A Debt of Gratitude
Why is Bush so obsessed with ungrateful foreigners?
As Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York Graduate Center (and generally a Bush supporter), puts it, "Gratitude is something you give to somebody who's superior. It's very different from, say, appreciation, which is something that equals give each other."
Apart from his view of Iraq, Bush may have a point when he complains that America gets too little credit for its generosity (though this is hardly new). He doesn't acknowledge, however, that governments give aid or go to war for their own interests, not just for the interests of others, and therefore don't generally require thank-you notes. Nor does he seem to realize, whatever his motives, that nobody likes a whiner—that donors who demand bowing and scraping are often resented, if not despised.
Not to put the president on the couch, but personality probably plays some role here. I remember watching a White House press conference (looking it up, I see that it took place on April 5, 2004), where an Associated Press reporter started to ask Bush a question without first uttering "Mr. President," the customary preface when addressing the leader of the free world. Bush snapped at him: "Who are you talking to?" The reporter corrected his discourteousness, reciting the honorific, before restarting his question.
It was a startling display of a president who seemed insecure in his authority, bitter that some piddling reporter wasn't treating him (the president of the United States, damn it!) with the proper respect. The same complex may be triggered when piddling nations don't repay his good intentions with the proper "gratitude."
But this tendency reveals something deeper, and more worrisome, than some hypothetical character quirk. It reveals a basic misunderstanding of foreign policy and of the modern world.
In many of his pronouncements, President Bush seems to believe that because America is a good and generous nation, everything done in its name is, ipso facto, good and generous—and that the peoples of the world, if they're honest about it, will view our actions as good and generous, too.
Bush and his team also came into office believing that America had emerged from its Cold War victory as the world's "sole superpower" and that it could, therefore, bend other nations' will by merely flexing some muscle. They didn't realize that the end of the Cold War made America, in a certain sense, weaker. As long as there were two superpowers, the nations belonging to one bloc or the other often felt compelled (or forced) to go along with their protector's interests even when those interests conflicted with their own. With the collapse of the Soviet Union as a common looming enemy and a fulcrum of pressure, nations feel freer to go their own way, with far less regard for what America might think about it.
So, here is George W. Bush, presiding over the United States in its "unipolar moment," armed with the mightiest military in the history of the world. And not only is he failing to dominate the guerrillas of Baghdad, he can't get so much as a thank you from the people of São Paulo.
No wonder he's sometimes sounds like the narrator in Randy Newman's song "Political Science":
We give them money
But are they grateful?
No, they're spiteful
And they're hateful
They don't respect us
So let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one
And pulverize them.
Let's hope he doesn't sing the verse all the way down.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Win McNamee/Getty Images. Photograph of the Pentagon on Slate's home page by spaceimage.com.