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Bottum vs. Novak on Bush

This month’s First Things freebie is a debate between Joseph Bottum and Michael Novak on the Bush presidency. Here are a couple of snippets, first from Bottum:

Again and again, he has done the right thing in the wrong way, until, at last, his wrongness has overwhelmed his rightness. How can conservatives continue to support this man in much of anything he tries to do? Iraq is not America’s failure, and it is not conservatism’s failure. We are where we are because of George W. Bush’s failure.

All the 2008 Republican presidential candidates should understand the task they face over the next two years. George Bush’s ideals have gotten him elected president twice, and his incompetence has finally delivered the Congress to his domestic opponents and empowered his nation’s enemies abroad. Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush’s principles-and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.

And now Novak:

Joseph Bottum’s criticisms are to be taken seriously, even if they set criteria for angels, not flawed humans, and seem to overlook some stirring initiatives by this much-attacked president-such as his work on AIDS, for the poor in Africa, and against human trafficking. However deficient you think his judgment may have been about what was possible, no president has ever been more openly pro-life.

At the very least, in the face of passionate hostility at home and abroad, George Bush has proved himself a brave and determined man who has staked his presidency on getting democratic momentum underway in the Middle East. Even if in the short run he fails-which many of us are not yet ready to concede-some Muslims in the future will be able to remember that in a difficult time an American president, at heavy cost, cared about their sufferings, their natural rights, and the better angels beckoning in their dreams. He held before them a democratic standard by which they will forever measure other political movements and other leaders.

These are not inconsiderable accomplishments.

Bottum’s is one of the more forceful and less hysterical conservative criticisms of GWB that I have seen, but I share Novak’s view that in some cases JB has held the President to an impossibly high standard. Take, for example, social security. Bottum puts it this way:

President Bush was absolutely right that social security is a looming disaster, and as a result of his efforts, social-security reform is now dead for a generation.

As I recall, the Congressional Republicans didn’t exactly leap to the support of a President who had just won reelection by means of an unprecedented expansion of the Republican electorate (the first popular majority since 1988). I suppose that one could blame Bush for not anticipating that, well, betrayal, especially since one clearly couldn’t have gone wrong overestimating the short-sightedness and fecklessness of Congressional Republicans.

Of course, Iraq overshadows everything, and it doesn’t look good, though, as Novak points out, things could well change (as we must hope they do). Bottum emphasizes the importance of perceptions and the President’s responsibility for shaping them:

And the fact we must face is this: We have already been defeated in Iraq. Perhaps not in literal truth; a better policy, better implemented, might yet bring about a stable, democratic country. And certainly not in historical terms; Iraq is only an early chapter in what must be a long struggle against global Jihadism. But, at the very least, the battle for perception of the Iraq War has gone entirely against the United States. In the eyes of both the American public and the Islamic world, we have lost-and lost badly.

The reason is President Bush. His administration has mishandled the logistics of the war and the politics of its perception in nearly equal measure, from Abu Ghraib to the execution of Saddam Hussein. Conservatives voted for George W. Bush in 2000 because they expected him to be the opposite of Bill Clinton-and so, unfortunately, he has proved. Where Clinton seemed a man of enormous political competence and no principle, Bush has been a man of principle and very little political competence.

Bottum chooses to compare Bush to Clinton, but we might also consider a Reagan comparison: would RWR have fared any better had he had to commit the American military to a long-term conflict in Iraq? Or would he have eschewed the risk and tried "containment"? Would Reagan have been able to navigate these treacherous waters, both on the ground in the Middle East and in the court of domestic and world public opinion, any better than Bush?


Discussions - 10 Comments

Bottum is largely right, but may be missing something. He correctly notes that Bush has generally taken conservative positions and mostly tried to do conservative things. But what of the many conservative things he has not attempted -- or talked about? We hear a lot from conservative chatterers about spending, and they’re right, of course. But Bush has also refused to oppose the liberals in any serious way on: immigration, assimilation, reverse racism (in all its manifestations), male-bashing, cultural rot in the schools and colleges, the now-virulent state nannyism, parental rights, or the leftists’ extraordinary bullying and uncivil behavior throughout civil society. The president has missed far too many opportunities to say anything about these issues that are of vital concern to the conservative base and to many other people. No serious conservative in our time ignores these issues, and no serious conservative president would. I agree with Bottum that Bush isn’t very competent. But underneath that incompetence is intellectual disengagement from too many fundamental issues. Were he more intellectually engaged -- more aware of the full range of serious issues in our era, and of their collective potential to destroy our society -- he might demonstrate more competence. (He might also sound better -- smarter, more articulate.) As Lincoln said in the "House Divided" speech (paraphrasing): "If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge where to go and how to get there." The deepest problem with Bush isn’t incompetence, serious though that problem is. Nor is it inarticulateness, serious though that is. It’s that he doesn’t know enough, or see enough.

Re: "The deepest problem with Bush isn’t incompetence, serious though that problem is. Nor is it inarticulateness, serious though that is. It’s that he doesn’t know enough, or see enough." - David Frisk (above)

Comment: Very few historical actions have resulted in the intended consequences. Put another way, historical results are unforseeable. Political decisions typically must be made on the basis of inadequater knowledge. Of course, those in the Knowledge Class, are prone to say they "knew" better than to intervene in Iraq; and that they "know" better now to withdraw. The Mid East is dysfunctional. Like in a dysfunctional family where spousal abuse is going on, if authorities intervene there is a tendency for both spouses to attack the police. So should we allow the spousal abuse to continue? The logic in going into Iraq was that the Mid-East is dysfunctional anyway and there are go guarantees of improving it, but perhaps we should shake it up. Bush has said no to terror and totalitarianism. That is not incompetent, inarticulate or unknowing. It may fail; but there are no assurances one way or another.

