Maybe the worst is not what George W. Bush took from us Europeans, but what he gave us. All the farewells from him, Washington and America are nothing more than the loss of our illusions, helplessly postponed. And the loss itself is an illusion - because we will not be able to rid ourselves of Bush's most important bequest. Bush enslaved our concept of democracy by deploying its constitutional vocabulary, from "freedom" to "dignity of man", as an instrument of his opaque exercise of power. Are we bidding farewell to our loyalty to the United States and its apotheoses of prosperity and power, as we now read in all newspapers? In doing so, we have received something we cannot take leave of: the shameful experience of a profound breach of trust with ourselves, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, a displacement of identity unprecedented in the annals of free societies.
During his last drawn-out conversation with President Bush eight months ago, Bob Woodward noticed something new. The President, who wants to tell his side of the story, begins to forget his story. In the course of the conversation, he repeatedly claims not to be able to remember details. "But make sure you know, it's not as though I'm sitting behind the desk and totally overwhelmed by Iraq, because the president's got to do a lot of other things," says Bush.
Woodward explains that Bush no longer saw a way to change the story through action. "A lot of other things to do"- except the one thing that counts: nothing other than the admission of utter failure.
Bush converts the layering of viewpoints he used to make the world believe he had a policy of irrefutable priorities into a succession of viewpoints. And he hopes, more than any Western politician ever did since World War II that his story won't be told according to its meaning and end, but by recounting his appointment schedule.
He has many other things to do: a train station dedication, G8-summit, flower exhibition, declaration of war, tax reduction, subversion of the constitution, a Boy Scouts anniversary. This is a desperate desire for an official history written from the perspective of the valet. Everything is the same, elevated and devalued at the same time. And thereby forgotten, as is the conversation Bush had with a close adviser in the summer of 2006, who replied to his question "What are you hearing from people in Baghdad? What are people's daily lives like?," answered: "It's hell, Mr. President".
For years, Bush forced the whole world to dwell in his head, to interpret each and all of his intentions, to absorb his own logic, flee his resolutions and fear his memory because it was, as he himself confessed, a memory that never forgot a slight. He seemed to be a case for a pediatric psychologist, and it must have seemed so for his staff members when he brusquely broke up important meetings with the remark "Speed it up, this isn't my first rodeo".
But what it meant for his contemporaries to be forced endemically into the thought apparatus of this presidency was noticed first by inhabitants of the deepest depths, those literary intellectual beings who illuminate the night with their own luminosity. At precisely the hour when George Bush, drawing the world into his thought processes with words like democracy, freedom, and self-defense and established a conceptual surveillance system that reached like thought police into every library and every laboratory, the writer John Berger predicted a reeducation inspiring fear, a vegetative state in which the body already knows what the brain doesn't even guess: "The pain of living in the present world." Berger described precisely what the essence of power was in this administration: "Ideology apart, its power is based on two threats. The first is intervention from the sky by the most heavily armed state in the world. One could call it Threat B52. The second is of ruthless borrowing, readiness for bankruptcy, and, given the present world economic relations, impoverishment and hunger. One could call it Threat Zero."
Bush has borrowed ideals only to devalue them
We have now entered Phase Zero. It is about to become a historic event. The ability to multiply by zero is the mathematical operation left to us by this president. The only problem is that it that it is not confined to him alone. What stockholders now sense: that they own nothing after years of accumulation, also holds true for our thinking and our action. Bush has multiplied freedom, democracy, and prosperity by zero. With borrowed ideals, only to devalue them.
"We've never seen a presidential meltdown like this. This is a terrible and dangerous loss, for the whole world is watching", wrote Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's former chief speech writer, the other day in Wall Street Journal. And while the US Treasury Secretary, as if to mark this implosion, literally fell to his knees in front of his country's elected representatives and the President spoke about the crisis "like a mere commentator, not the leader in the crisis" (Noonan), the observing world knows that those who pretend to be healers have caused the disease. Now "House members, many of whom I suspect can't balance their own checkbooks", decide about the world's economic future, wrote New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, in a dramatic plea. "I've been frightened for my country only a few times in my life: In 1962, when, even as a boy of 9, I followed the tension of the Cuban missile crisis; in 1963, with the assassination of J.F.K.; on Sept. 11, 2001; and on Monday, when the House Republicans brought down the bipartisan rescue package. But this moment is the scariest of all for me because the previous three were all driven by real or potential attacks on the U.S. system by outsiders. This time, it's our own failure."
Incompetence as a political variation of arbitrary exercise of power
Western societies anticipated virtually everything except for this attack from within. It is almost incredibly comprehensive, from the rhetorical preparations for war against Iraq, through climate policy, the attack on the constitution and the surveillance systems that now extend to all intellectual and scientific fields, to the implosion of the financial system. The vast system of fear established against a putative threat from outside has exposed itself as an emotional displacement of a fear of the innermost. The declaration of war against terror has long acquired the features of a declaration of war against the traditional European world view.
This president leaves behind all of the world's democracies in a deeply traumatized state, and the question becomes which person or event during the last sixty years could have achieved that, or indeed, whether it could have happened at all outside the democratic countries. In contrast to China, Russia and Bin-Laden terrorism, all profiting from Bush's rule, democracies always encountered in the person of Bush the "king's two bodies"; he was Bush, but he was also the representative of the idea of freedom and democracy. He destroyed respect for reality. And in doing so, he gave something back in return: Mistrust of others and oneself, lack of comprehension for the law and happiness of others, incompetence as a political variation of arbitrary exercise of power.
Especially in Germany, a country whose gratitude towards the liberators of 1945 is now historical in nature, the whole extent of moral ruin will show itself only after Bush's departure. There were many people, and many intelligent people at that, who believed followed him for a while when he shored up his Iraq policy with talk about weapons of mass destruction and references to the Third Reich. While the intellectual left may feel vindicated by the calamities of the existing order and draw lessons from them for the future course of history, the German post-war establishment that assembled in the big people's parties never developed a utopia that pointed appreciably beyond the American dream and the primal confidence in its democratic guarantees. The elimination of this vanishing point is, as Russia and China demonstrate, not at all the end of capitalism. Rather, what threatens now is the lasting division and regression of democracy and capitalism, a rupture that originated in Bush's abuse of the political rhetoric of freedom. In the worst case scenario, this will no longer be the world of those western cosmopolitans whose liberal outlook belongs to the best that modern societies gave birth to. Without any irony whatsoever, Friedman advises them: "Assume the fetal position!"
Bush hasn't just taken away, he has given
Bush begins to forget. And a disturbed world hopes that an Obama will be enough to heal the wounds. But as long as the world does not understand which wounds it has inflicted on itself, it will not be able to advance to the optimistic, happiness-seeking and in the end even loving self that slumbers embryonically in the innermost core of our democratic and social ideals. "In the interminably repeated speeches, announcements, press conferences, and threats, the recurrent terms are Democracy, Justice, Human Rights, Terrorism", John Berger writes. "Each word in the context signifies the opposite of what it was once meant to mean. Each has been trafficked, each has become a gang's code-word, stolen from humanity."
But Bush hasn't just taken away, he has given: a changed constitutional reality, freedom deformed and happiness destroyed. Shaken by the financial crisis, the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley announced in the New York Times a few days ago the preliminary "end of ideas". Maybe this last, quasi-materialistic ruin of ideals is the endpoint. Bush multiplies us by zero. The European societies must painstakingly learn again to add together one plus one to be able to begin anew.