I still remember how when I was in grade school in the mid-1960s, that high plateau of American power that's a little hard to see down here in the valley of 2008, my textbooks included illustrations of the U.S. as "the world's policeman" and the man in the Oval Office was referred to as "the leader of the free world." I didn't realize how loaded those terms were back then, but I'm not here to debate that. To anyone who was watching TV this weekend, and that apparently was just about the entire world, it was painfully obvious what George W. Bush has managed to turn the American presidency into over nearly eight painful years.
"The world's passive spectator."
Writers love to derive metaphors from the slightest provocation, but honestly, I could live and write to be 100 and never again be served up a metaphor as apt or as chilling as the sight this weekend of Bush as a lonely face in the crowd at Beijing, a mute, clapping spectator to grand opera of dazzling pyrotechnics both of the gunpowder and the human variety, and at the very same moment half a world away, our race's ceaseless capacity for inhumanity. For four non-stop days, Bush put a dazed human face on the powerlessness that he and his cohorts, especially Dick Cheney manning the levers back at home, have brought to a once-awesome office.
I've been arguing since Day One that Bush should not go to Beijing -- no sitting U.S. president has ever attended the Olympics outside of American soil -- and while my primary concern was human rights, it turns out that his presence there looked much, much worse than I could have imagined. All the advance criticism did was to force Bush to give a speech denouncing the Chinese regime's atrocious record on human rights -- which he delivered...from the safety of Thailand. Can you imagine if John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan had delivered their "Berlin Wall" speeches in France, and then bopped over to Moscow to clap at an ice-hockey game.
But there's a lot more than the fact that that Bush didn't really feel it was his place to ask the Chinese to tear down their great wall of repression. In spite of its horrendous human rights record, China's suit-wearing thugs have blended in just enough capitalist yin-yang to build a world powerhouse, and that might was on display for the entire world to see at Friday night's opening ceremonies, an awesome display of artistry and fireworks. It was in many ways an exclamation point for the entire globe on the actual news that came out this week, that China is now not years but only months away from passing the U.S. as the world's No. 1 manufacturing power. And so for several long neon-lit hours, the American president got to ooh and ahh like the rest of the world.
Just a dazzled and dazed spectator in the crowd. And in a way it seems like Bush knew it. The president looked bored and confused, glancing at his watch and sometimes absent-mindedly beating his American flag into his leg. As Jon Stewart might say....uhhhh, USA?
And so it was probably just a coincidence -- right, it has to be? -- that Vladimir Putin, Bush's eye-to-eye soulmate who huddled with him in Beijing, and his figurehead regime chose Bush's low moment of extreme passivity to invade Georgia and its democratically elected government with a bloody bombing campaign that is killing thousands of civilians and soldiers alike. It is, quite simply, the biggest foreign policy crisis of the last couple of years -- but seriously, George, no need to get up. What time is beach volleyball again? Of course. the sad fact is there's just not much that Bush can do at this point -- the time for a coherent policy involving Russia and its neighbors would have been the Athens Olympics in 2004, not these ones on Beijing.
When Bush finally did come home to the White House all volleyballed out, he said that "Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state.... Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.... We have no doubts about it. This is a deliberate attempt to destroy an entire country and change the regime." Well....Iraq isn't "neighboring" the United States, so I guess that was what made that war OK. The blatant hypocrisy was once laughable, now it's beyond sad. Meanwhile, the U.S. has dispatched someone named Matt Bryza, who sounds like a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays but is in fact an obscure mid-level State Department official, to Moscow, while Condi Rice is in some kinds of undisclosed location.
Is there a bright spot for America in Beijing? Of course there is, in the can-do spirit of the U.S. athletes, who with all the brightness of Michael Phelps' toothy smile have shown the world all the qualities that still make this such a great nation in spite of our strange choices for leaders -- the hard work, the rising from humble origins, never giving up and fighting through pain. Maybe someday America will again pick a president with the same nobility and bearing as the best of our Olympians.
Instead, we suffer mere mortals back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Here's what Bush had to say just before he left Beijing yesterday: "It was just interesting to me that here we are, trying to promote peace and harmony, and we're witnessing a conflict take place."
Spoken like a true spectator.
Here's some bonus video of America's face in the crowd: