Stupid question. Of course you can. Muntadar al-Zaidi’s double-barreled shoe-throwing at President Bush in Baghdad on Dec. 14, 2008, is an event fit for an ecstasy of sanctimony (with apologies to Philip Roth, whose phrase this is). How dare a twenty-something Iraqi amateur journalist so brazenly offend the leader of the free world, after everything Bush has done for Iraq? How dare he so insolently break the surly bonds of decorum, on live television to boot? What’s with Iraqis not volunteering to kiss the president’s shoes? And so on.
O irony, where art thou?
The folks at Fox News must be having not a mere ecstasy but an orgy of sanctimony, livid as they must be at the sight of a mass of Iraqis and Arabs beyond Iraq actually turning Muntadar al-Zaidi into a folk hero (and forgetting that if, say, a twenty-something conservative had thrown a shoe at Bill Clinton back when he was president, the thrower would have had his own talk show before the shoe hit the floor). “Son of a shoe,” let’s be sure to note, is a more potent insult in the Arab world than the line’s more gender-bittered version in the United States.
Let’s also put things in perspective a bit. It was a pair of shoes. Just a pair of shoes. Yes, it could have been a pair of tomatoes or a pair of pretzels for that matter. The effect would have been the same: You don’t, supposedly, throw things at a visiting president. But it was an act more viscerally symbolic than intentionally violent. In that respect, as an act of protest that could not have possibly done damage to anything but Bush’s (and the United States’) sense of self-importance, it was, if not entirely defensible, at least excusable: Bush has done far worse than throw shoes at Iraq, far worse than treat the country like so much dirt under his legacy’s soles.
“I don’t Know What The Guy’s Cause Is”
And the president, as always, was visiting uninvited. Had been for five years really. And what Bush was saying from his self-congratulatory podium held not a whit of the truth that Muntadar al-Zaidi was speaking and throwing: “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog,” was the first salvo’s continuo, and “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq” was the second salvo’s. To which Bush said: "I don't know what the guy's cause is."
I don't know what the guy's cause is.
Has there ever been as catastrophic a disconnect between assumption and reality? It's not an original question. It can be asked as the trailer to eight years of the Bush presidency. Yet every time Bush provokes the question, as he does with heroic consistency, it's impossible not to be startled by the fact that it still has occasion to be asked.
Tallying Up Bush’s Disconnect
Of course he doesn't know, after almost six years, tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of other casualties, 4 million refugees and a country in ruins, what the guy's cause is. That's why he had to have the cause hurled at him on the wings of a shoe.
There are, it is safe to say, a few hundred thousand widows and orphans who would not have been widows and orphans today had Bush not opted to be his own little dictator and pounce after the other one by choosing invasion, occupation and a condemnation of uncertainty that he now passes on to Barack Obama. Those aren’t symbolic slights Iraq has been suffering for five years.
To add insult to invasion, Bush has the temerity to presume that a farewell tour to Iraq and Afghanistan was his due. The reaction from the streets suggested otherwise. Yes, there were those who, speaking to western reporters, made sure to condemn the show-throwing as insulting. But you can be certain that the act spoke of a nation’s grief and resentment as eloquently as any eulogy for the latest innocents dead for nothing more than—what, exactly?
In the words of Mohamed al-Hili, a 35-year-old policeman, quoted by The Times: “I am happy for what happened because that will reflect how we do not like Bush. And our government has a different attitude and belief than ours. And I’d like to add that Mr. Muntader is a hero and he must be our president or at least P.M. We need to replace al-Maliki with the real Iraqi — Mr. Muntader.” The one unsettling problem with that quote is that it makes Muntader sound too much like Iraq’s version of Joe the Plumber, and we saw how disastrous that bit of theater turned out last November, though in Muntader’s defense, the plumber character never did anything so representative or daring.
Bush will always have his version of the story: he “liberated” Iraq. Iraqis finally found a version Bush can understand, even if he cannot, and never tried to, understand Arabic. It was all over Iraq on Monday, brandished more universally than any language could be, because it is instantly understood in every time zone and every latitude, and because it finally scores the rhetorical equalizer against Bush’s presumption: the shoe, brandished more tellingly than any legacy Bush can claim.