Tuesday, January 13, 2009



In the course of one of those inevitable “whither conservatism?” panels two or three National Review cruises ago, I remarked of George W Bush that it requires a perverse genius to get damned day in day out as the new Hitler when 90 per cent of the time you’re Tony Blair with a ranch.

I’ll stand by that. For good or ill, Bush was the real Third Way deal Bill Clinton merely genuflected towards. The ranch certainly matters – the brush cutting, the cowboy boots, the swagger, the Texacisms that so grated on East Coast newspaper columnists, the wanted-dead-or-alive rhetoric that had Continental foreign ministers deploring American “simplisme”. But, underneath the scary tone was a Blairy Tone, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Without the inaugural poison of the Florida recount and 9/11’s end to the “end of history”, we would now be recalling a presidency distinguished at home by the largest new entitlement since the Great Society and abroad by PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief, mostly to Africa. The latter may or may not be a good thing, and the prescription drug entitlement certainly isn’t. But both would be unlikely priorities for the extreme right-wing madman of Euro-Dem caricature.

Conservatives can’t complain they were misled, although many do. Governor Bush campaigned in 2000 as the GOP’s first open, out-of-the-closet federalizer of the school system and as a big softie pushover for the ever swelling ranks of the Undocumented-American community. “I am proud to be a compassionate conservative,” he declared the very first time I saw him on the stump, back in 1999 in New Hampshire. “And on this ground I will make my stand!” It struck me as pretty mushy ground, and by midway through the speech he appeared to be in it up to his elbows. Most of us were suspicious of the “compassionate” shtick, resenting the not so implicit rebuke to non-adjectival conservatism. But we were demoralized by the impeachment flop, and watching a touchy-feely sob-sister campaigning in Spanish for increased education spending it seemed reasonable to conclude that the guy couldn’t possibly mean it. He was surely indulging in the GOP equivalent of those feints that doctrinaire Democrats feel obliged to do every other November when they suddenly discover they’re “personally” opposed to abortion or start scheduling improbable hunting expeditions.

Three months into the new regime, no less an authority than Anthony Lewis of The New York Times assured us that “George W Bush and his people are driven by right-wing ideology to an extent not remotely touched by even the Reagan Administration.” In those heady days of spring 2001, it was easy to take Senor Compasión at the left’s estimation of him. Do you remember some of the “controversies” around back then? Arsenic in the water supply? I didn’t even know I was in favor of that until Bush started doing it.

But it turned out the compassionate conservative did mean it – on immigration, education and much else. And, whatever one feels about those policies, we cannot say that we were betrayed - for few candidates have ever been so admirably upfront. Indeed, it is a peculiar injustice that the 43rd presidency’s most obvious contender for a Bartlett’s entry should be “Bush lied, people died”. The activists who most assiduously promoted the line are now having to adjust to the news that their own beloved “anti-war” candidate’s commitment to bring home every last soldier within 16 months has now been “revised” into a plan for some 30,000-70,000 troops to remain in Iraq after 2011. On Fox News the other night, I found myself talking to a nice lady from Code Pink trying to grapple with the fact that Henry Kissinger and Karl Rove are more enthusiastic about Obama’s national security team than she is. Many other Obama policies now turn out to be inoperative, and we haven’t even had the coronation. I don’t know about my Code Pink friend, but I already miss Bush’s straightforwardness. He spoke a language all but extinct in the upper echelons of electoral politics. “Bush lied”? Here he is in Crawford, early in 2002, being interviewed by Trevor McDonald of Britain’s ITN:

“I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go,” said Bush.

“And, of course, if the logic of the war on terror means anything,” Sir Trevor responded, relentlessly forensic in his determination not to let Bush get away with these shifty evasions, “then Saddam must go?”

“That's what I just said,” said the President. “The policy of my government is that he goes.”

“So you’re going to go after him?” pressed Sir Trevor, reluctant to take yes for an answer.

“As I told you,” said the President, “the policy of my government is that Saddam Hussein not be in power.”

