The year of living dangerously: Bush in crisis

This year probably won’t be any worse for George W. Bush than last year or the year before, but it’s likely to be a wild ride for the rest of us. The president faces the prospect of leaving office, assuming we’re fortunate enough to actually get shed of him, in the throes of a recession inspired by a combination of laissez-faire lending and corporate socialism and without having accomplished anything other than leaving the world a much messier place than he found it, with the dead bearing witness because the living avert their faces.

The United States is nearly $10 trillion dollars in debt, and racking up more every second. That’s thanks in large part to Bush’s tax giveaways and the extra trillion dollars in defense spending racked up by the Iraq invasion and occupation. Big financial interests are cutting tens of thousands of jobs even as they reward feckless leadership with hundreds of millions in severance pay and retirement benefits. (But don’t mention that on the campaign stump, lest you go the way of John Edwards and get formally shunned by the press, risking the campaign cash and muscle people such as Hilary Clinton enjoy from people such as Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, the former Bush Ranger who now backs her).

Thanks to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and other graduates of the Miss Manners school of political confrontation, we have absolutely no chance of ridding ourselves of Bush and Cheney by means of impeachment. The executive pair have created a generation of orphans and refugees in Iraq, they’ve wrecked our ground-bound military, they’ve institutionalized torture as an official tool of US foreign policy, they’ve gutted the Constitution while inaugurating an illegal surveillance state, they’ve transformed Afghanistan into a narco-trafficking state on steroids, they’ve set back the fragile cause of peace in Palestine by a decade or more, and they’ve transformed our image abroad from one of a generally well-meaning if sometimes inexcusably clumsy giant to that of a frankly malevolent fiend. And that’s just a partial list, and the worst is undoubtedly yet to come.

Because time is running out. Even by their own increasingly low standards, Bush and Cheney have accomplished little of what they set out to do either at home or abroad. Sure, oil company profits are way up, as are the defense-related profits of organizations with which the pair of smash and grab artists have long-standing ties–think Halliburton and the defense industry pirates at the Carlyle Group, Bush père’s gravy train, among others–but Iran is still standing, the Palestinians are not completely broken, the poor still vote, however difficult and meaningless the process may be, and America’s middle class still has a grip on too much money that should be in the hands of America’s wealthy.

Dick Cheney is still running on borrowed time, four heart attacks past his expiration date and with his agenda in shreds. Bush, who is not the moron many people like to think he is, may just be smart enough to know he’s not smart enough to pull a Dick Nixon and rehabilitate himself as an elder statesman after a departure from office that may not be as abrupt as Nixon’s but will certainly be as widely celebrated. Neither man is temperamentally inclined to go out with a whimper, Bush because of his destructive petulance and Cheney because of his late-life fanaticism. As January 20 of next year draws closer, the temptation to double down with some grand, manic gesture will become overwhelming.

And who’s to stop them? Administration officials announced during Bush’s trip to the Middle East that they’re in the process of negotiating a status of forces agreement with Iraq to replace the UN mandate authorizing the presence of “coalition” troops, committing future US administrations to levels of military support far beyond what even the temporizing Clinton and Obama project. Clinton’s response to the prospect was to urge Bush to consult Congress. It wasn’t intended as a laugh line.

In truth, that bit of handcuffing probably doesn’t matter. Both Obama and Clinton have said they would keep sufficient US troops in Iraq to protect American diplomatic personnel and contractors, and to conduct anti-terrorism operations; raise your hand if you think anything less than a major US troop presence will stave off the collapse of the current Iraqi government and keep the Green Zone from turning scarlet. If one of them becomes president, he or she will probably be grateful that Bush is making the decision for them.

But other things do matter. Impeachment may be off the table, but Bush made clear this past week that an attack on Iran isn’t when he told Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is little more popular in Israel than Bush is here, that the National Intelligence Estimate downplaying Iran’s capacity and ambition for producing nuclear weapons doesn’t reflect his own views. And Olmert, in kind, told Israeli parliamentarians that “[a]ll options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter.” With Bush’s departure from office marking the likely end of the current US policy toward Israel–absolutely anything goes, as opposed to the modest restraints a less nihilistic administration might try to impose–Olmert is as much a hostage to January 20, 2009, as Bush is. As we all are.

Add the impending nasty recession to the current mix, with Iraq about to erupt again, Afghanistan in deep, deep trouble, our man in Pakistan struggling to keep his job and his life while we threaten to do for his border regions what we’ve done for Iraq, and the recipe for a magnificent disaster, an even more catastrophic success than the ones Bush and Cheney have delivered us to date, is about complete.

What will Democrats do about this? Nothing. As senators, Obama and Clinton have been spectacularly ineffective, and they’re doing little on the campaign trail to address the worst failures (or the worst successes) of the administration. About the only chance for reining in Bush and Cheney is to make supporting them or ineffectually opposing them a matter of political suicide on both sides of the congressional aisle. But the big money from establishment Democrats continues to flow to people such as Al Wynn while progressive Democrats remain party pariahs, and Republicans have for the most part staked their futures on running to the right of rabid.

Barring an unprecedented explosion of conscience and courage, no one is going to stop the administration from taking us further through the looking glass. I haven’t made many predictions about what 2008 will bring, but the one thing I can say with complete assurance is that whenever you think Bush and Cheney have done their absolute worst, they’ll prove you wrong. This will be a bad, bad, nasty year.