Commentary Magazine


A Man Like Bush

At the New Yorker, George Packer has a harsh assessment of George Bush’s Decision Points, a book he predicts “will not endure.”  Packer’s 3,300-word piece has only two sentences of praise, stuck in a parenthetical: “(The chapter on AIDS in Africa shows Bush at his best. His desire to display American caring led directly to a generous policy.)”

In the paragraph to which that parenthetical is appended, Packer relates that “one of the voices in the President’s ear [in the run-up to the Iraq war] was Elie Wiesel’s, speaking of ‘a moral obligation to act against evil.’” Packer writes that:

The words were bound to move a man like Bush. “Many of those who demonstrated against military action in Iraq were devoted advocates of human rights,” he says. “I understood why people might disagree on the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. But I didn’t see how anyone could deny that liberating Iraq advanced the cause of human rights.” Some of Bush’s critics found this argument specious and hypocritical; they failed to grasp the President’s profound need to be on the side of the redeeming angels.

Packer treats Bush’s motivation as an idiosyncratic psychological trait (apparently admirable if limited to a “desire to display caring” in Africa). But Bush’s reaction to Iraq tracked that of a knowledgeable observer writing in 2004:

I can’t wish the fall of Saddam’s regime undone. Before going to Iraq I knew abstractly that it was one of the worst in modern history and there’s been plenty of stiff competition. After five weeks there, my appreciation of its terribleness is more concrete and emotional. I know that’s hardly the best or only basis for foreign policy decisions, but in this case it’s decisive for me: The slaughter and misery of Iraqis (and their neighbors) justified the war. …

That was George Packer in a January 2004 Slate symposium of liberal hawks about a war they had supported but began abandoning in less than a year.

In his July 14, 2004, response to the British commission investigating the war, Tony Blair reached a similar conclusion about what Packer had called in 2004 “the moral imperative”:

And though in neither case [in Iraq and Afghanistan] was the nature of the regime the reason for conflict, it was decisive for me in the judgment as to the balance of risk for action or inaction. Both countries now face an uncertain struggle for the future. But both at least now have a future. The one country in which you will find an overwhelming majority in favor of the removal of Saddam is Iraq. I am proud of this country and the part it played and especially our magnificent armed forces, in removing two vile dictatorships and giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty.

Tony Blair was a man like Bush. So were the liberal hawks, for a while, but in contrast with that of Bush, their commitments did not endure.