Just who is George W. Bush? Is he “Top Gun,” as Newsweek recently crowned him, or “The Right Man,” as David Frum argues in his book, a master of strategy besting Democrats and Iraqis with ease? Is he the “deliberate, patient” visionary Bob Woodward depicts in “Bush at War,” a leader so clever, so engaged, that the “most awful moments” for Condoleeza Rice, the brainy National Security Adviser, come “when the president th[inks] of something that the principals, particularly she, should have anticipated”? Or is Bush a “moron,” as Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s dearly departed aide suggested?
“In New York I expect to hear Bush compared to Little Lord Fauntleroy or Bernie Ebbers,” Lewis Lapham wrote in Harper’s Magazine, “and I take it for granted that nearly everybody else in the conversation shares my own low regard for the corporate-management theory that informs the making of American foreign policy.”
That we seem reduced to such simplistic choices reflects the poverty of contemporary political discourse. Life is more complicated than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down analysis, even in our headline-driven age. Critics of Republican presidents need not always denigrate their rival’s intelligence; Republicans need not always exaggerate their hero’s talents. A sophisticated understanding of the president, his policies and his vision is essential in a world of perilous choices and vicious enemies.
If Bush leads the United States into a war against Iraq, it will be a “trust me” war, a war whose perceived legitimacy rests on the faith Americans have in their president. Wars are calculated risks, with the only assured casualty being the status quo. Absent a foolish move by Saddam Hussein, the green light for a war will be based on the president’s judgment. Moreover, a decision to fight this post-Gulf War war will be susceptible to future recriminations, for no one will be able to prove what would have happened had there not been a war.
The stunning superficiality of the war debate — a debate filled with excesses wherein too many “peaceniks” treat “Bushitler” as the villain and Saddam as the victim — renews one’s appreciation for Jewish law. A rich rabbinic literature approaches this profound question with the sanctity it merits, distinguishing between different types of wars and providing an intellectual and moral framework for making the decision to use force.
The American people’s reliance on their leader’s whim — er, his rational, balanced calculation — only polarizes the debate further. Pro-war forces feel compelled to glorify the president; anti-war forces feel equally compelled to demonize him. It is possible, however, to seek a middle position.
Bush deserves high marks for three accomplishments. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush reassured the nation, disrupted Al Qaeda and crushed the Taliban. The last two objectives were achieved despite much media naysaying. Just before the Taliban fled, talk of quagmires abounded. More recently, Bush has succeeded in refocusing attention on Saddam’s violations of international law, the Gulf War cease-fire and basic standards of humanity.
Unfortunately, there have been many other “limited successes,” as Jimmy Carter called one of his failures. Afghanistan is neither democratic nor functional. Osama bin Laden and too many of his henchmen remain unaccounted for. “Homeland Security” is now the Orwellian name of Washington’s newest bureaucracy, with the actual goal still elusive and duct tape no guarantee of safety. Bush has been soft on the Saudis, the Syrians and the many American Muslims who continue to support the terrorists.
Moreover, in keeping with the Reagan-Clinton commitment to happy talk, Bush woos Americans with irresponsible tax cuts rather than challenging Americans with talk of sacrifice. And he has so far failed to convince the world why, after 12 years of dithering, the United Nations request for “more time” for inspections is farcical and regime change in Iraq is not only the best way out of this difficult situation but an integral part of the global war against terrorism.
Judging by Bush’s track record so far, and that of the American military, the war will probably be relatively easy to win, the peace relatively easy to lose. For every optimistic scenario Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can generate of a democratic Iraq inspiring others to reform, skeptics can imagine half a dozen disasters, ranging from street demonstrations destabilizing Bush’s “moderate” Arab friends to an unholy Shi’ite alliance between Iran and Iraq.
Success in war and peace will require the talents of a “Top Gun.” Rather than carping about Bush’s IQ, his alleged oil-obsession or, in a case of Freudianism run amok, his need to outdo Papa Bush, critics need to prod the administration to clarify the war aims and rationale. Similarly, rather than lionizing Bush as the 21st-century’s answer to Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt, supporters need to help the president fine-tune this war against terrorism, keeping the focus on eradicating Islamicist terrorism rather than on targeting “evil.” Bush and his representatives need to quote more frequently from Kenneth Pollack’s sober, comprehensive and convincing book “The Threatening Storm” — which shows that Saddam is a clear and present danger to the West — and spend less time on demonology and eschatology.
To compensate for his failures of public leadership thus far, Bush should turn to his colleagues on Capitol Hill. By trusting the Congress to debate the issue and declare war, Bush will make this a “trust us and our allies” war, not simply a “trust me” war. The strategy is risky, but so is democracy. It is by taking such risks and triumphing that presidents — and nations — prove their greatness.
The second printing of Gil Troy’s latest book, “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” (Bronfman Jewish Education Centre), was recently released.
Gil Troy is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy