Presidency of Dunces

Presidency of Dunces

Presidency of Dunces

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 30 2001 9:30 PM

Presidency of Dunces

Sunday marked the 100th day of George W. Bush's presidency, and the international consensus was that while Bush may be winning over his compatriots, he has done so by upsetting foreigners. The Financial Times claimed, "[T]he new president has managed to strike a combination of alarm and antipathy into just about everybody who matters."

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

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Toronto's Globe and Mail noted that although the president had hoped to focus on domestic issues, "the world has intruded on his plans," and although he has "little interest or expertise in foreign policy," he "has become a busy if reluctant diplomat." El Tiempo of Colombia began its assessment, "One hundred days of heart attacks." In just three months, the Bush administration unleashed international indignation with its rejection of the Kyoto accords on reducing greenhouse gases and its support for the nuclear missile-defense system; angered China over the spy plane standoff and by selling arms to Taiwan; upset the Russian government by meeting with a Chechen rebel envoy and by expelling 50 diplomats; declined to mediate in the Middle East; and, according to the Globe and Mail, "embarrassed South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung by refusing to endorse his disarmament talks with North Korea, which Mr. Clinton had encouraged."

The European papers were alarmed by what the Irish Times described as "a pattern of arrogant unilateralism in the conduct of Mr Bush's foreign policy." The Hong Kong iMail worried that by heeding the advice of advisers who "want to check the growing belligerence of the Chinese military," Bush might set off "heightened rhetoric and military buildup" if Beijing interprets U.S. moves as attempts at containment. Only Bush's own hemisphere seemed happy: Spain's El País observed that Bush has a special sensitivity to Latin America; his first foreign trips were to Mexico and Canada and, as El Tiempo noted, he has met with the leaders of eight American nations (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Canada), "even putting them ahead of European allies," who traditionally have been prioritized. (Indeed, Le Figaro of France complained that the "Toxic Texan" has "really irritated" Europeans, in part because he hasn't stepped out of North America.)

Although there was some residual mockery—in an op-ed titled "Presidency of Dunces," the Guardian's Jonathan Freeland called Bush "a know-nothing, fundamentalist fitness freak"—commentators are taking the president more seriously, if only to raise the low expectations from which he has benefited. An op-ed in Britain's Independent observed:

Dubya's greatest asset is the little that is expected from him. From low expectations is born the tendency (to employ one of our man's recent contributions to the language) to "misunderestimate." … Laugh at him by all means. But don't underestimate him.

The 100-day hitch: Political tensions are high in Manila as Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo marks her 100th day in office this week. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the nation is "sitting on the edge of civil war." Last Wednesday, former President Joseph Estrada was charged with economic plunder, a charge that carries the death penalty. In the days since his imprisonment, hundreds of thousands of Estrada supporters, mainly drawn from Manila's poor, have protested at the Edsa shrine, the site of the "people power" demonstrations that brought down Estrada and, in 1986, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The Inquirer said civil war was closer now than it was in either of the previous Edsa protests because the "crowd is rowdy, undisciplined and ready to be incited to violence by inflammatory statements coming from opposition politicians who are fanning the flames." It claimed politicians who lost influence when Estrada was ousted are exploiting the underclass to further their own ends: "The poor have always been losers in Philippine society. They have legitimate grievances. But they were also losers in the Estrada pseudo pro-poor government. If Estrada were restored, there is no reason to expect they will be winners. Now they are being used as shock absorbers and cannon fodder for causes that will not benefit them." An op-ed in the Philippine Star dubbed the current crisis "the death throes of a corrupt regime," while the paper's editorial urged, "[T]hose who have had enough of public officials betraying the public trust must close ranks. A hundred days is too short a time to let down our guard."

Didgeridon't: The Sydney Olympics may have done wonders for Australia's image abroad, but the games sparked such a demand for didgeridoos that a rare species of eucalyptus tree is now endangered. According to the Independent, the "Aboriginal wind instrument was traditionally made only from branches already hollowed out by termites," but producers are now simply "hacking off branches and boring through them with power tools." Officials are considering a tagging system whereby instruments made from legally harvested timber would carry a label of authenticity, perhaps also indicating if the didgeridoo was produced by Aboriginal people.