current recession. Leading economists, like Paul Krugman of Princeton University, disapprove of the proposed tax cuts, including the elimination of the shareholder tax on dividends. They believe an elimination of the dividend tax would not help to draw more investors into the stock market, and would further derail economic recovery. Based on the surprising announcements in his State of the Union address and new budget proposal, most critics, frightened by his ambitious speech, conclude that the president is a big-government “conservative,” who would like to reduce taxes but at the same time increase government spending to a total of $2.2 trillion. The growing question is, where will the administration find the money, if not through raising taxes? How can the president promise $400 billion over the next ten years to modern Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly, and at the same time pledge $674 billion for an economic stimulus package?

Even as appealing as his international AIDS initiative (which unfortunately caught less attention in Africa) is, it too has attracted criticism. Some see it as just a way to improve American image abroad as well as a ploy to win friends at a time America needs allies to legitimize its potential invasion of Iraq. Others see it as a business strategy, another way to prop up American firms, which for some time now have been worried about African demands at the World Trade Organization for wider access to generic drugs. There are even those who see this largesse simply as the result of Trent Lott’s racist comments and as a way of burnishing the image of the Republican Party. Internationally, feelings are growing that if President Bush wants America to decide how American money is spent and who will get it, he is undermining the effectiveness of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, created in 2001.

This administration has continuously kept critics alive, be it anti-Bushism across Europe and the Arab world, or be it at home, where protests are on the rise against war in Iraq without the support of the U.N. But at the same time, the Bush administration has its admirers busy singing songs of praise.

What we are witnessing is the rebirth of the international politics of controversy. It has not been seen since the 1960s with the Vietnam War, the civil rights protests, the environmental protection campaign, and the Cuban missile crisis. George W. Bush no doubt will go down in history as both a courageous and controversial president, whether he succeeds or not. And those Africans who will benefit from his generosity will remain grateful to him for saving their lives, no matter what his ulterior motives may be.