A Debt of Gratitude
Why is Bush so obsessed with ungrateful foreigners?
What is it with George W. Bush and his insistent demand for the gratitude of foreigners?
In São Paulo, Brazil, last week, on the first day of his Latin America tour, the president said, "I don't think America gets enough credit for trying to improve people's lives."
The complaint was reminiscent of earlier expressions of pique.
In his memoir of his year in Baghdad as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer recalled that President Bush once told him that the leader of a new Iraqi government had to be "someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq."
Bremer noted that Bush made this point three times in the course of a single conversation and further insisted that the president of Iraq's first interim government should be Ghazi al-Yawar, an obscure Sunni Arab businessman, because Bush "had been favorably impressed with his open thanks to the Coalition."
It was no coincidence, therefore, that when Iyad Allawi, Iraq's first American-handpicked prime minister, held his maiden press conference in June 2004, he broke into English to say, "I would like to thank the coalition, led by the United States, for the sacrifices they have provided in the … liberation of Iraq."
President Bush, at his own press conference soon afterward, drew attention at least twice to Allawi's gratitude.
In September 2004, when Allawi traveled to Washington to speak before a joint session of Congress, one of his opening lines (recited from a speech written mainly by the White House) was: "We Iraqis are grateful to you, America, for your leadership and your sacrifice for our liberation and our opportunity to start anew."
Just this past January, in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, President Bush returned to the theme, this time annoyed that the people he'd liberated seemed so unappreciative.
"I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude," he said. "I mean … we've endured great sacrifices to help them," and the American people "wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."
There's a skewed view of the world reflected in these remarks. Does Bush really fail to recognize that even the most pro-Western Iraqis might have mixed feelings, to say the least, about America's intervention in their affairs—that they might be, at once, thankful for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, resentful about the prolonged occupation, and full of hatred toward us for the violent chaos that we unleashed without a hint of a plan for restoring order?
Bush may have had a political motive in making these remarks. He may have calculated that Americans would be more likely to support the war if the people for whom we're fighting thanked us publicly for the effort. By the same token, their palpable lack of gratitude, and the war's deepening unpopularity at home, might have heightened his frustration and impelled such peevish outbursts.
But this peevish imperiousness is precisely what's most disturbing about Bush's incessant concern with the proper level of fealty. The word that he repeatedly uses when discussing what he wants from nations he thinks he's helping—"gratitude"—implies a supplicant's relationship to his lord.
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.