June 28, 2006
The Trouble with George W.By J. Peter Mulhern
George W. Bush is an inside—the—box guy fated to grapple with an outside—the—box world. That, in a nutshell, is the source of all the political problems that have hobbled his presidency.
President Bush isn't likely to change enough to execute a dramatic turnaround. But Republicans will soon begin in earnest the process of selecting their next leader. They should make a concerted effort to understand and learn from his mistakes. Above all, the Bush experience should teach Republicans and conservatives to shun the conventional.
Conventional wisdom these days is rotten to the core. Every one of its articles of faith is at loggerheads with reality. It is grounded in the failed ideology of the left, which can neither solve a problem nor win an election but which still dominates the Democrat Party and most of our cultural, journalistic and political elites.
Conservative talk radio hosts commonly poke fun at the left for its pre—9/11 world view. The problem with conventional leftism is actually much worse than this ridicule suggests. The left has yet to assimilate the collapse of communism. People who didn't learn anything when the Berlin wall came down aren't likely to learn much from the destruction of the twin towers.
The left continues to stand for statist collectivism at home and soft—headed internationalism abroad even though this toxic brew is as outmoded as the divine right of kings. It is relentlessly hostile to American power because it is relentlessly hostile to America. The left loathes Christianity and individualism, which are defining elements of American culture.
Conservative Republicans can only succeed in government if they transcend the conventional wisdom of the left. They either stand apart from the left or they share in its futility. Ronald Reagan understood this; that was his genius. George W. Bush has always been the captive of conventional wisdom and it has cost him dearly.
A political pedigree going back two generations and degrees from Yale and Harvard Business School are hardly credentials to look for when you are in the market for someone who can think outside the conventional box. Nor, for that matter, is the surname Bush.
It isn't surprising that President Bush can't transcend the conventional. It is, however tragic. His inability to part company with conventional wisdom limits both his action and his rhetoric and undercuts his popularity.
The most important example of this problem has to do with the ongoing war in Iraq which is responsible for most of the President's political difficulties. Iraq poses a problem for the President only because conventional wisdom is holding his presidency hostage.
Iraq is not a political liability because there is or has ever been any realistic prospect of failure there. The 'insurgency' has been a deadly nuisance, but it has never mounted a real challenge to us or to the government we are sponsoring. The mass hysteria of the left notwithstanding, the terrorists and dead—enders have never been poised to take over Iraq any more than ants have ever been poised to take over my kitchen.
People aren't frustrated with Iraq because they accept the hysterical prophesies about doom and disaster there. They are frustrated because President Bush has failed to establish any clear link between what is happening in Iraq and our strategic goals in the absurdly misnamed Global War on Terror. (Try to imagine Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming a Global War on Naval Aviation after Pearl Harbor.)
The violence in Iraq seems pointless because George W. Bush hasn't explained the point of it convincingly. He cannot do so because plain talk about what we are doing and why would be heretical enough to earn him excommunication from the church of conventional wisdom. President Bush has been caught in this bind ever since September 11, 2001.
The day Islamic terrorism finally came home we needed a leader to tell us that we were at war and to lay out a clear strategy for victory. The President's job was to identify our enemies and inspire us to defeat them and eliminate their threat to our homeland.
President Bush never managed to do that job because conventional wisdom made him incapable of understanding what happened on September 11. He has never grasped the ugly truth that we are fighting a religious war with roots in the Dark Ages. That war is entirely outside his conventional frame of reference. He doesn't have the vocabulary for defining and defending it.
The conventional understanding of how history unfolds is still fundamentally Marxist. Conventional wisdom views every human conflict as pitting oppressors against the oppressed. The oppressed struggle to throw off the oppressor's yoke; the oppressors fight to keep that yoke firmly in place. Cultural factors such as religion are invisible. Religion is the opiate of the masses, mere cultural superstructure obscuring the material realities that shape societies and individuals. International law and the institutions that administer it are vital because they provide principled restraints on the oppressors.
This view of history makes both September 11 and the war that followed it utterly incomprehensible. The scum that turned passenger jets into cruise missiles and screamed about Allah as they crashed into their targets weren't poor or oppressed. They weren't protesting against neo—colonial exploitation of Middle Eastern oil wealth or globalization or anything else the conventional mind might understand.
They were self—consciously opening a new offensive in the 1370 year old war between Islam and the unbelievers, those in the dar al harb (house of war). They didn't do this out of desperation. They did it because they believed, with considerable justification, that the West is no longer Christian enough or tough enough to resist Islamic competition.
If we cannot convince the Islamic world that they grossly underestimated us, the offensive they began may very well lead to the destruction of our civilization. As long as the Islamic world sees no reason to fear us Muslims will attack us and, when they acquire the means to do so, they will destroy us.
A president with a clear view of our situation would have told us some hard truths. We needed to hear that our enemies include nation states but are not limited by national boundaries. We also needed to hear that not all Muslims are our enemies, but all our active enemies are Muslim and the principal goal of our war effort is to force profound change on Islam.
A president who understood what happened on September 11 would have been addressing the nation on September 12 to say that we can no longer tolerate the Islamic status quo, particularly in Arabia and Persia. We can't tolerate Saudi wealth promoting the poisonous Wahabbi sect. We can't tolerate Arab and Persian support for Islamic terrorism. Above all we can't tolerate any Muslim enemies with access to the resources of an oil producing state.
