After the debacle of President Bush's Middle East junket, just as a matter of national security the country should consider barring reviled lame-duck leaders from taking loser laps to regions of the world they have degraded.
In Bush's case, the Middle East visit and the reaction of the potentates to his entreaties underscored the terrible descent of American authority in seven years. The ultimate embarrassment was his obsequious defense of the Saudi dictators after they had scorned his plea to pump more oil so that Americans would not be so mad at him over gasoline prices.
That was too obvious. The global display of ignorance may be more disconcerting. He used a speech to the Israeli parliament to link Sen. Barack Obama to the Nazis for having said his administration might engage in diplomatic talks with Syria and Iran to help solve Middle East tensions.
“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said and then he resurrected the administration's favorite quote from “an American senator” about wishing he could just have talked to Hitler before the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
Bush could have been alluding to his own defense secretary, Robert Gates, who has been saying the U.S. should engage Iran and Syria and other troublesome players in the region in quiet diplomacy, the last time in a speech to retired diplomats the day before Bush spoke. But it was a clumsy effort to help John McCain in the presidential race by suggesting that Obama would have tried to appease the Nazis.
People would assume that the unnamed “American senator” who wanted to appease Hitler was a liberal Democrat, maybe from Massachusetts, but it was Sen. William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, one of the lions of the Senate. The remark about talking Hitler out of invading Poland came in the final weeks of Borah's life and his 34-year career in the Senate. Feeble, dispirited and increasingly addled, the old orator was anguished by the world's descent into another war, which he was so desperate to avoid, and shocked by Hitler's invasion.
It is probably a good guess that Bush never heard of Borah, his speechwriters having come up with the well-worn quote or gleaned it from Donald Rumsfeld, who was fond of reciting it, but it is still reprehensible that the president should dishonor one of the nation's great statesmen as a Nazi collaborator, particularly given his own family's sordid history with the Nazis.
A wellspring of the family fortune that enabled Bush's political career was business collaboration with the Nazis. A more poignant example of appeasement than Borah would have been another and much lesser senator, his grandfather Prescott Bush, who was a business partner and operative for the financial architect of Hitler's political and war machine from 1926 until 1942. Grandfather Bush, who would be elected senator from Connecticut in 1952, directed the U.S. operations of Fritz Thyssen, Hitler's personal financial angel, from his banking office in New York. It continued for a year after the United States entered the war against Hitler — until the U.S. government moved against American business collaborators of the Nazis.
But the elders may never have told George W. Bush of the family history, and he may not have read books by Kevin Phillips, Robert Parry and others recounting the sordid past of Prescott Bush, Brown Brothers Harriman, Consolidated Silesian Steel Co. and Union Banking Corp., all of it turned up in the National Archives, the Library of Congress and war crimes archives. Certainly he didn't read the investigative reports in the British press.
Rather than defile the reputation of one of the great statesmen for one sad remark in his dotage, Bush could take lessons from some of Borah's entreaties to the Senate, as when he rose to the floor in 1929 to tell his colleagues not to take shelter when someone cried “radical” but to subject his ideas to the truth-seeking crucible of debate.
“There is nothing that dies so hard and rallies so often as intolerance,” Borah told the senators. “The vices and passions which it summons to its support are the most ruthless and the most persistent harbored in the human breast. They sometimes sleep but they never seem to die. Anything, any extraordinary situation, any unnecessary controversy, may light those fires again and plant in our republic that which has destroyed every republic which undertook to nurse it.”
Imagine a Bush, or a John McCain, uttering those words in debate, even if they were capable of the thought.