Surveying the vast wasteland that George W. Bush has made of American governance, even the most sophisticated observer is driven to ask, like the simple son at a Passover seder, what is all this?
The most compelling hypothesis so far is that we have not one president but two. Or, rather, two shadow presidents. Domestic policy is the land of Karl Rove -- ruthless, cynical, malign yet cunning. As Paul O'Neill has told us, politics trumps principle at every turn, and rather than the agenda of small-government conservatism, liberal ideas and programs are turned into a disciplined machine aimed at securing Republican hegemony and corporate profits.
Abroad, however, we are in Dick Cheney's world, where grand visions meet a naïveté that would be almost touching had it not gotten so many people killed. In both domains, a disregard for the facts dominates, but whereas the home front features well-crafted lies aimed at securing the president's political future, on foreign policy the administration seems to be genuinely out of touch with reality. I, myself, badly misjudged the Iraq War out of false overestimation of Bush's cynicism. Surely, I thought, the naysayers were wrong and the war would turn out well, for it clearly wasn't in the president's political interest to produce the current debacle.
But while the “two presidents” theory has some merit, it is unsatisfying both intellectually and emotionally. As in physics, where quantum field theory and general relativity coexist uneasily, we yearn for a grand unified theory of Bushism that would put the two halves of the agenda together. Now, at last, with the revelation that Ahmad Chalabi has been passing intelligence information to the regime in Iran, the opportunity presents itself to construct just such a unified theory. The truth, hard as it is to accept, is that Bush is an Iranian agent.
Admittedly this theory suffers from a lack of direct empirical evidence. Nevertheless, by presenting this single bold conjecture, we can explain everything in a neat, tidy package. By Occam's razor, then, the theory must be accepted. Hear me out.
The appeal of the Bush social agenda -- restrictions on abortion rights, a gay-marriage ban, abstinence-only sex education, restrictions on international family planning, etc. -- to the mullahs is obvious, and it builds upon a longstanding collaboration between the GOP and Islamist regimes in international women's rights and related issues. Bushian economics, by contrast, has more typically been understood as focusing on efforts to make wealthy Americans even wealthier. Superficially, this class warfare theory has a lot of appeal: Why else would there be all these tax cuts for the rich? On further examination, however, the theory begins to break down. It is understood among development economists that a cleaner environment is a "superior good," demand for which rises in tandem with income. A panderer to the interests of the wealthy, then, would have little reason to advance a Bush-style pro-pollution agenda.
It is hard to see, moreover, how the creation of an unhealthy, ill-educated workforce could possibly serve the interests of corporate America in the long term. Nevertheless, this is precisely the direction in which the Bush agenda points. Most broadly, fiscal policy à la Bush has produced tremendous budget deficits at the very moment when the looming retirement of the baby boomers makes such deficits unsustainable. Were the nation to continue down the road to bankruptcy, the resulting political and economic instability would harm all Americans, but do the rich not have more interest than the rest of us in maintaining the current order? The real beneficiaries of a fiscal crisis would be none other than America's enemies abroad. Clearly, then, Bush is an agent of one of them. But why Iran?
This brings us to foreign policy. Bush's two wars -- in Afghanistan and in Iraq -- have put U.S. troops in two nations bordering Iran, a hostile state currently facing rising discontent from a population that yearns for a more liberal order. This should, or so one would think, create an ideal opportunity for the advancement of U.S. interests. The creation of stable democratic regimes on both sides of Iran would do a great deal to undermine the current dictatorship and boost the forces of reform. But Bush has not created such regimes. Instead, he has ignored the advice of virtually every analyst on the planet and committed very few resources to reconstruction or peacekeeping in Afghanistan. The result is a semi-anarchic situation in which real power lies in the hands of miscellaneous warlords. The most powerful is Ismail Khan, the "governor" of Afghanistan, who operates under wide suspicion of collaborating with Iran. Thus, the anti-Iranian Taliban regime -- because it was Sunni fundamentalist rather than, like Iran, Shia fundamentalist -- has been eliminated, and forces friendly to Iran now control some very valuable turf.
Rather than take action to forestall this eventuality, what did Bush do? Why, he decided to topple a second hostile neighbor of Iran, that of Saddam Hussein. Following the invasion, did the United States commit the requisite level of troops to create a stable, liberal political order? As has been made painfully clear, we did not. Instead we hoped that we could install a regime on the cheap, led by Chalabi, who's now known to be an Iranian intelligence asset. More recently, support for Chalabi has been cut off, but the United States has abandoned plans for militia demobilization owing to a lack of troops. Indeed, we've come to rely on private militias to assist us in military operations in southern Iraq, primarily the so-called Badr Brigade. And who controls this brigade? Why, that would be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia political party supported by … Iran.
Iran, as we know, is seeking nuclear weapons. Bush claims to be concerned with nuclear nonproliferation, but he acted on this concern by invading a country that had no capacity to assist Iranian nuclear development (and would have had no desire to do so in any event). The invasion did, however, do a great deal to distract attention from North Korea, which would be willing to assist and which now has the capacity. The pattern continues.
To make a long story short, the results of a second Bush administration would be as follows: A bankrupt United States possessing a broken military -- as Phillip Carter has recently reported for the Prospect, it will take years to reconstitute the supplies that have been cannibalized for the Iraq venture -- faces off against a nuclear-armed Iranian regime that's seen its two regional adversaries replaced with failed states in which Iran-affiliated warlords wield disproportionate influence.
The American people need to start asking themselves, whose side is Bush on?
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.