Monday, May 19, 2008

Traveling With Friends

Bush-hatred is one of the most interesting phenomena of our times; to me, it is also one of the most disturbing. Consider Bush’s speech at this conference, and its calls for freedom, democracy, and humaneness. If Bill Clinton gave the identical speech, what would the reaction be? And if Barack Obama gave it, word for word? I can see people on their feet, cheering.

For me, one of the most memorable Davos moments came courtesy of Tony Blair. It was January 2005, just after Bush delivered his Second Inaugural Address. And Blair said to Davos — I paraphrase just slightly — “What’s wrong with us progressives? I thought we were supposed to be all for freedom and against tyranny. Why did we hate that speech so much?”

In all probability, Bush could have said nothing here in Sharm El Sheikh that would have gained approval. Nothing short of a self-denunciation.

And a thought occurs to me: Bush stands for sweeping change in the Middle East. And he was talking to a throng of people for whom life is pretty good. On the whole, they are affluent; a good number of them must have domestic servants. They have positions of power and influence. They travel internationally, including to conferences like this one. They are the “haves,” the societal winners.

And who is Bush’s Middle Eastern constituency? You could argue, they are the poor, the imprisoned, the hopeless. The poor need liberalization more than the rich. And no one in jail attends conferences.

Bush’s speech would have been much better received in, say, Syrian prisons.

In the next hours, I hear many reviews of Bush’s performance, and they are not good, to put it mildly. And I will tell you about a conversation I overhear — an American woman is talking to some Middle Easterners in a lounge. I am typing this column.

A man asks the woman, hesitantly, “What did you think of Bush’s speech?” “Oh, I hate Bush,” she says. That is a jarring sentence to hear: “I hate Bush.”

And she goes on. Some of her choice sentences: “Democracy is overrated.” “All of us Americans in the audience, we were like, ‘Do we applaud or what?’” “His approval rating is 18 percent. No one cares about him anymore; everybody hates him.”

She allows that the First Lady, Laura Bush, “seems nice.” But then she drops this: “The rumor is he hits her, you know. Sometimes I see her on television, and I’m thinking, ‘Poor woman.’” Then our American seems to have a prick of conscience: “But I don’t know — maybe they have a great relationship.”

Here is a theme I have sounded many, many times, and will again: The American abroad can be tough to digest. For decades, people have denounced the “ugly American” — the ugly American abroad. They mean conservative ignoramuses or loudmouths or bigots in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. But my idea of the “ugly American” is something else.

-- Jay Nordlinger, covering the president in the Middle East, for the National Review

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