Strategies for building awareness for the potential of peace education in Cameroon Ben Oru Mforndip
Special Report
Has Democracy Enhanced Development in Africa? Conrad John Masabo
Permanent Emergency Powers in France: The ‘Law to Strengthen Internal Security and the Fight Against Terrorism’ and the Protection of Human Rights Lena Muhs
Women’s Political Representation in Sri Lanka: Leading towards Prosperity or Peril Pujika Rathnayake
Lack of empathy as a threat to peace Victoria Scheyer
Comment II
The death of democracy in Honduras Daniel Bagheri S.
Berta Vive Daniel Bagheri Sarvestani
The Persons Who Changed the Lives of Terrorists and Criminals Surya Nath Prasad

Teaching Peace from Tales of the City: Peace Education through the Memoryscapes of Nagasaki Patporn Phoothong
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Reflections of Refugees in Africa Wyclife Ong'eta Mose
Challenges and prospects of AU to implement the Ezulwini Consensus: The case of collective security and the use of force Tunamsifu Shirambere Philippe
The Right to Food Shant Melkonian
Freedom of Expression Under Threat in Zambia Mariateresa Garrido
Douglas Janoff on LGBTQIA Human Rights Luciana Téllez
Common Things: Communication, Community, Communal Peacebuilding Lina Patricia Forero Martínez
The political Crisis of the 2017 Honduran Election Daniel Bagheri S.
Research Summary
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Reborn Arunima Chouguley
An Open Letter to the American People: Political Responsibility in the Nuclear Age Richard Falk, David Krieger, and Robert Laney


Last Updated: 05/12/2003
Matthew Norton

Matthew Norton defends bad grammar and argues against stupidity.

Well, I turned and asked an angel
Why the judgment book was changed,
And they judged that bunch of cow boys
By the laws that ruled the range.
And he answered very solemn
That the reason was because
You could never judge a cow boy
By another feller's laws."

- Bruce Kiskaddon, "Judgment Day"

Perhaps it will go down in the annals of political strategy as "the Stupidity Trap". It is a devious strategy, a technique that employs decoy and dissimulation, a bit of sleight of hand that gets 'em every time. It is a red herring that is just too tempting to miss. Yet it is not reliant on secrecy or deception. It has proven itself to be equally successful even after its primary practitioner admits it is a trick. There is something of jujitsu about this political ploy, as one's opponents are encouraged to become the victims of their own strength and passion, impaling themselves on their own preciously sharpened, witty, world-wise, and grammatically irreproachable barbs. It is a con game for minimalists, where the mark is invited to pull the wool over her or his own eyes, and in this game the con man in question just lets us do it, and do it, and keep doing it. Who could blame him, really? Maybe it shouldn't go down in history as a strategy at all. Maybe our willingness to allow our critique of George W. Bush to rest on his intelligence rather than our own carefully considered response to his policies and positions should be written up as a friendly-fire incident, or an unintentional mass intellectual suicide. We are failing to meet the responsibility of those in opposition to effectively oppose, in part because we are convinced that we're up against a dummy, and Bush really has very little to do with that failure. We do it to ourselves.

If acting stupid to distract the opposition is remembered as a strategy - rather than as something that the left, the multi-lateralists, the millions of anti-war marchers on the weekend of February 15th1 , and the growing ranks of those who are fearful of the superpower's new and perhaps growing willingness to flex in recreating the world to its liking have done to themselves - then George W. Bush will be known as its preeminent practitioner. He is the guru of seeming dumb, and getting away with murder because of it, and we fall for it every time.

In an interview with Larry King in December of 1999, candidate Bush recalled how the issue of his intelligence, and the question of his intellectual capacity, first reared its head in his bid to become the governor of Texas. "They ignored the fact that I went to Yale and Harvard, and said my intelligence was [not] heavy enough to handle the job and I won," Bush said, "I love to be underestimated."2 While a quick quip about whether heaviness is really the appropriate measure for intelligence would be so easy, that is precisely the type of move that Bush frankly acknowledges that he loves. And he loves it because it keeps those of us opposed to his positions and policies from responding to them in their substance. This tendency leaves us heckling, and hecklers come off looking the dumbest of all.