A president with vision would have told us when our anger was still white hot that Saddam Hussein, Bashir Assad and the Iranian Mullahs all have to go, sooner rather than later and at the point of a gun if necessary. He would have gone to Congress while it was still desperately trying to assess public opinion in the wake of an unprecedented shock and asked for broad authority to take action against Islamic terrorists, their sponsors and their supporters. He would have explained that every vote to deny him that authority was a vote for national suicide. When he got that authority he would have used it.
George W. Bush isn't that sort of president.
Instead of bold clear statements about whom we needed to fight and why, we got mush. Islam, we were repeatedly told, is a religion of peace. Instead of seeking authority to deal with the problem that erupted on September 11, President Bush initially asked only for authority to deal with one small manifestation of that problem in Afghanistan. He talked about using military force to bring terrorists 'to justice' as if justice had anything to do with our struggle to survive.
After our triumph in Afghanistan we put off dealing with the next logical target of opportunity in Iraq while the Bush administration painstakingly argued the legal case for deposing Saddam Hussein in front of the hopelessly corrupt U.N. Security Council. Our urgent need to eliminate a dangerous Muslim enemy like Saddam got buried in a slag heap of pettifogging legalism. While we exhaustively demonstrated our conventional commitment to international institutions, Saddam and his terrorist allies prepared to make our occupation of Iraq costly and difficult.
Once we were in Iraq, the President stopped even trying to argue that eliminating Saddam was necessary to our war effort. His rhetoric instead began to suggest that our real war aim was to rebuild Iraq as a democratic demonstration project. Throughout the 2004 election campaign he hammered the theme that the example of a prosperous, democratic Iraq would transform the Middle East from a hot bed of implacable enemies into a place that poses no special threat to the United States. This is what he meant to convey when he talked about the 'forward strategy of freedom.'
The idea that we can turn enemies into friends by introducing them to the joy of free elections and backyard barbeques is dangerously na�ve. The foundation of that idea is pure conventional idiocy. It assumes that our difficulty with Islam arose because Middle Eastern Muslims see us cooperating with their autocratic governments to oppress them. It supposes that we can solve that difficulty by rejecting the oppressors and bringing relief to the oppressed.
Unfortunately, none of this has even a remote connection to reality. Our enemies in the Middle East don't hate us because their politics are autocratic and they don't hate us because they are poor. The roots of their hatred are invisible to conventional eyes because they are theological.
Christendom and Islam have been bitter enemies since the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 A.D. In all that time, hardly a century has gone by without some major bloodletting between Christians and Muslims. Equally bloody conflict has been been the experience of other neighbors of the dar al Islam, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, animists, and others. Expansionist Islam has battered the borders of Christendom whenever it has had the means to do so. In our own time, oil revenue has given it the means.
Muslims attack us because they can.
That won't change anytime soon, regardless of what happens in Iraq over the course of the next few decades. Doing what we can to help Iraq become freer, more prosperous and more peaceful is noble and probably worthwhile. Claiming that renovating Iraq is a sufficient answer to the challenge of September 11 is delusional.
In sum, we started our involvement in Iraq by catering to the ridiculous conventional view that international legal institutions are worthy of great respect. Now we are catering to the even more ridiculous conventional view that all conflict is grounded in oppression and can be resolved by propagating freedom and prosperity. None of this catering made the war palatable to conventional observers. No matter what we do, they can only see wealthy, fair—skinned oppressors and the impoverished, dark—skinned people they oppress.
Meanwhile, over in Iran, our most powerful enemies are busy building nuclear weapons. President Bush says we won't let them succeed, but he never explains either why we can't let Iran join the nuclear club or how we are going to exclude it.
The Iranians apparently believe that their proxies in Iraq have us fully occupied and that we lack the will to shift our focus eastward. Why wouldn't they? They have goaded us by openly sponsoring and supplying the 'insurgency' that has murdered so many Iraqis and Americans. So far our leaders haven't even mustered the courage to issue a strongly worded protest.
On the home front, our most influential newspapers are acting as Al Qaeda's intelligence service and the Bush administration is too flaccid to stop them or even punish them. Prominent Democrats agitate for a 'redeployment' that would prevent our troops from killing terrorists at the same time it would encourage terrorists to kill us. Nobody in the Bush administration is willing to point out that this is either treasonous or drooling stupid.
Nearly five years into the Global War on Terror we have destroyed one terrorist hideout in Afghanistan and conquered one major terror sponsoring country. George W. Bush seems content to stop there. Not even the imminent prospect of mad Mullahs with nukes seems capable of shaking him out of his strategic torpor. He has lost the initiative both at home and abroad.
We are stalled, our enemies are gearing up and the American people have noticed. This is the most important reason President Bush has been caught in the political doldrums lately.
Even the dramatic success of eliminating Abu Musab al Zarqawi and rolling up his network won't address the President's problem. In fact, as our success in Iraq gets more obvious, our paralysis on every other front will get more embarrassing. Hard slogging in Iraq is a convenient excuse for our lack of ambition elsewhere. That excuse won't work for the President much longer.
George W. Bush tried to fight a war that even the conventional left could love. Predictably, he satisfied almost nobody. The next time Republicans go to the well to select a leader for the nation they need to find somebody with the independence of mind, and the courage, to give the editorial page of the New York Times precisely the attention it deserves. This is the essential prerequisite for both political success and successful policy.
The next Republican presidential nominee will probably have to craft our response to the next major Muslim strike on our homeland. For better or worse, Republicans are stuck with the burdens of power because the Democrats are stuck on stupid trying to win American elections as the anti—American party. This leaves Republican primary voters with a grave responsibility.
We should all pray that they choose wisely and well.
J. Peter Mulhern is an attorney in the Washington, DC area.