Comment #2 iterates my contention that the war has over-ridden nearly every other consideration in the Bush presidency. The conservative concerns that David Frisk lists became politically moot once the main concern became the war on terror and preventing another attack on America. I still wonder if conservative support for Bush would have been there in the last presidential election, if not for the war. Which is not to say that I think he pursued the war to gain that support, at all, which I had Democrats tell me. It was a matter of the threat (right or wrong) and principle. I’m not sure that many of those other issues were necessarily matters of principle for him, nor did he ever seem to see them as threats. Or perhaps GWB has only so much stomach for political fighting. He has stood firmly on this point, that terrorism is a threat to world stability that must be faced and defeated, and that is admirable. How much political pummeling can we expect anyone to take? Were those other issues points of concern for him before he was elected? I don’t remember that and DO remember worrying that he was not a particularly conservative candidate, no matter what silly things Democrats said at the time.

Of course, as to Joe’s question about Reagan; he knew, was familiar with, the international battle he had to fight. RWR had been thinking about dealing with the Communist threat for a very long time, and the USSR was weak from its own inadequacies, which he recognized. Who in America, before 9/11, had really thought about it, that the problems of the dysfunctional Middle East were going to come here and hurt us? When Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981, we didn’t exactly cheer them on. We weren’t worried about Saddam’s WMD’s back then. We presumed the focus of any Islamic threat was Israel, and were content to let them handle the area, with our help, of course, but from a presumably safe distance. It’s not that we shouldn’t have worried, given the persistent attacks, both abroad and here, as in the first WTC bombing, but we just didn’t.

So, I would wish to forgive GWB on the basis of the enormity and unexpected nature of the job. We knew he was fairly inarticulate when we nominated him in the first election. And looking around, do you see anyone else who would have handled the last six years any much better, more competently and knowingly? I mean, anyone we actually had available. In any era you only have who is alive at the time, and do NOT get to choose from the wonders of the past, nor the hoped for wonders of the future.

Going into Iraq, whether one believe it justified or not, was not incompetent. Subsequent execution of Iraq policy, and understanding of Iraq, was very often incompetent. I fully agree that "shaking up" the Middle East is a good idea. One or two or a dozen good ideas does not make a president competent, or particularly aware of the full spectrum of problems, and those were my accusations against W.

Good points all, especially David’s about the lack of intellectual engagement and basic willingness to push-back and use the bully pulpit. Do need to reconize that some of this ’keep quiet’ strategy was due to the need to win in 2004, which remember, was a narrow victory against KERRY. But it became a habit, one congenial to a poor speaker.

Oh, and David, he’s not a conservative on immigration. You know that.

You asked an interesting question: what would Ronald Reagan have done vis-a-vis Iraq. Clearly, he would have followed containment punctuated by appropriate military strikes, a la Clinton. Why? Reagan had the ability to transcend his advisors. He was surrounded by hawkish counselors but appointed a notable Democrat as arms negotiator with the Soviets. Reagan’s Lebanon experience sobered his judgement in Middle East matters.

Clinton had the ability to learn quickly from his early foreign policy misadventures and was ruthless in replacing failures in his cabinet. His leadership on Bosnia was successful and increased American prestige around the world. His Danegeld policy with North Korea was the result of realpolitik frustration and, curiously, instead of continuing the best of Clinton’s policies George Bush is continuing his worst on North Korea.

RWR ran a rather high-stakes gamble in driving the Soviet economy into the ground. And his wariness about using military force might have contributed to Middle Eastern estimations of our staying power, might it not?

Joe: Saddam Hussein’s first entanglement with U.S. military might was the result of his over-confidence, his feeling that America could not stand the bloodshed of Vietnam. His invasion of Kuwait sprung from his interpretion of U.S. Ambassador Glaspie’s remarks, which she made in a meeting with the President of Iraq. "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary of State James Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."

There is no question that Hussein lied to the U.S. ambassador and that she made clear that a quick diplomatic solution was expected. There is no evidence that Reagan’s "wariness" contributed to estimations of staying power. The U.S. in Islamic eyes is an infidel power and, therefore, it is not favoured by Allah. It is no surprise that the U.S. is targeted by jihadists. You might find it interesting to read about the British empire’s experience with Iraq and other Islamic nations. One could deduce some rules of engagement from their experience. Conquer quickly, occupy briefly, install a government (royal and islamic). During World War II the a new coup-installed Iraqi government decided to be friendly towards the Nazis. So, what do you think the British did? Occupy it for a long time? They overthrow the government and re-installed the friendly government and continued to use their bases. . . You’re not supposed to occupy places like Iraq. You’re supposed to find a government that people will tolerate. You may purge the army but you don’t disband it. Upon entering the capital city you so awe the population with overwhelming control that for a few days they are silent and then once you put a govermenent in its gleaming palace you head out to your bases in the desert, far, far away. . .

Mr. Twiford makes some excellent points. Recall that Reagan was insistent on not involving U.S. forces in long-term operations abroad--they were quick "in and out" ventures, such as Grenada and Libya, and after the Marine barracks attack in Lebanon he withdrew U.S. forces from the country. He understood well that the American people would soon lose patience for drawn-out, open-ended commitments.

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