Bush's statement to Larry King is a good example of the perhaps unintentional brilliance of this strategy. While attention immediately goes to a questionable linguistic moment, and the instinct of the opposition to leap on such failures is strong, the key part of this statement is Bush's acknowledgement of the political mileage he gets out of being underestimated. Of course he loves it, because it allows him to surprise his competitors when he is more coherent and clever than rumored to be, and to impress the voters by performing far in excess of their expectations. Take one of the televised presidential debates in the US, where the consensus seemed to be that Bush mopped the floor with Gore - he didn't really, not in any objective sense, but he did wildly better than anyone expected, making Gore's anticipated mediocrity seem all the more mediocre. And the insipid snickering of the pundits does not appear to rattle him any more now than it did then. Bush seems resolutely unfazed by questions, jokes, and doubts about his intellectual capacity, saying "I just ignore [them], because I know I've got confidence in my capabilities"3.

Domestically and internationally, we waste our time on the red herring of Bush's intelligence while he gets on with a hard-line conservative domestic programme in compassion's clothing, and an outdated realist international agenda with profound, and perhaps historic geopolitical consequences. Explicitly and implicitly, the presumption of his idiocy dominates the response of a great number of his critics to his policies and positions. Instead of responding to his agenda in a systematic, rigorous way, instead of posing a serious, and coherent alternative vision, we treat it as though it represents a series of blunders. What else could they be if their top spokesman is an idiotic Texas cowboy? Bush's supposed stupidity distracts the opposition, drawing their fire from the substance, where a sustained, rigorous, honest, and impassioned critique with international and domestic support is desperately needed. Instead we have given up the fight. And so it goes, with Bush and his administration playing politics with deep impact on our geopolitical future, while we, the opposition, are stuck in the school yard, sniping and smug. We've allowed name-calling to replace argumentation, and the results are not good. George Bush loves to be called stupid, with good reason, and he keeps on getting what he wants.

The Case

"I think the American people - I hope the American - I don't think, let me - I hope the American people trust me."

- George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Dec. 18, 2002

"Intelligence makes sincerity difficult"

- Mason Cooley, City Aphorisms, Ninth Selection

The case for George W. Bush's stupidity is built from a number of pieces. Some of these, such as his country accent, his tendency to talk real slow, and his passing resemblance to a monkey4 are based on little more than prejudice and have no real bearing on the question - they simply serve to vent political frustrations. His possible drug use, acknowledged alcoholism, and born-again Christianity have all been cited by critics looking to lash out, but are similarly irrelevant to the question of intelligence. Other parts of the case demand an answer. In general there are two categories of evidence here: facts that seem to corroborate his lack of intelligence, and facts that purportedly establish his lack of intelligence. Examples of the former include citing the closeness of the 2000 presidential race, and its dubious outcome courtesy of the US Supreme Court, as a way of establishing that he never really earned the job. He is an appointed president, not a real one, or so the argument goes. The sly mentions of Bush's presidential parentage play a similar role: to imply that he didn't earn his position, that it was handed to him as everything has been handed to him. It seeks to explain how someone so unintelligent could rise to such a high level of public office by claiming that he ought receive no credit for his success. These positions are full of the heat of loathing, and I will argue below that there are good reasons to loathe. But these are not those reasons. They add nothing, and prove nothing.

