At the beginning of May, back when the vast majority of Americans still gave George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt, moviegoers flocked to the new blockbuster, Spider-Man, taking grim comfort in the film's sober mantra: "With great power comes great responsibility."
A long two months later, that phrase is looking less like a steely confirmation of resolve and more like a warning bell clanging around the U.S. President's neck as he noisily expands Washington's power at home and abroad.
Americans understood from the first hours after the Sept. 11 massacre that some recalibration of Washington's policing abilities was required to face the awful new threat of Islamo-cultists bent on slaughtering as many U.S. civilians as possible.
But even in those bitter hours, hawks and doves alike cautioned Bush and his administration to tread lightly on the treasured Constitution and to act out of principle instead of self-serving interest, if he wanted bipartisan support.
Nearly 10 months later, signs abound that the grace period is over. Bush's approval rating has fallen steadily from 88% to a still-impressive 70%, while polls show Americans are now worrying far more about the rattled economy than the possibility of a terrorist attack. It remains to be seen how Bush's once-reassuring tagline as America's "first MBA president" will sound after more and more of his CEO pals are dragged off in shackles for the mammoth accounting cover-ups that have been battering the stock market almost every day.
The rhetorical and moral certitude that once inspired us (even while creeping out many opinion leaders elsewhere) is now beginning to fall flat. When Bush unveiled his major new Middle East policy on June 24, the reaction was far more muted and mixed than it had been for his previous wartime addresses. Sure, many thought, it would be great if the Palestinians had free multi-party elections, a new constitution creating separate branches of government, and a leader unstained by terrorism. But what about introducing those innovations to our "friends" in Saudi Arabia? You know, the country that produced the money, manpower and madrassas behind the World Trade Center attack?
Americans have had nearly a year to bone up on the noxious governments, newspapers and policy statements of our putative allies and can't help but notice that many of them embrace beliefs in flagrant contradiction to the lofty ideals we're supposed to be fighting for.
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The initial defection of public support from Bush, not surprisingly, has come from moderate non-Republicans, whose image of the President is noticeably reverting to the pre-9/11 cartoon of the bumbling, over-privileged frat boy in hock to the corrupting influences of Big Business, Big Oil and Poppy's bloodthirsty Cold War pals.
Long-time Washington Post political analyst David Broder spent two weeks last month interviewing such voters around the country and concluded: "What I heard convinces me that the nine-month moratorium on dissent from Bus dissent from Bush's war on terrorism is coming to an end."
Broder's findings among what Slate.com columnist Mickey Kaus calls "Democrat-leaning, non-Bush voters" could have an enormous impact on the prosecution of the war, the outcome of congressional elections in November and even the fate of Bush's presidency.
"There are a lot of us," Kaus wrote on June 14. "Our morale counts too, because the anti-terror effort will need our support, too. You could even argue that our morale is more crucial, since it's our morale that's most likely to slip."
So what went wrong?
The worm may have turned on June 10, when John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney General, made a hasty live announcement from Russia via satellite that the FBI had arrested Josť Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, on suspicion of planning to set off a "dirty bomb" in a major U.S. city. Problem was, the arrest had actually occurred four weeks earlier, the announcement came in the middle of several days' worth of harsh congressional criticism of pre-9/11 intelligence failures and the administration was forced to admit Ashcroft had gone too far in his alarmist descriptions of Padilla's intentions.
Suddenly, Bush's team looked disorganized and opportunistic, even while the new bomb scare brought back chilling memories of last September. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman charged that "there seems to be a pattern that makes it appear they are being quite political in their calculations of the timing of these announcements."
Comedian Jon Stewart, whose unsparing words for terrorists and their apologists these past nine months have resonated strongly with Americans and have been widely quoted by the mainstream media, devoted the entire first 10 minutes of The Daily Show that night to cutting Ashcroft and the administration to ribbons.
Days earlier, Bush had announced the formation a Cabinet-level bureaucracy called The Department of Homeland Security, which fell on public ears with a resounding thud. The president claimed that reorganizing 169,000 federal employees, many of them from entrenched and competing bureaucracies, would be a significant advance in the War on Terror, and somehow wouldn't cost any money.
"Nobody believes that," wrote FoxNews.com columnist Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and online commentator who has been among the more influential supporters of the war against al-Qaeda. "Perhaps it will take another attack before America -- and the administration -- get serious."
Like the national colour-coded terrorist warning system that no one really remembers, Bush's Homeland Security proposal was criticized on arrival in a way that would have been hard to imagine last October.
