12 JANUARY 2002, Page 18


They keep sniping at Bush's ignorance but, says

Mark Steyn, the President is smart enough to

know what's going on in the real world

New Hampshire THE trickiest bit of the year-in-review wrapups over here was trying to explain why the famously moronic Bush seems to be doing such a good job of running the war, The conventional wisdom is that he's 'grown in office'. It may just seem that way to the pundits because so many of them have shrunk in office. A year ago, the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning jingle-writer, Maureen Dowd, came up with funny names for the idiot frat-boy's Cold War keepers (Dick Cheney = 'Big Time'. Don Rumsfeld = 'Rummy') and figured that would be enough to get her through the first term. Syndicated professional Texan Molly Ivins came up with only one funny name (Bush Junior = 'Shrub') but managed to stretch it out to a full-length book. Now both gals seem utterly lost, Maureen gibbering away in loopy introspection like a call-in host who's not getting any calls: 'Since Sept. 11, our long voyage of personal awareness has only intensified. Every day, we check our image, looking for ways, big or small, that we might have changed. We ponder if the changes are good or bad. We puzzle over whether the President has metamorphosed. We palaver about how the country has been transformed. ... We've absorbed 9/11 into our shallow fixation on self-image, turning the crisis into a makeover saga.. ' Speak for yourself, dearie.

Jacob Weisberg, whose latest volume of amusing Bushisms is rocketing up the amazon.com bestseller list at number 54.797, came up with a subtler explanation for Bush's apparent success. Having been an early convert to the boy-what-a-dummy school of Dubyology, he's sticking with his line that the guy's an idiot. But, fortunately for Dubya, war plays to an idiot's strengths: 'Bush continues to exhibit the same lack of curiosity, thoughtfulness and engagement with ideas that made him a C student. Nuance, complexity, subtlety and contradiction are not part of the mental universe he inhabits. And curiously enough, it is these very qualities of mind — or lack thereof — that seem to be making him such a good war president,' wrote Weisberg in Slate, arguing that his earlier thesis — that boneheads make bad presidents — still held. 'But there's a wartime codicil. In wartime, certain qualities sometimes associated with high intelligence — fascination with detail, a tendency to self-reliance, an awareness of ambiguity — become greater obstacles to effective leadership.' In war, the idiot president comes into his own, since war is a simpleton's game and does not require the grasp of nuance, subtlety. etc. of more complex issues such as mandatory federal regulations for bicycling helmets, or whatever it was Bill Clinton was busy with for eight years.

It's worth going back to the 'root causes' of such exquisite condescension. Two years ago, a TV guy in Boston called Andy Hiller sprang a sudden 'pop quiz' on the then Texas governor and asked him to identify various world leaders — the President of Wackistan, the Prime Minister of Albiseenya, and so on. Bill Bradley, hailed as one of the greatest brains ever to bless the Senate, had refused to participate in a similar quiz, but genial ol' Dubya said sure, why not? He scored an impressive zero rating, and seemed entirely amiable about it, save for a counter-challenge halfway through, when he asked Hiller if he could name the foreign minister of Mexico. 'No, sir,' TV Boy replied. 'But I would say I'm not running for president.'

The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson suggested that Bush should have switched to Hiller's own area of expertise. 'Okay, you're in television. Who played the professor on Gilligan 'S Island?' But that's not Dubya's style, and so, two years on, in September 2001, legions of journalists couldn't resist noting the 'irony' that one of the world leaders he failed to recognise was General Musharraf, the Pakistani strongman on whose support Bush's fragile Afghan strategy depended so heavily.

Gosh! Fancy not knowing who General Musharraf was But it turns out General Musharraf didn't know who he was, either. In the course of about 15 minutes in midSeptember, he performed a 180-degree Uturn, cast off his old persona as principal Taleban patron, and decided he was happy to be whoever the administration wanted him to be: just fax him the script and he'll read it. Why waste your time knowing who the old General Musharraf was, when that person has effectively ceased to exist? The new General Musharraf is something of a work-inprogress, but, as additional demands are put on him, he responds swiftly and graciously: after complaints that his previous condemnations were too qualified, this week he declared that Pakistan rejects all terrorism, with no exceptions even for Muslim liberation' groups in Indian-held Kashmir (which gives Karachi a rather more robust line on terrorists than London or Dublin).

After 11 September, everyone was into the General — you couldn't open the papers without reading Musharraf this, Musharraf that. But, as the old song says, I dug Musharraf when Musharraf wasn't cool. In the National Post of Canada on 21 October 1999, I hailed the General's ascent to power. This was the time when Britain and Canada were agitating about sanctions, suspension from the Commonwealth and all the usual hooey. In defiance of the Robin Cook line, I saluted Musharraf as a great improvement on his allegedly 'democratic' predecessor, Prime Minister .. . well, come on, you clever-clogs types who sneer at Bush, what was the guy's name then? I'll give you a clue: he'd given his various unsavoury relatives not just all the plum jobs but also their own colour-coded Mercs, and he'd installed them in one purpose-built complex on the edge of Lahore, a kind of Pakistani Southfork. Anyone remember the fellow? Andy Hiller in Boston, like to take a shot? Nawaz Sharif. He'd subverted the constitution, parliament, the opposition, the courts and the media, and was indulging in highly dangerous nuclear braggadocio with India. 'General Musharraf,' I wrote, 'is supported at home because he's promised to end corruption; he should be supported abroad because, by removing Shard, he's made the region safer.' Had Robin Cook and Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian foreign minister, had their way and restored the Sharifs, the nuclear stand-off these last couple of weeks could have gone very differently.