The more substantive arguments purportedly establishing Bush's lack of intelligence hold more water. One critical point made first during his election campaign, but resurfacing as part of the general and sustained critique of Bush's mental incompetence to fulfill the demands of his office, is his lack of geographical knowledge. This concern is based in part on Bush's serious lack of foreign experience, even travel experience, before he assumed the presidency. The concern was confirmed during a radio interview with candidate Bush where he failed to name the leaders of Chechnya, India, and Pakistan5. How could such a sheltered, provincial, Texan cowboy run the United States, the critics wondered? But President Clinton's response to Bush's performance in the radio geography quiz is telling. Clinton said, "I think as a presidential candidate, for the main trouble spots of the world, he should and probably will pick up those [names] . . . But the most important thing is do you have a clear idea of what the world should look like and what America's policies ought to be in those areas?"6 Clinton's concerns are quite different than those cited above, and far more relevant: the focus for a presidential candidate should not be on geography but on geopolitics. Clinton is correct. Two years into his term, Bush now certainly knows who is in charge of Pakistan and India. He probably still knows who the President of Taiwan is, and certainly knows who leads Germany and France (he may still not know the "leader" of Chechnya but he certainly has an aide with that information at the ready). He knows that the correct designation for people who live in Kosovo is "Kosovars" and not Kosovarians, and has been to Europe plenty of times. So Clinton was right, he picked up the names. The key was the candidate's geopolitical vision - "a clear idea of what the world should look like and what America's policies ought to be" - or more exactly, the question of whether or not he had one. Geopolitics is about power far more than it is about maps, and no simple quiz can test whether someone understands power. The problem is not that Bush is bad at geography. And it is not that he lacks geopolitical vision. The problem is that his vision is of a world remade in America's image. It amounts to cowboy democratization, conversion over the barrel of a gun, so to speak, and is fundamentally flawed. By leaving no place for multilateral action, the UN, or the rule of international law and universal human rights, Bush's vision is quite impossible. The US cannot go forth and democratize the world. Likewise, his geopolitical vision is limited by the fact that it is built on a conception of power with its own severe limitations. Some of the most fundamental contemporary challenges to peace and security are posed from the periphery of power, and not at its center. The problem is not that George Bush does not know where Sierra Leone is. The problem is that in his geopolitical vision it simply does not exist as a relevant factor and player. For those who put their faith in an international order based on the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a vision that must be rejected. If only we could get past the number of stamps in the man's passport and get down to the business of that rejection.

Of all the arguments in the arsenal of those who assert George W. Bush's stupidity, however, best known and cherished is his celebrated capacity to misspeak. It signifies precisely nothing, but has proven endlessly alluring to those in opposition. How many emails have we each received delighting in Bush's celebrated capacity for malapropism, misstatement, and grammatical ineptitude? How many pundits have gloried in a statement gone humorously awry? Web sites cataloguing the President's misstatements are legion, and they typically approach their subject matter with unbridled joy. The crème de la crème of these bloopers have made it into slick volumes just in time to adorn the floor beneath liberal Christmas trees. They have become an indelible part of Bush's public image, seen as endearing or irrelevant by supporters, the tip of an iceberg of incompetence by many of those opposed to his policies and positions.

He opens his mouth for an ill-advised foray into unscripted speech7, and out come the red pens of editors and English teachers everywhere, itching to fix:

See, it's easy in this town for people to commit troops, the US troops, to combat, through opinion and the noise you hear in Washington. But there's only one person who is responsible for making that decision, and that's me. There's only one person who hugs the mothers and the widows, the wives and the kids upon the death of their loved one. Others hug but having committed the troops, I've got an additional responsibility to hug and that's me and I know what it's like.8

Presidential bon mots such as the preceding have become commonplace, instantly recognizable, and universally (in the universe of non-Republicans) ridiculed. They are an ingrained feature of the social life of our time, and have become part of an often uncritically repeated creed of the center and left: debt relief is good, globalization is bad, doing things through the UN with a measure of international legitimacy is good, climate change is real, small arms are only a means for the killers out there to be more efficient, people from the US who talk about their 2nd Amendment rights too vigorously are in league with the killers, might as well be killers themselves, probably are, the International Criminal Court will never be hijacked in pursuit of a political agenda, and US President George W. Bush is stupid because he says stupid (if screamingly funny) things all the time. It is clearly not the gospel for all, but it is for a large proportion of the worldwide ranks of those with sufficient political agency and will to voice their opposition. The ones who speak up, write, protest, and legislate against know that he says stupid things, and follow that to its apparently logical, but terribly un-useful conclusion: that the US President is a stupid, stupid man.