Etc. George W Bush is who he is, and he never pretended to be anything but. Do you know how rare that is? If you don’t, you surely will after six months of Barack Obama’s enigmatic cool.

There was, of course, one issue on which Bush did not govern as he campaigned. He was against “nation-building” in his debates with Al Gore, and then found himself having to do it in two of the most unpromising territories on earth. Had Gore or Kerry or Obama been in office on 9/11, I doubt America would have toppled the Taliban, never mind Saddam. The duck would have been presented as an exercise in sophisticated realpolitik – Afghanistan, graveyard of empire, and all that – and there would have been plenty of Security Council meetings and declarations of support from the EU and perhaps even an agreement to move toward the possibility of talks on the implementation of an agreement on the possibility of talks about UN sanctions once the relevant resolution had been diluted to Russo-Chinese satisfaction. And no doubt the Pentagon would have lobbed a desultory “$2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”, in Bush’s withering characterization of Clintonian retaliation. But the upshot would have been continued Taliban rule in Kabul; Afghanistan as one vast training camp for the world’s jihadists; and the general perception that Osama had gotten away with it. Even in the primal anger of September 2001, there was tremendous institutional resistance to action. Bush had difficulty even naming an enemy without getting instantly undercut. As soon as he denounced the Taliban, Colin Powell said, au contraire, we’re very interested in reaching out to moderate Taliban. So Bush switched to the designation “evildoers”, and crossed his fingers that Powell wouldn’t go on “Meet The Press” and announce the Administration’s willingness to reach out to moderate evildoers.

In those critical weeks it was the character of the President – indeed, the characteristics most loathed by his condescending critics (obstinacy, nuance-deficiency) – that determined the downfall of a squalid and malign regime. The jihad picked the wrong guy to catch the eye of. In the broader sense, however, he was right the first time: “Nation-building” does not come naturally to America, and, even with the world watching and the full weight of Washington’s resources behind it, America is not good at it. I’m not worried about Iraq. Thanks to George W Bush keeping his head while all about were losing theirs, Iraq will be …okay. It won’t be Norway or New Hampshire, but it’s already the least worst state in that part of the world. Yet that was never the issue. If you live in Tikrit or Ramadi, the Iraq war was about Iraq. If you live in Moscow or Beijing or Riyadh, Tehran, Pyongyang or Paris, the Iraq war was always about America – about American will, American credibility - and, on that score, there remains a question-mark.

As we neo-imperialists quickly learned, there are simply no takers for imperialism in America. This isn’t merely a leftish revulsion. Many on the right also quickly detached themselves from the Bush Doctrine. George Will pointed out that there was no Madison or Jefferson in Iraq. True. But you could say the same for Canada. If the caliber of Madison is a necessary condition for liberty, then almost everywhere on the planet would still be in chains. Had the British waited for an Indian Madison or Jefferson to show up, then the sub-continent would look much like the Middle East does now – a toxic patchwork of decadent sultanates and psychotic dictatorships. But they didn’t wait: They got to work. Sometimes the tough assignments fall on your watch. That was the challenge Bush accepted after 9/11.

To his British hosts at Whitehall Palace in London in 2003, he put it this way: “We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability… Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold… No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.”

There is both realpolitik and idealpolitik in there. The west’s unreal “realism” in the Middle East brought us the House of Saud, the Baathists, Arafat, the Ayatollahs …and ultimately al-Qaeda, 9/11, and Wahhabi subversion around the planet. There’s nothing more pitiful than naïve cynicism: To the old CIA line that he may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch, the best response is that he may be our sonofabitch but in the end he’s a sonofabitch, as we should have learned by now in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere.

To repudiate half a century of American policy in the Middle East is easier said than done. Whether or not the Bush Doctrine would work in Araby, by the second term it was clear it wasn't working in Washington. Transferred to State, Condi Rice defaulted to Scowcroftian unrealism, and the President himself, while he talked about staying on offense, gave the impression his eponymous Doctrine had been put at the back of the icebox and that the war (as fewer Americans were inclined to see it) had dwindled down into a couple of messy, defensive, thankless, semi-colonial policing operations. The “war on terror” concept will die with his Administration: neither Barack Obama nor the European leaders he finds it congenial think it a useful model. But in Iraq, where Saddam’s goons shoveled children into mass graves, and in Afghanistan, where women were prevented by law from feeling sunlight on their faces, 50 million Muslims live better lives because of George W Bush.

On that and many other issues, history will almost certainly make the case for Bush better than Bush himself did. At almost every critical moment, the Administration appeared to take the view that, as it was self-evidently walking the walk, it had no need to talk the talk. Words matter: Churchill wasn’t just down in the ops room sticking pins in maps but all over the airwaves explaining why the Nazis needed to be wiped from the earth. Lose the rhetorical ground at home and you’ll lose the war overseas – either literally, as in Vietnam, or perception-wise, as in Iraq, where victory has been secured but past the point where Bush will get any credit for it this side of the history books. It wasn’t just that the President and his great cause eventually came to be all but entirely defined by their opponents. The more critical failure occurred much earlier. It is already the dreariest of tropes in this transition period to compare President-elect Obama with Franklin Roosevelt: FDR had the Depression, BHO has the, er, collapse of Lehman Bros, etc. But the real FDR moment – the seismic event that a canny politician seizes as a pretext for transformative change – was surely 9/11.

A few weeks after the attacks, Bush had the highest approval ratings of any President in history. But he didn’t do anything with them. And the greatest mistake of all was his disinclination to take on the broader culture that, in the wake of 9/11, looked briefly vulnerable – in that moment when Americans opted for “Let’s roll!” over the desiccated Oprahfied chants of “healing” and “closure” and the rest of the awful lifeless language of emotional narcissism. Bush had a rare opportunity to reverse the most poisonous tide in the western world: He could have argued that western self-loathing is a psychosis we can no longer afford. He could have told the teachers’ unions there was more to the Second World War than the internment of Japanese-Americans and it’s time they started mentioning it to our children. You can’t hold the 90% approval ratings forever, but, while he had them, George W Bush could have used them for a “teaching moment”: If ever there’s a time for not being mired in civilizational self-abasement, wartime is it. Yet the President figured he could fight a long existential struggle against America’s enemies in a culture that teaches its children there are no enemies, just friends whose grievances we haven’t yet accommodated.

So, by the 2004 campaign season, he was the 50% president again, relying on a get-out-the-vote operation in selected corners of purpling red states to put him over the top against a weak, tone-deaf, elitist buffoon who voted for the war before he voted against it. It shouldn’t have been like that. By the time he rolled the dice on one last surge in Iraq, George W Bush had been abandoned by the controlling party in Congress, half his own party, and the overwhelming majority of the citizenry for whom the war had become a downer reality show they were bored with. Yet he understood, as few others did, that America could not be seen to lose in Iraq without being exposed as a sham superpower in Iran, China, Russia, Belgium and everywhere else. And through sheer force of will he stuck it out.

The Bush presidency is already history, at least in that most contemptuous of American putdowns: Aw, he’s history. Fuhgeddabouttim. The cadences of the era are obsolete. So fuhgeddabout “9/11.” “Let’s roll.” “Axis of evil.” “WMD.” The past is another country, and its language is a Berlitz phrasebook to a place most Americans long lost the urge to visit. But in years to come they’ll appreciate that, in a world of finger-in-the-windy trimmers and poseurs, George W Bush was the right man in office that day, as his predecessor and successor would not have been. He rose to the occasion, and he did so with a far-sightedness that belies his bumper-sticker image. I doubt even with his feet up back at the ranch he reads a lot of 17th century French poets, but Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux put it well: “Honor is like an island, rugged and without a beach; once we have left it, we can never return.” It was an ever bleaker and lonelier island, but George W Bush never left it.

by Mark Steyn

from National Review

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

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