Strong leadership or hot air?

By Ellen Ratner

It’s easy to tell how popular a TV program is by the advertisers it attracts. Take the Super Bowl, for example – advertisers pay a million dollars a minute. If the commercials during President and Laura Bush’s appearance on the “Larry King Live” show last week were any indicator of the president’s popularity, we will have a new president in January.

The commercials included the “Gazelle” exercise machine (which I’m sure is a fine product) and several plugs for the CNN lineup. While Larry King’s advertising revenues for that slot may have been weak, the president did his best to ensure that he appeared anything but weak. I stopped counting the number of times he used a variation on the word “strong” after the 30th time.

Dictionary.com has several references to the word strong, including “6. Strong: Capable of the effective exercise of authority: a strong leader.” The operative word in the sentence is “effective.” Yes, President Bush has exercised his authority, and then some, but the result has been anything but effective. The phrase “strong leader” is an empty expression unless specific measurable results are achieved.

Take, for example, the war on terror. The president loves to talk about his war on terror. He claims we must engage the enemy abroad before they strike us at home. He must have forgotten that we were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by citizens of Saudi Arabia. Following his logic, we should have punished Saudi Arabia – particularly in light of the fact that his security team now admits there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

Most agree the decision to attack Afghanistan was sound. The Taliban was giving al-Qaida refuge. The trouble started with the execution of that decision. President Bush sent less U.S. troops than we have police on the streets of Manhattan. The Taliban ducked and covered and – as USA Today and countless other news organizations reported last week (despite Donald Rumsfeld’s sunny reports) – there is a new Taliban insurgency and a new poppy crop in Afghanistan. Karzai is effectively the mayor of Kabul while the rest of the country runs amuck.

Iraq is another shining example of President Bush’s strong leadership. U.S. troops have surrounded Al Sadr’s militia. This might be a good thing if they were not co-located with one of Islam’s holiest sites. Even moderate Iraqis are pledging to fight “the Americans” in order to protect their holy shrine. One has to wonder about the ability for the Bush administration to learn from its mistakes. It’s Fallujah all over again, attack, retreat and let the opposition regroup. What is the strategy? What is the objective? When does it end?

On the bright side, I can’t argue with the fact that we haven’t had an attack in the United States since Sept. 11. But it is an illogical fallacy to assume that this is due to President Bush’s leadership. It is no secret that most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia – a critical ally in the war on terror. Could it be that the Saudi royal family is finally cracking down on the same militants that their fortune enabled all these years? And why should jihadists come to the United States when they can kill Americans in their own backyard?

I have focused on U.S. security policy because that is the self-proclaimed crown jewel of Bush’s presidency. There is no presidential domestic agenda with the exception of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Bush’s proclamation that we need a strong leader is like saying he’s for education, health care, security, secure retirements, jobs … the electorate must judge President Bush’s leadership on his record, not his rhetoric.