It has been said—by me, among others—that George W. Bush bears a closer political resemblance to Ronald Reagan than to his father.
The first, and most obvious, similarity is that “Dubya,” like Reagan before him, was and still is very widely regarded as insufficiently intelligent or well-informed to be President. By now, the idea of Reagan as “the Great Communicator” is so entrenched that it has become hard to remember how frequently he was once ridiculed for being both inarticulate and an “airhead.” In his campaign against Jimmy Carter, for example, Reagan was always being charged with committing “gaffes” that allegedly showed the problems he had with the English language whenever there was no script for this former Hollywood actor to rely on. At the same time, such gaffes were said to reveal his haziness about the great issues, domestic and foreign, that as President he would have to confront. To the extent that he was even aware of these issues—government spending, taxes, the Soviet threat—his approach to them was invariably mocked as “simple-minded.”1
So too with George W. Bush. Beginning with the campaign that eventually landed him in the White House, he was, if anything, more relentlessly ridiculed than Reagan for his difficulties with the English language no less than for his ignorance of the particularities and nuances of world affairs. That ample justification existed for dubbing Bush “Governor Malaprop,” as did one mercilessly documented assault written during the Republican primaries, Bush himself cheerfully admitted:
Well, a lot of folks don’t think I can string a sentence together so when I was able to do so, the expectations were so low that all I had to do was say, “Hi, I’m George W. Bush.”
As for his ignorance of the international scene, there was—to cite only one item on a long list—Bush’s inability to identify the new president of Pakistan. Of course, after September 11, he came to know the name of Pervez Musharraf only too well; and not knowing it before seemed to pose no obstacle to Bush in getting Musharraf to reverse alliances and help us topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
But if Bush was even more roughly treated than Reagan for his poor command of the language and his dimness about international affairs, where the charge of “simple-mindedness” was concerned, the contest was too close to call.
True, Reagan’s denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” evoked an outcry that was nothing short of hysterical from all the chancelleries and nearly all the private foreign-policy establishments in the world. Evil? What place did a word like that have in the lexicon of international affairs, assuming any enlightened person would ever dream of exhuming it from the grave of obsolete concepts in any connection whatsoever? But in the eyes of the experts, needless to say, Reagan was not an enlightened person at all. He was a “cowboy,” a B-movie actor, who had by some freak of democratic perversity landed in the White House. In denouncing the Soviet empire as evil, he was charged either with signaling an intention to trigger a nuclear war or with being too stupid to understand that his wildly provocative rhetoric might do so inadvertently.
Bush hardly fared better. When, in his first State of the Union speech, he expanded on his definition of the war against terrorism and denounced Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” the reaction from the same types who had been so alarmed by Reagan was admittedly more scornful than hysterical; this time, there was no carrying-on about a nuclear war. But the air was just as widely pervaded with the old sneers and jeers at the “simple-mindedness” reflected by the very concept that some nations were evil and others good.
To make matters worse, there was the global situation that had developed since the end of the cold war. In a nutshell, America now commanded a degree of power greater than anything recorded in all of human history. No one doubted this; nor did anyone imagine that any other country or group of countries currently existed with the capacity, or the will, to challenge American power. In the past, when a single nation had achieved predominance, alliances would invariably be formed to balance it, but no such possibility could be discerned on the horizon at present or was likely to swim into view in the foreseeable future.
As the diplomats and the pundits saw it, this was not a happy circumstance but a dangerous one. Given its dangers, who but an ignoramus and a simpleton—or a religious fanatic of the very type with whom Bush was going to war—would resort to archaic moral absolutes like “good” and “evil”? And then, who but a fool could bring himself to believe, as Bush (like Reagan before him) evidently had done in complete and ingenuous sincerity, that the United States represented the “good”? Surely only a virtual illiterate could be oblivious of all the innumerable crimes committed by America both at home and abroad—crimes that the country’s own leading intellectuals had so richly documented in the by-now standard academic view of its history.2
But George W. Bush was following in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps in more than just the vivid moral coloration of his rhetoric. In both cases, the colors were heightened by contrast with the drabness of the spiritual and/or ethical background against which they were being painted.
