I keep trying not to take it personally, the fact that this president annoys me more and more every time I see him in public. There’s the slow explanation part, over-pronouncing words, as if addressing a rather slow-witted fourth-grader, when he thinks he’s explaining what seems to me what he actually views as a complex and abstruse point about his policy and the situation. I thought Algore was the master of sounding patronizing and condescending, but in taking over elements of Algore’s Wilsonian foreign policy rather than the more modest, anti-nation-building views he claimed to have held during the 2000 campaign, Bush seems also to have taken on some of Algore’s more annoying personal tics. And there’s the reversion to clichéd talking-points no matter what the question is.
I’m trying to resist psychobiography, I really am. Who knows why the Bushlet has the characteristics he has or takes the positions he has? But it’s clear from his personal history that while he was probably never so outright dumb as some of his critics want to think he is, he has never been probingly curious about politics, the rest of the world, the nature of the good society, the intricacies of policy or the ironic ways in which policies can backfire or accomplish the opposite of their putative goals. He seems to know little about history and not to consider this a serious shortcoming or problem. His very certainty about the course he has taken, then, reminds me of the half-knowledgeable, half-briefed person who knows just enough to be certain about an issue he doesn’t come close to grasping fully. As a newspaper editorial writer and columnist, I encounter plenty of people like that and often express gratitude to myself that they don’t have any influence on policy.
One of the more disturbing characteristics that, at least to my eyes, was apparent in the president’s speech-press conference this week was a lack of reflectiveness and honest self-appraisal. I know, I know. Answering a question about “After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?” would inevitably offer ammunition to his critics, and in an election year any sitting president would naturally want to avoid offering them any more than they already had.
MISTAKES? CAN’T EVEN IMAGINE THEM
But look at the way he fumbled around trying to get his mind around this one. After joking with obvious discomfort about how “I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time,” he recited a few more prepackaged sound bites about everything he thought he had done right. It was almost as if he really believed he had done nothing wrong or questionable and couldn’t even come up with the obvious, “Of course I’ve done some things I’ve since questioned, but I’m not about to give my foes any ammunition in an election year. But thanks for trying.” His response was in line with the hypothesis about half-informed people who have mastered only the information that bolsters their predetermined position and are in no mood to consider countervailing evidence, even in the private moment when it’s difficult to get to sleep as one agonizes over whether one has really made the right decision.
I’m familiar with the argument that a president who agonizes doesn’t necessarily make a good war president, but when one has the fate of U.S. soldiers and to some extent the fate of nation’s in one’s hands, one would hope for more reflectiveness. One doubts that this president agonizes, although it’s possible, but one still hopes for some evidence of weighing pros and cons honestly and understanding that any decision has both costs and benefits.
You ached for him to say something like, “We made some mistakes and our intelligence was far from perfect. But we’re there now, Saddam is gone, and we’ve got to get through the tough times. Experience has made us realistic enough to know we can’t establish instant democracy. Democracy can’t be established from the top, a people has to grow into it. But we can make sure Iraq in the foreseeable future is not the threat we thought it was, and give the Iraqi people a chance.”
Unfortunately, the notes of humility and realism that might have made President Bush’s address to the people-plus press conference more credible were simply not there. The Wilsonian grand design, the conviction that America’s mission is to bring democracy to a breathlessly waiting world that knows it has no chance of success without firm hands-on guidance from the United States prevailed.
CONSISTENCY BUT NOT MUCH RESPECT FOR FACTS
You can give President Bush points for consistency, perhaps. But maintaining a position in the face of countervailing facts is not prudent national leadership. In a complex and unpredictable world, the consequences of being bitten by unintended consequences are borne more by the people of the country than by its leaders.
Have we found none of the vaunted weapons of mass destruction? Was there little or no evidence of a working relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida? No matter. He was a threat. Once the statement is made, it is not necessary to demonstrate in what specific ways he was a threat, and the specific charges we got wrong don’t matter.
Has the occupation been more difficult and bloody than anybody in the administration acknowledged that it might be? Have American military people suffered because of a lack of realistic planning by civilian superiors? It matters little if the cause is just. And this president believes the cause is just, to the point of self-righteousness. This, again, is usually a sign of half-formed knowledge acquired to buttress a course already determined rather than seeking a broad range of knowledge in order to make a wise decision that will hold up for the long run.
It is also a characteristic known by those who have participated in therapy programs for people inclined to overuse potentially addictive substances as denial. Alcoholics and addicts often deny for years that their overuse of certain substances affects their lives adversely or really hurts their families and loved ones, despite evidence that to anybody else seems overwhelming. Is there an echo here, in the almost plaintive insistence that there’s still a chance we’ll find those elusive WMDs, in the insistence that things really are going well, that the slaughters are just a temporary setback on the road to fulfilling our “obligations” to the world and to the Almighty.
PREVENTIVE OR PREEMPTIVE?
It might seem tedious, especially to those who have read previous pieces of mine, but it bears repeating. The idea of going to war to preclude a potential threat that might develop into something genuinely dangerous at some unspecified time in the future is not a good strategy for a country that desires to remain free. Because the world is a dangerous place that is likely always to include people and countries that resent the United States, we will never lack for potential threats. The strategy of going after them in advance rather than relying on intelligence and diplomacy until they become imminent is a formula for war without end. And a country always at war is a country whose peoples’ freedom is steadily eroded.
Pre-emptive war, when a threat is genuinely imminent, is justifiable. Preventive war, before threats materialize, is the policy of an imperialist power, no matter how often it is denied.
Within the context of a policy of peace and security, opportunities to change the world will present themselves. A conscious policy of seeking to change the world on an ongoing basis, whether the world wants to be changed or not, leads not to freedom and peace but to endless strife.
HOPE ON THE OTHER SIDE?
The final frustrating question, having expressed close to complete dissatisfaction with the way the Bush administration is handling Iraq, is wondering whether a Kerry administration would be any better. Kerry has been careful not to position himself as an outright antiwar candidates and to keep his own criticisms fairly vague. The likelihood is that he shares, to some extent, the extravagant world-saving Wilsonianism that Bush has used as a justification for his own policy, though he might apply it in different ways and to different perceived problems. And there are already people trying to influence him.
Andrew Sullivan, who despite his insistent war-whooping has at least had more respect for troubling facts than many war whoopers, did a revealing piece last Sunday for the Times of London. He noted: “Has Vietnam vet John Kerry pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq, as the anti-war candidate demanded in 1968? No, he has promised to increase the number of troops, and do what he can to broaden the coalition and bring in more foreign troops.” Sullivan urges Kerry to campaign on a promise to carry out the war more effectively than Bush, who has become a polarizing figure who can’t be effective any more.
Sullivan also commends a New York Times piece by Paul Berman that argues (confusedly in my view, but that’s me) “The whole point in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, from my perspective, was to achieve those large possibilities [of a “counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse”] right in the center of the Muslim world, where the ripples might lead in every direction.” How liberal ideas are supposed to grow from lobbing bombs at people is still somewhat obscure to me, but people on all sides of the political spectrum seem to embrace this eccentric notion.
Perhaps it al just justifies my root belief that there is no hope in politics, only in discussion and gradual persuasion.