December 29, 2008
President Bush recently had perhaps his last sit-down as president with friendly movement conservative journalists (see accounts here and here) Nothing said then or in reaction since will change anyone’s mind about the man (my own included). Nonetheless, the session is remarkable, for a number of reasons.
First, Bush admits that he called the meeting in order to start building a case for his legacy. Announcing that he is already thinking about his memoirs, Bush states: “It is impossible to have an objective history of this administration written at this point in time. I do think it is worthwhile for me, however, to visit with people, to begin to get a proper perspective laid out.” In other words, the President of the United States is spending his time coaxing journalists and intellectuals to write favorably about him in the future. The very purpose of the meeting was self-aggrandizement.
A cynic would say it was ever thus. What president has not sought the favor of wordsmiths? At least past presidents sought to conceal their ambition. Clinton was ridiculed for so transparently questing for a legacy. Bush now openly confesses the same ambition and his grossest admirers find nothing irregular in it. It has become not only permissible but the duty of a president to defend his “legacy”.
Second, the session confirms the obvious: namely, that Bush relies on surrogates in the conservative movement to amplify his message. To critics who accuse them of shilling for Bush and the Republican Party, mainstream movement conservatives retort that they have opposed Bush often and fiercely. It’s true: movement conservatives helped defeat such Bush desiderata as the Harriet Meiers appointment and passage of the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill. Yet Bush still entrusts the defense of his legacy to movement conservatives. Why? It is a matter of priorities: Both Bush and the orthodox conservative movement have staked their reputations on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Iraq war has become (or was) the Dreyfus case of our time, warping every other debate.
Third, Bush himself does not seem to have a rationale for his own most costly policy, namely, the occupation of Iraq. Acknowledging the difficulties of convincing Americans to support the occupation, Bush states that the “real challenge was to connect Iraq with our security. The most effective way to do so was to remind them that al-Qaeda had said, ‘This is the front line in the War on Terror.’” In other words, as Bush tells those gathered, he has a favorite talking point for shoring up support for the occupation. That the talking point does not make very much sense does not seem to matter. (Is it not in the nature of a real “front line” that it does not need to be pointed out demonstratively?) Bush likes the talking point because it seems to make sense of the occupation, even though the way in which it actually does so is far from clear.
Meanwhile, the justification for the occupation that Bush adheres to in his own mind is, to put it plainly, preposterous. He states: “Success in Iraq . . . serves as an example to people wondering whether democracy can work.” And: “You can marginalize [the enemy] by affecting potential recruits with a more hopeful society.” In short, a successful occupation will undermine the popularity of al-Qaeda’s ideology. We are occupying an entire country just to try to prove a point. It is said that war is unpredictable and a blunt instrument of policy. Yet Bush thinks the best way to manipulate public opinion in the Muslim world (a dubious goal in the first place) is to invade and occupy a foreign country. Perhaps no other military venture in history has had so peculiar a logic behind it.
Finally, Bush’s celebrated idealism”a president, he says, should “never substitute pragmatism for an idealistic vision””really is unprecedented. The standard critique of idealists is that they are heedless of the actual consequences of their actions. As Weber put it, “If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” Hence, idealists to this day accept no blame for the horrors of revolutionary socialism, for their intention were always noble. Likewise, Bush will never accept blame for the bloodbath caused by the invasion if Iraq. On the contrary! Weber observed that the idealist invariably becomes a “chiliastic prophet””that is, when confronted with the evil consequences of his actions, he rationalizes them by saying that eventually all evils will be vanquished. Thus, Bush apologist Jay Nordlinger quotes with approbation the defender of the occupation who says, “It’s more true that we’ve had five years of learning in Iraq than that we’ve had five years of failure.” Five years of biblical-scale horrors”justified because we are doing the Lord’s work of replacing tyranny with liberty.
Yet Bush takes the idealist’s mentality even further. His second inaugural address, he says, was one of the “big moments” of his presidency. Though it had been “a tough four years, I didn’t shy away from what I did during those four years. I didn’t try to sugarcoat [sic] my decisions. I defended them.” He proudly relates how he rejected a Republican leader’s advice that he pull out of Iraq. “I understand that success in Iraq is necessary for the long-term security of America, and therefore I will make decisions based upon victory in Iraq, not victory in the polls.” In sum, says Bush, “I’m comfortable that I have made principled decisions for eight years.”
Bush’s admirers credit him with political courage on par with Lincoln’s. Lincoln, of course, hated the “terrible war” that he felt his duty to wage. “Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln intoned, “fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Does Bush similarly hate the evils that his policies have caused? It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask the question. Yet according to Bush, the purest test of a leader is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of every calamity. Without the evils that his policies have caused, therefore, Bush could never have made the principled stands that he himself regards as the “big moments” of his presidency. Bush’s idealism, in short, means that he’s not just indifferent to the evil consequences of his actions but positively welcomes them as proofs of his commitment to idealism. In Bush’s mind, the our very failures in Iraq have shown how he has gloriously withstood the test of leadership. For all that other presidents have also claimed the mantle of righteousness, an idealism as fanatical as Bush’s has never been seen before.
Let us hope that it is never seen again.