As I’ve argued, the proper American response — at least, according to how I understand what America should be all about — would have been for then-President Bush to have publicly forgiven al-Zaidi. Doing so would have shown that Americans cherish free expression as one of our fundamental values. We care about protecting the right of individuals to say whatever the hell they want without fear of reprisal. Bush wasn’t hurt, said he wasn’t embarrassed, didn’t think it was a big deal — so why not just state that he should go free?
Because, after all, the law that Zaidi broke was a speech law, not a law to do with physical assault. He got three years for "insulting" a foreign leader. This is why comparisons to Americans who have gotten in trouble for pie throwing are completely misguided. Americans, as so we are fond of announcing, do not punish political speech, even insulting political speech, with criminal penalties. Allegedly, anyhow.
On a more hardnosed level, isn’t it worse for us if Zaidi is in jail than out on the streets? What, is this guy some sort of a threat to the United States, with his devastating shoe-throwing? Of course not. You’d think even from the perspective of realpolitik the advantages of Bush saying Zaidi should be set free would be clear. He’d look generous, large-minded, and so would our nation; the symbolism would be, if we were really imperially ambitious, would we be saying this guy should be sprung? No! We are a freedom-loving people, and as such have nothing whatsoever to fear from him!
Failing to be generous, from this point of view, was a missed opportunity to show a better American face to the world, especially that part of the world where we’re constantly informed we have our most vital strategic interests at stake. It would be a potent statement, a tangible expression of America’s genuine desire to "spread freedom" as opposed to extending military hegemony. On the other hand, if Zaidi goes to prison, he becomes a powerful symbol of resistance to America. Because he is a threat — insofar as he has become a symbol of resistance to what are perceived as American imperialism, something his incarceration only ratifies. Why is this a good outcome?
But there, of course, is the rub. If George W. Bush were a man capable of understanding why he should have publicly forgiven Muntather Zaidi — for political and strategic reasons, even if the principled reasons elude him — he would not be the man who is ultimately responsible for invading Iraq in the first place. It is very difficult to persuade people whom you are invading, and then occupying, that you did it For Their Own Good. Because the people subject to the violence you have inflicted upon them, without their consent, will have been, you know, victims of your violence. This is a basic truth that holds no matter what justifications you may come up with for inflicting such violence, and is a truth that always seems to escape imperialists. Nobody will ever thank you for dropping a bomb on them.
All of which is to say that if Bush could even remotely grasp why he should try to keep someone from going to jail for three years for throwing a shoe at him, he would not have invaded Iraq. Or had the damn shoes thrown at him at all, for that matter.