Thus, Reagan’s unabashedly reverential attitude toward America stood in extreme contrast to the ambivalence felt, and manifested on more than one occasion, by his immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Two of those occasions were Carter’s speech about the “inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who shared in that fear,” and the pathetic projection onto the American people of the “malaise” from which he himself was suffering. Most of all, there was Carter’s conviction that this country had entered into a period of decline, together with his exhortation that we cultivate the “maturity” to accept this development, which was in his view both historically inevitable and not altogether bad.
So, too, with Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton. The youthful Clinton’s distrust of American power—candidly set forth in the notorious letter he wrote to the draft board in seeking exemption from military service during the Vietnam war—persisted during his presidency. At that stage, it became the engine driving his many efforts to tie down this reckless Gulliver of an America with the ropes of “multilateralism.” Bush, on the other hand, had not the slightest doubt that American power was a force for good, and—as his European critics never tired of charging—he was more a “unilateralist” than a multilateralist.
To put the point more concretely, the rhetorical echoes of Reagan reflected a shared worldview that Bush was bringing up to date now that the cold war was over. What Communism had been to Reagan in that war, terrorism was to Bush in this one; and as Reagan had been persuaded that the United States of America had a mission to hasten the demise of the one, Bush believed that we had a mission to rid the world of the other.
Yet all this only revealed itself to Bush on September 11, 2001. Before the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, Bush—or so it seemed to me—had no clear conception of what he wanted to accomplish as President. “Compassionate conservatism,” the tag he had adopted for his approach to domestic affairs, sounded much like his father’s “kindler, gentler America.” And like the elder Bush’s slogan, the son’s tacitly and unfortunately lent credence to the defamatory liberal charge that conservatives were a heartless breed whose greatest pleasure in life was grinding their heels in the faces of the poor while piling greater and greater heaps of gold into the coffers of the greedy rich.3
In foreign affairs, the pre-9/11 Bush seemed placidly content to be nothing more than the un-Clinton. True to his unshakable distrust of American power, Clinton had slashed our defenses, and he had endorsed a conception of “nation building” under which our military forces should primarily be employed to do international social work. The multilateralism about which he was so enthusiastic was in essence a euphemism for deference to that organization of despots, petty and grand, known as the United Nations. Furthermore, like the UN itself, Clinton had devoted a wildly disproportionate amount of energy to the Middle East; and he had invited the Palestinian dictator Yasir Arafat to the White House more often than any other world leader.
Reversing or nullifying all or most of these policies, as Bush apparently wished to do, would have been enough for many of us to experience, if not wild enthusiasm, then at least relief at his victory over Al Gore, who presumably would have carried on with them. But, again like his father, Bush was deficient in the “vision thing.” In foreign affairs, this meant that if he had a guiding sense of what the American role should be in the post-cold-war world, he never communicated it to the rest of us.
One can reasonably assume, however, that for the first eight months of his presidency, Bush had no such sense, and that he had simply gone along with his father’s standard “realist” perspective. In that perspective, the maintenance of stability is a far more important, and more attainable, objective than the “idealistic” or “Wilsonian”—or, for that matter, “Reaganite”—ambition to change the world, especially with the aim of making it “safe for democracy.”
And then came September 11. In its immediate aftermath, a transformed—or, more precisely, a transfigured—George W. Bush appeared before us. In an earlier article in these pages,4 I suggested, perhaps presumptuously, that out of the blackness of smoke and fiery death let loose by September 11, a kind of revelation, blazing with a very different fire of its own, lit up the recesses of Bush’s mind and heart and soul. Which is to say that, having previously been unsure as to why he should have been chosen to become President of the United States, George W. Bush now knew that the God to whom, as a born-again Christian, he had earlier committed himself had put him in the Oval Office for a purpose. He had put him there to lead a war against the evil of terrorism.
