George's little anticsIf you stayed up late enough to watch the announcement of the start of the war in Iraq, you might have caught a glimpse of something very unsettling. In an apparent error, the BBC aired coverage of pre-speech preparations, live from the satellite feed coming from the Oval Office.
The fact that the BBC has "profusely and repeatedly apologised" to the White House and that the administration has removed control of feeds from the networks and put it in their own hands as a result of the blunder, should indicate the seriousness of what you were not supposed to see. Ditto the absolute absence of any media coverage of the incident.
The footage was the most disturbing thing on television in some time. There was US President George W Bush, being prepped for his televised declaration of war. It was not the combing of his hair, the only aspect of the coverage reported by any American media outlet (the Washington Post in this case), which was cause for embarrassment; everyone expects that. Rather, it was the demeanour — I would say antics — of the president himself.
Bush, the so-called leader of the free world, was sitting behind his desk going over his speech, as we would expect. But then it got weird. I felt like I was looking behind the curtain, and it was uglier than I ever imagined.
Like some class clown trying to get attention from the back of the room, he started mugging for his handlers. His eyes darted back and forth impishly as he cracked faces at others around him. He pumped a fist and self-consciously muttered, "feel good," which was interestingly sanitised into the more mature and assertive, "I'm feeling good" by the same Washington Post.
He was goofing around, and there's only one way to interpret that kind of behaviour just seconds before announcing war on Iraq: the man is an idiot.
Most Europeans and many others around the world have assumed this for some time. To have it actually confirmed — beyond a reasonable doubt — on live television, is perhaps a little too harsh to reconcile with our wish to believe we live in a fair, democratic world of which benevolent forces are mostly in charge. I felt sick.
What Americans don't understand is that Europeans have known this about Bush since he was Governor of Texas. They've always known it, because it is so absolutely obvious, that the man who dodged military service, who laughs at death penalty pleas for mercy, who didn't know where Iraq was two years ago, is less than a fit leader.
And they cannot understand how Americans have been led to the brink of disaster by this talentless scion, this lackadaisical lily-dipper. This idiot.
How can you have respect for a nation that follows such a man? How can you sit by while he and his cronies decimate the constitution, rape the economy, declare real war on an enemy of dubious threat and declare diplomatic war on your best friends?
How do you let his administration systematically disparage and even arrest any dissenters, thereby ensuring they are forever marked for special treatment by the machinations of “homeland security?”
Yes, it's complicated. You're at war, we know, even though this "war on terror" might have been better handled as a special operation rather than a public display of hysteria. Bush has supposedly intelligent people around him to help make the tough decisions, even if they're always attributed to him as if he were some sort of deity.
We are constantly told: "The President will decide that at the appropriate time" or "The President is very concerned about that". Yes, I'm sure he is. But there was no escaping the fact that on Wednesday night, it was a Yosemite Sam impersonator who declared war on a sovereign country and who now calls the shots for all of us.
Slate called him the closest we've ever been to a world dictator in a long time, probably since Caesar.
Sometimes, maybe it really is better to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Kevin Lowe is a Canadian expatriate living in Amsterdam.