But are speaking errors of this kind really an indictment of intelligence? Put aside, for a moment, the undeniable satisfaction of sniping at a politician who, from the opposition's perspective, has had obnoxiously high, even unassailable approval ratings, who had the gall to buck domestic political trends, leading his party to a mid-term electoral victory, and whose arrogance in foreign affairs has bankrupted a post-September 11 stock of international empathy and support for the United States. Do speaking errors make the case for stupidity? The answer is emphatically "no".

Intelligence is a complex and contested quantity. While language skills might seem like an obvious way to judge if someone is clever or not, this is neither fair nor accurate. Psychological theory, for example, has thrown into question an understanding of intelligence weighted too heavily toward the linguistic. New research published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, for example, poses serious questions for an understanding of intelligence linked only or even primarily to verbal ability, focusing instead on the centrality of visuospatial capacity to the highest functions of human intelligence9 . The historical record backs up the assertions of Miyake et al in their skepticism of an assessment of intelligence along verbal lines. Thomas Jefferson was a terrible speaker10. Einstein and Newton both may have suffered from Asperger's syndrome11, a form of autism associated with severe impairment in communication abilities, particularly in confusing or high pressure situations. Einstein, for example, seems to have been quite gifted at leaving his audiences confused12. Dyslexia has actually been theorized as a possible cause for Bush's communication woes13. The case on this matter is far from complete, but as Nancy LeFevers, a linguistics expert specializing in the study of dyslexia states, "The errors you've heard Governor Bush make are consistent with dyslexia"14. Even if it is not dyslexia, and Bush has never been tested so there is no way to tell15, the speech errors that form such a high profile part of the case for his stupidity are at least consistent with this disability. The high-profile of many members of the ranks of dyslexics through history should serve as a warning to us before we judge intelligence based on attention-grabbing but potentially misleading factors. Famous dyslexics include Churchill, Yeats, da Vinci, and Rockefeller16. US Presidents are not absent from the list: Woodrow Wilson and George Washington are both thought to have been dyslexic17. George Bush says immensely funny things at times, but intelligence is a deeply contested concept, and disability is such a nasty consideration for judging others. We, as critics, would serve ourselves better not to take such a superficial intellectual product as a tendency to make grammar mistakes, or to confuse or reverse meanings and words as a barometer for intelligence.

Stupidity becomes our expectation when interpreting the words of George Bush, and we generally interpret so as to meet that expectation. But not all grammatical errors are created equal, and not all of the errors of the US President are as laughable as critics seem to suggest. Turns of phrase such as the bit about hugs cited above may be technically incorrect, but they are coherent and even, perhaps, a bit poignant. Errors, yes, but technically so is the last chapter of Ulysses. Some of the commentary that is mocked should actually be attended to rather closely in its substance. Consider the oft noted campaign tangle of pronouns for your reconsideration:

When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who the 'they' were. It was us versus them and we knew exactly who 'them' was. Today we're not so sure who the 'they' are, but we know they're there.18

Is it goofball confusion? Or is it a quote for our times, adequately capturing the zeitgeist of confusion and trepidation as the threats to international peace and security that were understood well are replaced by a slate of far more diffuse and ambiguous dangers? The way that the pronouns becoming increasingly ominous as the vagueness of their referent looms behind the sentence signifies quite elegantly the sense of a very real and ominous presence lurking anonymous behind the text. In these lines Bush succinctly captures the sense of a world that has moved beyond the old paradigm, and our inability so far to articulate a new one that will give our understanding purchase. 'They' are not the Soviets any longer, but 'they' are there. In fact, here Bush has offered a quote to the opposition, a concise statement of the dilemma facing his brand of realism in a world that has outstripped the usefulness of the tools it commands. Bush and his people don't know who 'they' are. They don't know what to do about 'them'. And force, balance of power, and deterrence are simply not suited to meet the challenges that 'they' pose. He has given us an incredibly clear window into the fatal contradiction of his geopolitical vision, and all we can do is make fun of his pronouns.