"The people that I've talked to that have talked to the intelligence community think it's an absolute joke," said one prominent Republican campaign strategist. "They think that it's sort of underscored the point that Bush just has no idea what he's doing in this realm."
This singling out of Bush for criticism marks a shift. Two months ago, such vitriol was reserved mostly for such bureaucrats as embattled FBI Chief Robert Mueller, or Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who oversaw a new airline security system that frisks grandmothers while refusing to single out passengers with Saudi passports.
Much of the sniping may be the natural outcome of a country returning to its old skeptical, partisan habits, but I think there's something more momentous afoot: Bush seems downright oblivious to the way his non-Republican supporters have extended him political capital because, unlike his predecessor, he actually seemed to believe in certain principles, whether you agreed with him or not.
Chief among them, as Bush stated often during the 2000 presidential campaign, has always been the belief that free trade is vital to global development. Or, as the President said a year ago, "Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative." Americans like their foreign policy wrapped in morality and idealism (even if Canadians and West Europeans instinctively shudder at the words), and here was a President who sounded as if he was ready to back a strong principle regardless of the polls.
Turns out the opposite is true. Even though Sept. 11 could be seen as the gravest threat yet to a global trading system already under siege from anti-globalization activists and worldwide recession, Bush has spent the time since then erecting and defending trade barriers to protect narrow domestic constituencies in the steel, textile and farming industries. When Pakistan, Russia and Turkey asked for lower tariffs in return for help in the war against al-Qaeda, the Bush Administration came up empty (with no help from Congress, true).
These moves have largely been attributed to Bush's most trusted political adviser, Karl Rove. In a withering June 22 editorial, The Economist wrote: "The real problem with Mr. Rove is his growing belief that politics is about bribing specific pressure groups, such as steel workers in important Rustbelt states, rather than pursuing the national interest. This makes a public mockery of Mr. Bush's (admittedly always fanciful) claim to be a new sort of politician, who does not abide by Washington deal-doing. Nothing could be more Washingtonian, or downright Clintonian, than calculating the electoral advantage to be squeezed from every action."
There it is: the dreaded C-word. As the Republican strategist put it, "The problem that Bush has is that, I think, to some extent he wants to be the anti-Clinton, but he's not.... He doesn't believe in anything and he hasn't made a strong stance."
When a man seems to lose his compass, you lose faith in his navigation skills. Now that Bush is no longer receiving the benefit of the doubt, Americans are getting louder about their concerns over Washington's expanded police powers -- the right to detain U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants;" the right to search through private library records; the right to try suspected terrorists in military tribunals; the right to spy on Americans; and so on.
UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, who has written extensively on the fears of real and imagined constitutional "slippery slopes" and who has tentatively supported some of the government's post-Sept. 11 law-enforcement proposals, says there are nevertheless some legitimate reasons to be concerned.
"I do think there's a real danger that once one says, 'Well, look, it's OK to have military tribunals trying non-citizens,' it becomes easier to say, for example, 'We'll have military detention even of U.S. citizens,' " Volokh says. "And it's easy enough to imagine a future administration which is acting out of much less noble motives -- or even acting out of noble motives -- going after domestic enemies and supposed local revolutionaries and using military justice and indefinite detention in order to go after them. That's the sort of thing that's a very dangerous power to put in the hands of the government."
As Glenn Reynolds put it, in a June 27 column, "Such powers are doubtful enough in any case, but they are tolerable at all only if the American public can be assured that those who wield them can be trusted."
The rest of the world is understandably more concerned with Washington's expansion of external power -- whether it be Bush's new vague doctrine of pre-emption, his recent order authorizing CIA agents to kill Saddam Hussein (in self-defence), or his overt pressure on past and upcoming elections in Nicaragua, Slovakia, the Palestinian Authority and elsewhere. And the very real U.S. unilateralism -- illustrated this week by its threat to withdraw from UN peacekeeping missions unless Americans receive an exemption from the new International Criminal Court -- continues to annoy our long-time allies.
We are a lot more blasť about such things, from where I sit. I don't remember Americans being less bothered by outside criticism at any time since the Reagan Administration, which is not hard to understand, given how daft much of it has been. And getting bombed has a way of clarifying beliefs and relationships.
It is possible that all the criticism amounts to nervous carping and that there are crucial manoeuvres happening behind the scenes that we'll later hail as heroic. It's even possible we are entering a new Cold War-style era, but with a more enlightened view toward avoiding the murderous excesses that split the country in half for 50 years. But American power is too vast to give any one man, or administration, the benefit of the doubt.
Last September, Bush had it handed to him. Now it's time for him to earn it.
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