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Miersery for Bush

Bush's controversial Supreme Court appointment reveals that the president was never the neocon his supporters and opponents thought he was.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

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US President George W Bush’s recent nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers for Supreme Court Justice has thrown nearly everyone for a loop. Conservatives are worried about the nomination of a woman who once was a Democrat and has apparently given cautious support for gay rights. Liberals are convinced she is a closet conservative and crony appointment. Nearly everyone is perplexed by the fact that the president considers a woman with no experience as a judge to be the best person for the vacant Supreme Court seat.

For many, Bush’s choice does not match their image of the president as a neoconservative revolutionary. But those who are perplexed have confused themselves: Bush never really was that neocon warrior that he was made out to be.

For a brief period after 9/11, Bush appeared to have something like a political project. Foreign policy adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with domestic tax-cutting, restrictions on civil liberties, and vague pronouncements on abortion and gay marriage, gave some the hero they had been looking for, others the demon they had equally been looking for, and the rest a way of making sense of this president. However you felt about the guy, he was an idealistic neoconservative with a vision.

But the mask never fit the face. Recall that, when Bush entered office, he had only lukewarm support for any of his vaguely stated goals besides tax-cuts. By summer 2004 his presidency was floundering, damaged by a vision crisis and a switch in party loyalties by Vermont Senator James Jeffords that handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon allowed Bush to divert attention to foreign policy for a while. But far from being a moral crusader, pursuing a transformative project with missionary zeal, he was always a weak president struggling with political isolation.

Problems apparently began for Bush when the war on terror got mired in mission creep in Iraq. As mission accomplished became mission non-existent, heads started to roll. Bush sacked the first head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Jay Garner, replacing him with Paul Bremer. Soon after, the man of vision changed his mind again and gave Condoleezza Rice supervisory authority. Bush essentially settled the spat between the Department of Defense and the Department of State by handing control over to someone loyal.

Meanwhile, neoconservatives close to Bush, such as Richard Perle and David Frum, were sidelined or dispatched. Republican discontent with the war grew more vocal – and those previously content to be part of the neoconservative camp started denying they were part of this movement, that it had any influence on the president, or that it had existed in the first place. As early as 21 May 2003, Jonah Goldberg, editor of the right-wing National Review Online, wrote: ‘there’s literally no defining attribute one can ascribe to neoconservatism which cannot be easily and substantially falsified with numerous counterexamples.’ (1) By Spring 2004, the liberal establishment had recognised the ‘End of the Neoconservative Moment’ (2). And neocon infighting led to public spats like Francis Fukuyama’s whiny departure from Charles Krauthammer’s National Interest and decision to found the competing American Interest (3).

Retrenchment at home has been equally severe. When John Ashcroft, the most visible face of domestic neoconservatism resigned as attorney general, Bush replaced him with trusted and nondescript counsel Alberto Gonzalez. At the 2004 Republican Convention, party loyals were treated not to a confident show of neoconservative hawkishness and Christian culture wars zeal, but a confusing parade of mavericks, social liberals and movie stars (4). Bush continued to come under severe criticism from members of his own party for his handling of Iraq, and his subsequent State of the Union Address failed to articulate any new principles besides tackling the vital national issue of performance enhancing drugs in sports.

In spite of Bush’s re-election in 2004, he has only become more politically isolated and paralysed. Even before he was sworn in, he came under criticism for a half-hearted response to the south Asian tsunami. Over the summer, concern mounted that Bush was doing more to alienate Iraqis than bring democracy and freedom. This led to the bizarre nomination of another close friend, White House counsellor Karen Hughes, as ‘Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs’. The post is tasked with winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world, a region about which Hughes knows nothing.

Meanwhile, domestic political interventions included a social security reform that stalled in complete, bipartisan chaos, and an energy bill that barely made it to the president’s desk. In fact, Bush has not had a new idea since the invasion of Iraq two years ago. His recent claim that Iraq is still the ‘central front on the war on terror’ was a vivid reminder of his own political quagmire.

The Katrina disaster gave everybody the opportunity to lay into Bush, and vent the frustration that has been mounting within the political class. Bush came under fierce public criticism from his own party over the possibility of raising taxes to pay for disaster relief, and has become the increasing subject of criticism from higher up Republican powerbrokers (5).

Which brings us to the Miers nomination. In early August, liberal law professor Bruce Ackerman warned in the American Prospect that Bush planned to salt the Supreme Court with ‘neoconservative revolutionaries’ (6). He did nothing of the sort. Bush long ago abandoned a political project that has always been more liberal bogeyman than ideological mission.

Instead, Bush has spent the past three years surrounding himself with a few loyal confidants like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and Rice, and appointing personal friends or consensus candidates likes Hughes, Gonzalez and Roberts. This is the politics of retreat and isolation. Bush has few consistent allies, and even fewer people he really trusts. With incoherent opposition from the Democrats, and weak party discipline among the Republicans, Bush is relatively free to do what he likes. But whatever he does, he does alone, without the kind of consistent support necessary to give a political project form and content.

Nominating the lacklustre and obscure Miers is indeed shocking, but not because it is cronyism. Rather, it is a flabbergasting display of just how little will and imagination Bush has. Bush is now back where his presidency began – without any big ideas, but stuck ruling all the same.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York, and is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in London on 29-30 October 2005.

(1) ‘The end of neoconservatism’, Jonah Goldberg, National Review, 21 May 2003

(2) ‘The End of the Neo-Conservative Moment’, John Ikenberry, Survival, Spring 2004

(3) For a profile of Fukuyama, see
The neocon who isn’t, Robert Boynton, American Prospect, 5 October 2005

(4) For an analysis of the timidity of the Republican Convention, see Dude, where’s my party?, by Alex Gourevitch

(5) George and the dragons, Robert Novak, Guardian, 28 September 2005

(6) High court, high stakes, Bruce Ackerman, American Prospect, 1 August 2005

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Topics Politics

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