Muddle or Manifesto?

"Intelligence . . . is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas."

- Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'", Against Interpretation

This is not an effort to turn George W. Bush into a poet or a visionary. The case must be made, however, that we have made too much of his stupidity. We have assumed too quickly that George Bush is a numbskull, and have also, perhaps, been too quick in our willingness to ascribe his international and domestic policy doings to a lack of mental capacity. Have we been too quick to assume that if a speech of his has enraged Europeans it must have been an error? Is Bush too dumb to do his job? And do the Iraq debacle, the Kyoto affair, and the Rome Statute betrayal testify to that incompetence? Most clearly not. What they do testify to is an understanding and a vision of the international system where US interests become the law of the land.

To ascribe policy positions that we find totally unacceptable, dangerous, and almost viciously ideological and shortsighted to stupidity is a serious error, because it badly underestimates the adversary. On the other hand, to acknowledge that Bush is indeed capable of governing but that we utterly reject what he does with that capability is a difficult pill to swallow, but a far more powerful stance that clearly identifies the serious challenges facing us in our opposition. Rather than ascribing the evolution of an American foreign and domestic policy that we cannot accept to stupidity, we need to come to terms with a simple perspectival fact: it's not that they don't get it, that makes everything look so bleak and hopeless in terms of policy that makes sense to us and is capable of addressing the problems we see as most serious in a way that we consider just and fair and right19, it is that they "get it" using a very different framework for understanding the world. George Bush and his people have a drastically different model for getting it, contemplating it, and deciding action on it. It is a matter of paradigms. If George Bush were truly too dumb to do his job, his administration would be marked by an obvious and pervasive lack of a framework for understanding and talking about that world. Everything would be in shambles if the man were not clever enough to hold down the fortress, and we would have a muddle. Instead we see the daily articulation and elaboration of a neo-realist, neo-conservative policy and strategic agenda that is virulent in a technical sense, having the capacity to spread and ingrain itself into the thinking of US allies and foes (in the logic of the thing) if not resisted now. It is not a muddle, but a dangerous manifesto for a new New World Order.

Consider the evidence: the Bushies have developed their own simplistic framework to understand and operate in the world, but simplistic is not the same as dysfunctional. It operates on certain core principles that are highly debatable, but sticks to them, and thus lends clarity if not wisdom to its vision. For example, it may be easy to mock the hostility of the Bush administration to multilateralism as evidence of a shortsighted, dumb approach. But that misses the more important point that this represents a carefully weighed and considered foreign policy decision with tremendous actual, and even greater potential, ramifications. The Bush foreign policy team understand the arguments for multilateral action: that it, inter alia, gives legitimacy, allows problems to be handled through collective action, ensures international stability by building up the linkages that bind all states to each other, and supports a rule based international order. They understand the arguments, and have simply decided that in the vast majority of cases the limitations placed upon all participants in such multilateral processes - being bound to that decision making even when the outcome is less than satisfactory in certain areas - outweigh the benefits. They have taken the position that in general the US is able to pursue its policy agenda more effectively by going it alone. If there is any truth to the metaphor of the US as "superpower" then it is here at its most evident, in this willingness to act without company, or to assume its gravity is sufficient to attract company. This rejection of a rule based international order is not complete. Bush and his people have been quite straightfaced about their desire to have their cake and eat it too, selectively supporting multilateral action where it seems the most likely route for achieving US interest, in the case of Israel/Palestine and North Korea, for example.

Similarly, we have been willing to allow mockery, disdain, and dismay to become our most significant unified response to Bush's antagonism towards multilateral efforts, treaties, and institutions. But his opposition to the the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, his monkeywrench work at the UN conference on small arms, and his flouting of international law with regard to Iraq are all part of the same calculation outlined above. His opposition is not stupid. And we cannot afford to offer a response that fails to meet the fundamental assumptions of this tendency: that all US interests can be underwritten by immense military power, that the US will continue to enjoy its position as the unrivaled superpower, and that the world should look like the US wants it to without regard for the legitimate interests, positions, and security needs of other states. So what if African states want serious efforts at small arms control? Who cares if the framework of international law forms the only hope for security and stability for many states and people? Bush's hostility to multilateralism is not stupid. It is instead based on what could be characterized as a deeply flawed, and hopelessly imperious vision of the world where the US can pursue its interests best outside of such frameworks - when it suits.

