Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bush, God, and history

Having written about the subject many times before, I didn’t get too excited by the remark--reported by David Brooks--about freedom being God’s gift to humanity.

By contrast, Ross Douthat--agreeing with those paragons of prudence, Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan--is pretty nearly beside himself:

I’m fed up with the President’s messiah complex, and I don’t bloody well want to hear any more about Bush’s "theological perspective" that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to all mankind, and so history’s on our side in the Middle East, and yada yada yada.

That’s a lot of weight to put on a couple of lines from Brooks’s account of a conversation, which amounted to this:

[The President’s] self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”

This assertion--which
Ramesh Ponnuru rightly characterizes--doesn’t compel us to any particular foreign policy. The President said as much in an important, but much maligned speech he gave a few years ago. Here’s how I characterized it at the time:

For Bush, this line of argument is not altogether new. He has long asserted that freedom is "God’s gift to humanity." What is different, I think, is his assertion of the scope of America’s ideals and interests and his acknowledgement of great flexibility in their promotion. Stated another way, this is a most statesmanlike affirmation of principle and prudence.

And there is also a very carefully nuanced "theology of history," affirming "a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty," but also acknowledging that "it is human choices that move events" and that "[h]istory has an ebb and flow of justice." The responsibility rests on us, not as God’s chosen nation, but as creatures of the Almighty, to make good use of the freedom God has given us and everyone else. "From the viewpoint of centuries, the questions that come to us are narrowed and few. Did our generation advance the cause of freedom? And did our character bring credit to that cause?" We must be concerned not only with the external effects of our actions, but with the character that produced them.


We will, the President says, "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," but not "primarily" by force of arms. "Our goal… is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way." In so doing, our "influence is not unlimited," but it "is considerable." We can call attention across the world to the difference between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right." And we’ll make it clear that "success in our relations" requires the decent treatment of one’s citizens, not as a grudging diplomatic concession on the eve of a presidential visit, nor as a matter of governmental grace or largesse, but as the fruit of a policy whose purpose is to encourage the flourishing of an independent civil society whose institutions undergird political freedom. In other words, America will stand with the oppressed, call attention to indigenous democratic reformers, admonish "the rulers of outlaw regimes" that their injustice cannot stand, and encourage and support those of our authoritarian friends who are moving, however gingerly, down the paths of democratization and liberalization.

Freedom will be the lodestar of our policy, but not in a ham-handed and merely preachy Carteresque way. There will be a lot of talk, but not just talk. There will be a lot of action, but not just military action. Embassies across the world will be busy maintaining lines of communication with the local democratizers and other representatives of "civil society."

What Sullivan calls a "Fuhrerprinzip" [sic]--thereby implicitly endorsing Keith Ellison’s honest or dishonest pandering to the crowd--is connected with GWB’s view of God-given freedom: with it, comes God-given responsibility. Individuals are called to make a difference, to promote liberty, but how they do so depends, as I noted in my earlier post, on their practical and prudential judgment of the facts on the ground. Sullivan, Dreher, and Douthat to the contrary notwithstanding, this isn’t messianism, it’s the foundation of political responsibility.

We can, of course, reasonably disagree with the President’s judgment of the particular facts, not to mention with the choices he and his subordinates have made, but his principles are as American as apple pie.

I’m tempted now to write a few words about Lincoln and the extremely costly Civil War, speculating about how Sullivan et al. would have written about that, but I’ll resist.

Discussions - 16 Comments

Do you think Bush's endorsement and affiliation with the Sharansky thesis compels any particular foreign policy?

As always, the liberals are no more than half right. The problem isn't Bush's belief that God is a real force in the world. Nor is it his belief that there's a human yearning for freedom, let alone his belief that all men have a right to be free. One of the problems is that he doesn't see the greater attraction of tyranny, hatred, and pathological theology for many human beings, even if they also, sort of, want to be free as well. In addition, Bush seems to think the world is essentially run by individual leaders, which is nonsense and would even seem to contradict his faith in larger forces.

Bush's over-estimation of individual leaders being evident in the Brooks column. Whatever Sullivan wrote should simply be ignored.

"And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”

This statement defines Bush and American individualism in general--an inherent aversion to any higher authority than one's own personal preferences.

Of all the things to get worked up about.....

The President is out there chirping about islam being "a great religion" that our enemies have foully "hijacked." When in reality our enemies fall completely WITHIN the mainstream of the teachings, tenets and history of islam. No one of any note or stature within islam truly condemns the terrorists. No one. But that doesn't trouble Bush, that doesn't trouble Condi, that doesn't trouble Chertoff or Hughes. It should trouble the rest of us though.

Instead of getting worked up about the craven whitewashing of islam, some choose to get worked up about whether freedom is a gift from a loving Father to his children. Why not flip the question to see if that throws any light on the subject. So simply ask if totalitarianism is the gift of God to man. Ask if authoritarianism is a bequeath of the Almighty. Ponder if tyranny was in the original blueprint of the creation.

As for what the problem is with this administration, it's rather simple. Bush point-blank refuses to identify the enemy, the history of our enemy and previous Western encounters with that enemy. Furthermore, he refuses to wage war against that enemy. What we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is many things, but it's not war. Sure there's shooting, sure there are casualties. But it's not war. It's certainly not the distinctly AMERICAN way of war.

And that's why the American people are so infuriated with Bush.

I keep recalling that line from the Gospels that goes something like this: "Because you are neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth...."

And that's what the American people are doing right now. They're so sick to death of him, his style, his decisions, his policies, his staff selections, his personnel, that they're figuratively "vomiting" him out of their mouth. Being neither hot nor cold is as apt a descriptive of this second term President as one is likely to find. It captures him in all essentials.

He's at war; he constantly reminds us as much. But he doesn't pound our enemies. He demonstrates REPEATEDLY his reluctance to pursue and destroy our enemies. He's "put his hand to the plow, but he looks back...." He's Lot's wife

He's speaks of "securing" the homeland, but he refuses to genuinely secure the border.

He conducts military operations, but those operations aren't intended to be truly decisive.

We've been told that his Presidency will be a wartime one, but he constantly chirps about regional peace conferences.

He refused to deal with that evil Arafat, but nonetheless went on to wax rhapsodic about "Palestinian moms and dads...." Demonstrating once again his inability to perceive the pervasive pathologies rampant throughout the "Palestinian community." Of course I could continue on this theme all night and all day. But the conclusion is inescapable. Bush is neither hot nor cold. He cannot make peace, he will not wage war. He will not be Sherman, he cannot be Metternich.

His foreign policies turn my stomach. I have to be honest with you. This most recent peace conference announcement, with killers and terror sponsors, it's pusillanimous, absolutely pusillanimous.

There is a great deal in what you say.

God can offer a gift and the recipient can be unable to grasp it or keep it. When the gift is not even seen as a gift, it is mishandled as surely as gift given to a child before he is ready for it. Give a toddler a book and he will eat it. I am not really speaking of maturity, though, but of a frame of mind that welcomes the gift, or not. I loved that Sharansky book on democracy and want him to be right - the American ideal and I like to make a good apple pie, even when apples are out of season.

Americans are appalled that the gift offered in the Middle East seems to be spurned or eaten. The expense to us is a grief and what Dan says above in comment 5 about GWB rings true to me.

Dan, you've spoken more truths than you may even realize.

One failing you missed, though, was the President's failure to recognize that his view of America's devotion to freedom is not universally shared, even in the United States.

There is -unfortunately - a large block of Americans who see nothing particularly special, noble or righteous about America, and therefore see no particular virtue in defending our interests (indeed, they think "national interest", when pursued by the United States, is immoral). They're the type which spouts such nonsense as "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism", as if dissent, regardless of the "from what?", is somehow noble.

In this day and age, a Republican President acting as Commander in Chief has to recognize [1] there is a constituency which will oppose any exercise of American military power (and will especially & vociferously oppose it if exercised by a Republican Commander in Chief); and [2] success demands that the momentum of the operation never gives that constituency an opportunity to catch its breath. Simply put, a Republican Commander in Chief has to win any military battle before the opposition-niks demands for defeat are taken seriously by the public.

President Bush acted as if he'd have a free hand to fight this battle through January 19, 2009. He gave the surrender caucus free reign in the national discussion, and we're paying the price.

During 'Nam, America's military was somewhat blindsided by the ferociously adversarial stance of America's media. And they didn't quite know how to respond.

But no administration thereafter can say that they expected any better from the media.

Thus Bush knew, OR SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, that America's media would not get the story straight, would inexorably assume a hypercritical stance towards him, towards his administration and especially towards his war effort.

Moreover, Bush knew, or should have known, that the Senate would ultimately prove itself craven.

That should have been taken as a given when strategy was being formulated, EVEN BEFORE our move on Afghanistan.

The fact that the Bush administration, to this day, has failed to put together a communication and public relations campaign worthy of this country, worthy of this war, is more than mere gross negligence. It borders on criminal negligence.

That's how appalling it is.

This is a country possessed of more media savvy than any other.

Yet do we see any of that reflected in this White House, in this administration.

I think this President is the most enigmatic of modern times.

Bush and his administration tried to morph a red hot war into a long drawn out cold one.

It was that fundamental decision that has played havoc with this war effort.

Because it's crippled that war effort.

And ultimately, it delivered control of the overall war effort to the establishment. Since supposedly we were in a war that would take "decades," the war effort then was going to need a certain bipartisanship, which meant that the foreign policy establishment would have sign off on it. Which they refused to do. State and CIA NEVER went along with the Bush doctrine. For State and CIA want to cozy up with the house of al saud, and increasingly marginalize the Israelis. State and CIA subscribe to the Arab narrative. The only way that State and CIA could have been persuaded to go along was through a fierce purge. But Bush, very much like his father, didn't have the appetite to take on the establishment.

For the life of me, I don't understand how this administration didn't foresee that a long war was the one war that America could easily lose. Their war effort played to the strengths of the enemy, and played to our weakness. How could they have missed that?

I think we have too many people in government, in our foreign policy establishment, AND IN THE PENTAGON TOO, who study political science, international relations, but don't study war.

And thus don't understand how to make war, don't understand what it is to formulate an overall strategic objective, don't understand the nature of war, don't understand how to use the military to transform an enemy society.

Thus this incoherent war effort.

The Bush administration deserves the lion's share of the blame for this situation.

But the Pentagon, with its overly corporate ethos, with its premium on ticket punching, deserves a good chunk of the blame as well.

Ever since McNamara dropped the hammer on the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and dropped the hammer on the Air Force during 'Nam, we've got a military that buckles to whatever administration is in office.

Today, we've got the Iranians:

blowing up Americans,

maiming Americans,

disfiguring Americans,

sniping at Americans,

killing Americans.

And the Pentagon is putting up with it.

They're allowing the foreign policy establishment to ignore what the Iranians are doing.

They're allowing it!

I don't know how they look themselves in the mirror.

That creatures like Andy Card, like Condi, like Tenet, like Cheney and Gerson, couldn't bring themselves to get in the face of this President was to be expected. They earned their positions by being good little boys and girls. They didn't rock the boat.

But that the Pentagon would allow their own ranks to be shredded, by an enemy open and defiant in the field, without demanding the right to respond in strength, is something beyond my imagination.

Stars on your shoulders vest responsibilities, vest obligations.

Nelson and MacArthur wouldn't have put up with this crap, that's for damn sure. That's because they treasured their men, and were mindful of the glory and honour of their country.

Is this country producing an officer corps that rationalizes defeat? Content to point the finger at politicians and the media, instead of standing up, presenting their demands to the American people, and demanding the right to go after their enemies.

Where are the resignations? Hasn't anybody of any rank resigned in protest over this feeble, pusillanimous war effort?

Mega-dittoes on posts 9, 10 and 11, Dan. I wouldn't lump Cheney in with these establishmentarians, or say that Bush is close to "criminal negligence" ("negligence" will do). But those are quibbles. Mega-dittoes!!!

The reason I've lumped Cheney in is that I haven't seen much evidence of him expressing outrage over some of the major decisions of this second term.

Where was he during the immigration nightmare?

Where was he during the Meirs debacle?

Where was he during the Dubai Ports deal fracas?

The Iranians are bleeding us in the field, he hasn't said too much about it. He hasn't even called it intolerable.

The President has been whitewashing islam, Cheney doesn't seem to have a problem with that either.

All in all, Cheney seems to be something of a potted plant in this administration.

If you can give me a modern instance of a vice president strongly and publicly disagreeing with the president on a major issue while in office, you have a point. But since you can't, you don't. While this hardly proves that Cheney is on the right side of these issues that you (rightly) raise, we have no way of knowing what he says privately to the president or to other key leaders. In which case, it is simply indecent not to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I suspect this administration would be a good deal weaker if Cheney weren't there.

Cheney answers to the American people, not to the Bush family, not to this President. Sure, he must advise the President, but ultimately, he answers to us. He's an elected official, not a staffer, not another cabinet member. Thus his obligations transcend those of any other advisor to the President.

Do we know what Cheney has been advising privately? Of course not. We have a good idea through various leaks from people who are on his staff. But the details, no, we don't have those.

But in a way, that's all an irrelevancy.

This administration, this second term, has gone badly off the rails. That's obvious; that's self-evident. Now Cheney has a choice, he can be tagged as a participant in this ongoing nightmare, or he can stand up and be counted. If the President is not listening to his advice, and prefers that of Condi, State and CIA, then he needs to step down. He needs to emulate First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, step down, make his differences known. I think if he had laid it on the line a couple of years ago, when it was clear the President lost his nerve, lost his appetite, lost his zest for the war, if he had drawn a line when Bush allowed Condi to take the lead, and "engage" the Iranians instead of closing with and annihilating the enemy, if he had then said: "Either we go after the foremost sponsor of muslim mayhem on the planet, or I'm stepping down, and PUBLICLY blasting you for failing in your sworn duty and reneging on your clear campaign promises," if he had done that, this administration would have stayed on course. Iraq would have been pacified by now; Syria would have been ejected from Lebanon and totally isolated. The creepy house of al saud would be feeling the pressure of democratization in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. But instead of getting in the face of Bush, Cheney has played the good, little soldier, as if his role were nothing more than senior advisor to the President.

Cheney, MORE THAN ANYONE else in this administration knows the woeful advice this President is getting.

Cheney knows how bad the staff is.

Cheney knows that CIA needs to be purged.

Cheney knows the Arabists at State need to be thrown out.

What's he done about it? What's he done? Sure, I know he's not the President. But if he had done something dramatic, something without precedent to snap this President out of it, he might have saved this Presidency. But he decided to work behind the scenes, to maintain the ear of this President.

I'm not in a mood to be charitable about an administration that is almost serially incompetent. We don't have the margins to be so accommodating. We don't have the time.

This administration is going from bad to worse. Next Tuesday "talks" begin with the foremost terror power on the planet.

We know how the "talks" have gone with the North Koreans; likewise the Palestinians. You can throw in the Syrians and the Pakistanis to boot. Just remembered our "friends and allies" the "Saudis," so throw them in too. And now, adding insult to injury, Bush, Condi and State, blessed by the Iraq Study Group, urged on by the likes of Scowcroft, Baker and the NY Times, have commenced a squalid round of similar discussions with the Iranians.

It makes me sick. And I didn't mean that figuratively. I meant it literally. I get headaches; it makes me nauseous. I've thrown up just thinking about it.

And that's because I cherish the honour, the HONOUR of my country, "the last, best hope" for man, in an all too fallen world.

Bush is going to lose us New York City.

Just think about that for a moment.

And now ask yourself, mindful of that shadow of death that reaches out for Manhattan, that darkness which gathers and deepens, ............................................ now ask yourself what should Cheney be saying to this President.

Cheney is not a brake on the leftward swerve of this Presidency, he's a mute passenger in a car speeding towards an abyss.

Cheney should either open his mouth or get the hell out. ESPECIALLY in light of how his Chief of Staff was treated, Scooter Libby.

There are moments in history where resignations need to be tendered. This is such a moment for Cheney. Either get the President to abandon his disastrous policies, or tender a resignation.

You're right about everything but Cheney's culpability, which is largely unknowable. Your recommendation that he resign and denounce the president is political fantasy. These things simply don't happen in our political system, especially with vice presidents, who are ipso facto presidential enablers and stand-ins, whether they should be or not. In part because these dramatic resignations are, or have become, foreign to our system, they do not impact the administration in question. There would either be no VP, which is no gain, or a VP confirmable by the Senate, who I should think would be a loss as compared with Cheney. Your political fantasy is a noble one, but that's not good enough.

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