Musharraf was, on balance, the best man available. Left to his own devices, he might have weaned the 1ST, Pakistan's intelligence service, off its links with the Taleban and defused Islamist elements in the army. But it was only because in the days after 11 September Washington clamped the metaphorical electrodes to his genitals that he did it so swiftly. He went on TV and told Pakistanis that the survival of the nation was at stake.

Maybe that's what Washington told him, or maybe he was just covering himself. But it's not a bad way of putting it. Why, after all, does Pakistan exist? It exists because of a terrible failure of will on the part of the British. Indeed, all the problems Tony Blair has been swanking about Asia anxious to mediate on are the fault of his predecessors and, come to that, his party. There wouldn't be two nuclear powers if there weren't two powers in the first place. If Lord Mountbatten had held out against partition for another year, Jinnah would have been dead and who knows how much steam the Muslim League could have mustered? Conversely, the only reason India and Pakistan are squabbling over Kashmir is because Britain, having decided on partition, then, typically, screwed over the maharajahs and nawabs of the Princely states, which comprised a third of the subcontinent, and told them the jig was up and they had to choose which of the two nations they wanted to belong to. In Kashmir, the ruler was Hindu and the vast majority of his subjects were Muslim, but the British let him choose to join India. However you look at it, the creation of Pakistan was a mess: even the 1ST was a British invention. More importantly, in accepting Jinnah's rejection of modern, pluralist, secular, democratic India, Mountbatten and co. implicitly sanctioned Pakistan's development as the precise negative of its neighbour: backward, narrow, fundamentalist, dictatorial. If that's what centuries of expertise in the region produces, then I'll take a know-nothing like Bush any day.

Obviously, the President can't solve all the messes created by the Attlee government: he's wise to leave that to SuperTone. Instead, he decided what he needed from Pakistan and invited them to agree with him. And it was all the more effective for being uncomplicated by warm personal relationships. Bill Clinton had Yasser Arafat over to the White House more often than any other foreign leader, and what did he have to show for his investment? Intifada, suicide bombers, arms shipments from Iran via Dubai to the Palestinian Authority. The problem with that Boston pop quiz is the assumption — very common among the Clinton–Gore tendency — that because you know the deputy fisheries minister you somehow know the country. As we should surely know by now, to think of Araby as President Mubarak and King Fahd only obscures the real dynamics of the region. That's why, in this war, it's the fellows with the bulging Rolodexes — former US ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, etc. — who talk the most drivel.

A little after flunking the Musharraf quiz, Bush made a campaign stop where he was set up by a CBC comedian and appeared to give the impression he thought the Prime Minister of Canada was called 'Jean Poutine' instead of . . well, whatever his real name is. Poutine is the national dish of Quebec — a bowl of fries covered in gravy and cheese curds — and Bush was yet again much mocked for his ignorance. He was certainly at odds with the prevailing trend — in the eight years since Monsieur Non-Poutine has been Prime Minister his name recognition in the U.S has doubled, from 1 per cent to 2 per cent. Sadly, Governor Bush was not among them.

But look, I'm Canadian, and, to be honest, given Prime Minister Wossname's performance since 11 September, it's hard to see why any American should know his name. Lacking both the resolve and the capability to make any contribution to the new war, Monsieur Whoozis proved unable to offer even rhetorical support, as his counterparts in Britain, Italy, Australia and elsewhere did. He assumed carelessly that, as in Kosovo and the Gulf, Bush would put together the usual multinational coalition —99 per cent American, 1 per cent everybody else — and at some point he could let HMCS Toronto tag along for the ride. But Bush didn't want anything, and, even worse, when the British began putting together their international stabilisation force, they didn't want Canada, either — even though Canadians are supposed to be the world's most sought-after peacekeepers. Ottawa went into panic mode and begged Washington to be allowed to do something. There's now an understanding that at some point 700 members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry will be allowed to join the Americans in stabilising Kandahar. As Rick Gibbons of the Toronto Sun drolly observed, 'History is replete with examples of countries having to negotiate their way out of wars. Rarely does a country actually have to negotiate its way into one.'

That's the problem with those impromptu pop quizzes on world leaders: you can't see the lack of wood behind the celebrity trees. A more important question than 'Who's the Prime Minister of Canada?' is 'What's the rest of the world for?' Americans know what they contribute: they're the engine of the world economy and the pre-eminent military power. But Canada and Europe expect the US to pick up the tab for their defence costs and yet still get treated as serious players. The big lesson of the war so far, as the American `hyperpower' gallops further and further ahead, is that, pace Tony Blair's ambitions, there are now no second-tier powers: that's not a healthy situation for the world. Let's take it as a given that George W. Bush lacks the intelligence to hold down a really demanding job like columnist at the New York Times or Slate. Let's take it as read that he's a stupid man leading the stupid party of a stupid country. Granted all that, his blissful indifference to the hotshots of the International Who's Who is as brilliant a distillation of global reality as any. Bush couldn't name the Prime Minister of Hoogivsadamistan, but in the weeks before 11 September, having already spotted his predecessor's neglect of the matter, his administration was working on new strategies to combat international terrorism. What a chump, eh? Too dumb to be Prime Minister of Canada.