The fact that there is a vision does not make it a good vision. However, stupidity is a counterproductive framework to use in posing a serious challenge to the Bush programme. Slogans such as "No War For Oil" that simplify complex and serious security questions to their least insightful form20 simply exclude us from the debate by ignoring or obscuring the real questions that are being asked. Instead of such reactive and belittling tactics, we need a new manifesto of our own that reasserts the primacy of the UN, human rights, multilateral decision making, and the rule of international law as the choice of a vast majority. The vast majority will come, internationally and in the US, but first we must build the manifesto.

Cowboy Stupid


 "For most Northerners, Texas is the home of real men. The cowboys, the rednecks, the outspoken self-made right-wing millionaires strike us as either the best or worst examples of American manliness. . . . The ideal is not an illusion nor is it contemptible, no matter what damage it may have done. . . . Those who believe machismo reeks of violence alone choose to forget it once stood for honor as well."

- Edmund White, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America

Bush does an awful lot that is deplorable. He is pursuing a dangerous adaptation of the Reaganite toolbox to a situation where it is vastly less suited even than it was in its Cold War context. The contemporary challenges to peace and security are not amenable to power politics and force. How can you pursue development with a cluster bomb? How does the unmanned Predator drone give you an edge on improving education and thus employment opportunities for youths who might otherwise turn to destabilizing crime and violence? Bush does not entertain complexity in his policies. He does not entertain ambiguity or accept multiple interpretations. None of this is stupidity. In fact, it is why his ideology is compelling to so many. It is a story told without footnotes or parentheses where all the answers emerge from simple equations. As William Saletan, columnist for Slate magazine, writes, "[i]n Bush's telling of the story, it all fits together"21, and people respond to such a confident and comprehensive telling of the world. But it is precisely this clarity that makes such an unambiguous approach deeply unsuited to meet the challenges posed by a postmodern world where all meanings, paradigms, and frameworks are contested, and all is in flux.

Bush's vision seems good to a lot of people, and importantly it seems good to a lot of American voters. We cannot wait for those voters to suddenly develop a deep suspicion for someone who wears an American flag on his lapel, or attaches one to the back of his truck. We cannot sit on our heels hoping that George Bush's incompetence and idiocy will do the job for us and prevent him from effectively and rapidly pursuing foreign policy goals that are deeply antithetical to the real international trends that we believe are the best bet for a collective future that is as peaceful and secure as possible. We cannot abide awhile in hopes that Bush's oral disasters, or his geographical incompetence, or the prejudice shared by so many against someone who talks geopolitics with a cowboy twang will do the job for us and lose him the next election. The opposition needs to stop heckling, and start opposing.

And where is the opposition anyway? The international response to Bush's positions has failed to engage the crucial question of what the US should be doing, instead focusing on proclaiming loudly what they do not like. To be fair, it is not really the job of others to craft a legitimate policy response. So where is the domestic opposition? Unfortunately the Democratic party has imploded under the weight of Bush's continuing success. In the current buildup to the Democratic primary elections where a candidate to run against Bush will be chosen, the candidates are remarkable (in almost every case) for their lack of a vision that is a rival rather than a subordinate to Bush's. Indeed, at times, the Democratic challengers seem to be falling all over to position themselves close to Bush and to avoid the serious, hard questions that must be posed22.

In fact, all of the opposition has allowed itself to be quelled and corralled by a culture that has emerged in US politics under Bush since September 11, but is stronger now than ever in the wake of war with Iraq, where any who argue against the President are labeled unpatriotic. This serves as a powerful gag against opposition as elected officials fear the impacts of such a designation on their electoral fortunes. But this is a disastrous, and anti-democratic development, with terrible consequences. Recently, for example, House Speaker Dennis Hastert accused Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of undermining the president because, "Senator Daschle has spent more time criticizing the leadership of President Bush than he has spent criticizing the tyranny of Saddam."23 This kind of comment should be soundly and resoundingly rejected by the Democrats, whose "patriotic" duty is precisely to ask the toughest questions, and in the case of Iraq to loudly wonder about Bush's diplomatic failure to make the case outside the US for military action. But Daschle's fellow Democrats kept mum. More Republicans jumped into this fray to get their licks in than Democrats rallied around their man doing the job that they, as a group, have failed so spectacularly to do.

After his first meeting with the newly inaugurated President Bush, Daschle said to his colleagues, "Don't underestimate this guy"24. But we have. The real reason to stop calling Bush stupid and to start crafting an intelligent response to his policies, positions, and geopolitical worldview, is that the name calling is, quite simply, counterproductive. It takes us nowhere, even if it makes us feel better in the loser's seat to be in the company of friends who understand how dumb the guy is to whom we lost. Or pose this question to yourself: could we really hate him so much, could we really summon up so much bile, scorn, derision, and anger if he were just a blundering idiot? We do not oppose because he is dumb. We do it precisely because he is not, because he threatens to get things done the way he thinks they should be, and on that score we are in fundamental disagreement. George Bush certainly does not come off as some kind of brainchild or wunderkind. He is no genius, and will likely never be known as a deep thinking president25. But if he is indeed stupid, then he is stupid like a cowboy. The cowboy was never known for his book learning, leaving that for the folks back East26. Instead he developed his other skills, riding, roping, driving cattle. The cowboy would have looked awkward indeed in the drawing rooms of Boston, or Paris for that matter, not quite at ease, not quite at home. But in the saddle he was suddenly the master of his world, capable of great feats of daring and skill. None of this makes the cowboy smart per se, but it makes him competent and capable in his realm. Quite equal, in fact, to the brilliant speakers that surround him. Though surely deficient if judged by their standards, they, in turn, would appear ludicrous if they tried to operate in his capacity. Clinton was an effective talker. Bush is effective in his own way. He may not have refined some of the skills traditionally associated with the job of President of the United States. But he has proven that he can do the job with what he's got. He's not stupid, he's cowboy stupid, and there's a world of difference.

This essay will end, then, precisely where we need to begin: with the imperative to begin crafting political alternatives, to educate voters, to form coalitions that do not merely stand against an idiot, but that stand against a set of policies that are dangerous precisely because they are highly coherent. It ends with the call to stop calling the man stupid, to recognize that for those who are unhappy with Bush's approach, it will take more than a few emails joking about how moronic that approach is. It ends with a demand that the Democratic party pull its head out of the sand and stop underestimating President Bush, or the tremendous damage that he has and will continue to do to internationally and domestically. His agenda threatens the entire fabric of multi-lateralism as an emerging approach to the incredibly complex threats that have become clear since the removal of the Cold War scales from our eyes. It threatens the normative structures of international law, human rights, and democracy. It explicitly threatens imperative efforts to respond to global warming, the control of small arms, and weapons of mass destruction. It changes the rules for intervention and the use of force to confront today's proliferating dictators without a glance at the repercussions on our common future, and locks the international community into a militaristic approach to dealing with terror which alone will never be enough. His policies are not stupid in any of these areas, but they are bad policies. This is the note we need to strike. And then we need to make the more difficult positive case for what 'could be' in place of Bush's 'is'. We need to make the case, fearlessly, argument by argument, about why our vision is better, and why his vision is flawed and dangerous. Only then will we have a chance to take the reins from a cowboy who has unfortunately shown that he knows how to use them, but just does not understand where we need to go.

