Jewish World Review August 21, 2002 / 13 Elul, 5762

David Warren

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Bush v. world | It is said that the U.S. president, George W. Bush, believes in God and prays frequently. I suspect the reason why this is said is because it is true. I suspect that attempts to understand the man, without bringing this personal eccentricity into account, must fail. I even suspect, that in addition to the advisers he has squabbling around him, he is in the unmodern though not necessarily unAmerican habit of seeking some kind of divine guidance, to supplement what the CIA can tell him (which, even on a clear day, isn't all that much).

Anyone in his position who was looking for signs in the last week would have seen several hundred. The seizure by exiled Iraqi hotheads yesterday, of their embassy in Berlin; the mysterious death of Abu Nidal in Baghdad; the news that the Iraqi regime is being quietly strangled by the spontaneous flight of its multinational oil customers; the unaccountable quieting of the West Bank -- fate itself seems to be closing in upon Saddam Hussein, in advance of the U.S. Air Force.

This in contrast to last week, when it seemed disaster was near, and we saw the most sustained and concentrated attack so far on President Bush's judgement. Of the many "shots across the White House lawn", the loudest was from Brent Scowcroft, his father's national security adviser, in an op-ed article in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal. The message was, and I paraphrase, "Why are you even thinking about Iraq, boy, you have enough to do looking for Al Qaeda and putting the fires out in Palestine. You go into Iraq and the whole world will tumble on your head."

The article was spun into two successive front-page leads, Friday then Saturday, by the New York Times -- which under the editorship of Howell Raines, has replaced Mother Jones as America's foremost crusader on the hard left. Smelling blood, other parts of the mainstream media rushed forward with their own versions of the "even senior Republicans are turning against Bush's war plans" story. By Saturday afternoon, it was necessary for the President himself to appear with a rhetorical bucket of cold water -- re-assuring the 70 per cent of the U.S. electorate that remains committed to action against Saddam, that he is still riding, at his own speed.

Mr. Scowcroft was among the principal reasons his father squandered the momentum of the Reagan presidency, then lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. As a foreign policy adviser, he has a long record of disastrous advice. He was at the forefront of those advising President Bush Sr. to back off after liberating Kuwait; he thought the U.S. was terribly unwise to stick by Russia's Boris Yeltsin during an attempted Communist counter-coup.

A candid observer rather well placed in the present Bush administration told me that Mr. Scowcroft was Bush Sr.'s daily exponent of "R&B" -- which he decoded as "realpolitik plus bedwetting".

The paradox here, is that Mr. Scowcroft does represent the neo-isolationist, cautious, rather jaded, compromised, Republican "country club" right -- as it existed in the days before 9/11. Which is to say, people who are "conservative" in sensibility rather than in belief; patriots who toast George Washington but forget that he took risks.

And both Mr. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, could be described as fellow Republicans from the oil wing of that "country club", who have suddenly remembered how to ride horse. (It is amazing to see Mr. Cheney, more compromised than anyone by old oil interests, actually leading the charge against these former interests behind the scenes.)

The worst I could say against such "yesterday's men" as Mr. Scowcroft -- and, j'accuse! -- is that their broadsides are irresponsible. They can only serve to succour the interests of the Republicans' most dangerous political enemies, at a moment when party unity is crucial. It was moreover self-interested vanity (an editorial in Monday's New York Sun spelled out the business interests Mr. Scowcroft was advancing), and a model of destructive criticism. For if Mr. Bush actually took Mr. Scowcroft's advice, his political authority would come crashing down, together with the morale that sustains the United States in a time of crisis.

A much more reasonable "blast from the past" appeared in the Washington Post's op-ed on Monday. It was by Morton Abramowitz, an assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. He pointed to the real threats to Mr. Bush's leadership: 1. that the war on terrorism is too complex, happens on too many fronts and in too many dimensions for any human being to follow; 2. that the U.S. was already over-committed to being both the world's policeman and banker of last resort, "keeping weak states afloat and restoring failed states"; 3. that the President is dangerously distracted by huge, possibly structural economic problems, and other pressing domestic issues; 4. that instead of the legendary personality clashes at the top of the Reagan administration, there are debilitating ideological debates within this one, which have spread down through the ranks, paralyzing decision-making; 5. that the long-term requirements for a safer world are in almost direct conflict with the short-term requirements to stop specific terrorists; and last but perhaps most subtle, 6. a President who never aspired to be a "conceptualist" has been stuck with a huge conceptual task, finding his way through uncharted territory and unprecedented circumstances.

Now, that was a model for constructive criticism. I think all of Mr. Abramowitz's observations are true, though he has slightly exaggerated problem no. 4, and possibly mis-stated problem no. 5. (I think a better way to put it would be: that the long-term requirements have suddenly collapsed into the short-term requirements, piling on top of the short-term requirements that the last administration ignored.)

Which brings me back to the subject of prayer, and to Mr. Abramowitz's sixth and last and most interesting point, in the strange light cast by it. For it is true that Mr. Bush was, prior to 9/11, not a conceptualist at all. It is further true that he responded to 9/11 with an immediate rhetorical gallantry, that was not yet accompanied by the fondest idea of what he should do. He then advanced through the dark, boldly deciding that a large course of action would be necessary, rather than a small; but still not entirely certain what it should be. He has moreover opened himself to second-guessing, by refusing to quiet dissident voices within his administration, and by pulling punches in public debate.

It strikes me that out of real intellectual humility, Mr. Bush has "drifted" into the boldest, most counter-intuitive of all the possible courses of action: a project to re-align the United States explicitly with every opposition force that can be found within the Middle East, no matter how small, that aspires to democratic constitutional reform; and to gradually manoeuvring the full power of the U.S. behind them. In other words, truly digging to the root cause of terrorism: which is the intellectual and material enslavement of the Arab and Persian masses.

There is no surprise that this policy has left much of his administration and bureaucracy behind. I myself would never have advised so bold a course. It turns all the received assumptions about what is "left" and "right" upside down, and thus actually requires a rather chaotic reorganization of means. For Mr. Bush's policy is Lincolnesque, but on a world scale.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

08/06/02: Has Sharon gone 'wobbly'?
07/24/02: Evil Sharon
06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

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