  1. BBC, "Millions join global anti-war protests", Monday, 17 February, 2003, 13:01 GMT,
  2. CNN, "Bush brushes off questions about his intelligence on CNN's 'Larry King Live'", December 17, 1999, 12:25 p.m. EST (1725 GMT),
  3. Ibid
  5. He correctly named President Lee of Taiwan, and new that the Pakistani leader had taken power three weeks before in a military coup but could not name him. CNN, "Bush fails reporter's pop quiz on international leaders" November 5, 1999, 3:29 p.m. EST (2029 GMT)
  6. CNN, "Bush fails reporter's pop quiz on international leaders" November 5, 1999, 3:29 p.m. EST (2029 GMT)
  7. It turns out that in his private discussion with Clinton before taking over the presidency, President-elect Bush asked Clinton for speaking pointers. Clinton's hints: master the pause; count to three between sentences; speak to the cameras, never the audience. Harris, John F. and Balz, Dan. The Washington Post. "Conflicting Image of Bush Emerges: Bush Makes Political Investments, but Will They Make Him?" Sunday, April 29, 2001.
  8. Engels, Matthew. The Guardian, "I do not want more widows, Bush tells TV", Saturday December 14, 2002,,3604,859708,00.html
  9. Miyake, Akira, Friedman Naomi P., Rettinger, David A., Shah, Priti, and Hegarty, Mary. "How are Visuospatial Working Memory, Executive Functioning, and Spatial Abilities Related? A Latent-Variable Analysis" Journal of Experimental Psychology - General, Vol. 130, No. 4.
  10. Bailey, Thomas A. 1998. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. 11th ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  11. BBC News, "Einstein and Newton 'had autism'", Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK,
  12. Ibid
  13. Sheehy, G. "The Accidental Candidate" Vanity Fair, October 2000.
  14. LeFevers, N. quoted in Sheehy, "The Accidental Candidate"
  15. ABC News. "Bush Denies Dyslexia Report: Report Suggests Candidate has Common Learning Disorder", 12 September 2000,
  17. Livni, E. ABC News. "Dyslexia basics" 12 September 2000,
  18. From a speech given at Iowa Western Community College, January 21 2000,2763,392735,00.html
  19. Assuming - incorrectly - for the sake of rhetoric here that there is any such position that meets those criteria for all or even some of we who generally oppose Bush's approach rather than simply a consensus on what we don't like.
  20. The Atlantic Council of the United States, The Middle East Institute, The Middle East Policy Council, and The Stanley Foundation. 10 May 2002, "U.S. Challenges and Choices in the Gulf: Energy Security"
  21. Saletan, William. Slate, "Impatient Justice" Friday, 2 May 2003, 1:11 AM PT.
  22. Take for example the recent exchange between John Kerry and Howard Dean, two Democratic hopefuls for the presidency. Dean made the eminently logical point that the American military will not always be preeminent in the world. This is one way to phrase an absolutely critical response to Bush's hostility towards the UN and the rule of international law. While the US is the only superpower it should be throwing all of its weight behind these institutions, working non-stop to institutionalize them in the decision making processes of all states to encourage the development of a world where the US will still feel secure even if, say, China takes over the mantle of unopposed superpower one day. The Bush approach is dangerous because it is shortsighted, and Dean was on the right track. But then Kerry leapt on his opponents comments and ridiculed him for suggesting that America would ever be in a position where it's military was not dominant in the world, and recoiled in rhetorical horror at the suggestion Dean had never made that he would allow the US military to be surpassed. And did Dean push his argument, elaborating it further to pose a serious challenge to the President? No, he gave in to Kerry's dumbing down of the debate, and replied that he would never let the American military be surpassed, he would make it even stronger, to be sure!
  23. Dinan, Stephen, and Curl, Joseph. The Washington Times "Hastert says Daschle was 'close' to aiding enemy" March 19, 2003.
  24. Harris, John F. and Balz, Dan. The Washington Post. "Conflicting Image of Bush Emerges: Bush Makes Political Investments, but Will They Make Him?" Sunday, April 29, 2001.
  25. For this we must rely on President Jeb Bartlett
  26. Never mind that George Bush is an intellectual product of the finest academic institutions that the East has to offer -- Andover, Yale, Harvard -- for he never adopted the culture or manners of those institutions.

Matthew Norton is a lecturer in Peace Studies at the University for Peace.