Bush officially declared this war in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, in which he first enunciated the general terms and spirit of a new “Bush Doctrine.” He then expanded on the new doctrine in three subsequent pronouncements—the State of the Union address on January 29, 2002; his speech to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 1; and the remarks on the Middle East he delivered three weeks later, on June 24. All four of these speeches were enormously impressive, though none of the three later ones quite made it to the heights of sublimity scaled by the first.
I have no idea how much of Bush’s own language entered into this text. Conceivably the whole thing was produced by his staff of speechwriters, and Bush’s only contribution was to sign off on it. But if so, it hardly matters: we are long past the era when Presidents wrote their own speeches. What counts nowadays is the words a President permits to be put into his mouth. In speaking those words, he assumes responsibility for them, and thereby makes them his own as surely—well, almost as surely—as if he were their original author. This is what Bush did on September 20, in what—ironically, for the former “Governor Malaprop”—may well have been the greatest presidential speech of our age.
It was here that Bush’s conversion from a conventional “realist” in the mold of his father to a democratic “idealist” of the Reaganite stamp was announced to the world. Of the “global terrorist network,” he declared in a passage that deserves to live forever:
We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.
It was also in this speech that Bush broadened the object of the personal revelation I think he had been vouchsafed, so that it now spread its wings over the American people as a whole. If he had lacked “the vision thing” before, he had it now in spades. “Great harm has been done to us,” he mournfully intoned toward the end. “We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.” Then he went on to spell out the substance of that mission and that moment:
The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.5
But in his peroration, reaching back to some of the same language he had been applying to the nation as a whole, Bush reverted to the first person, and in a style that came close to sounding like a prayer:
I will not forget the wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.
All this was undergirded by an equally startling shift in strategic analysis. Every President before Bush—including his own pre-September-11 self—had treated terrorists as criminal individuals or as members of Mafia-like organizations to be dealt with by the police and the courts. But the post-September 11 Bush had come to understand that there would be no serious terrorism without state sponsorship.
From this recognition flowed a corollary: that it would be necessary to “starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest.” More than that, we would henceforth rely on the military as much as or more than on the police
to pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
But novel and bold as this new strategic formula was, at bottom what gave the speech its greatness, and its power, was the incandescent moral clarity informing it. Indeed, so many people were struck by this quality that the term “moral clarity” soon became a cliché, if an inescapable one, much to the dismay and disgust of hordes of “advanced” thinkers and “sophisticated” commentators and diplomats both at home and abroad.
In the four months that elapsed between the speech of September 20, 2001 and the State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, Bush made good on his threat that “The hour is coming when America will act.” After some missteps in the first few weeks, this country put on a display of military might in Afghanistan that astounded even those around the world who had been acknowledging through their incessant grumbling that America had become the sole remaining “superpower”: as it turned out, even they had not known the half of it (and neither had many Americans).
The envy and the fear reinforced by this realization generated even more scorn than before over the talk of “good” and “evil” emanating from Bush. And such derision was rarely unaccompanied by complaints from our European allies, the UN, and others (including what is left of our own foreign-policy establishment) about American “unilateralism.”
Perhaps worst of all from the point of view of his critics (whose ranks increasingly embraced not only marginal figures like Gore Vidal and his ilk in the literary and academic communities but many mainstream politicians and pundits) was the naming by Bush of that “axis of evil” in his January State of the Union address. Regimes like those in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, he declared, were “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” And he continued:
By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.
Bush had already pretty clearly indicated on September 20 that he had no intention of waiting around to be attacked again (“we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism”). But in his State of the Union speech in January, he became much more explicit about his intention to go beyond the fundamentally retaliatory operation we had launched in Afghanistan by strongly suggesting that we would also take preemptive action whenever it might be deemed necessary:
We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.
To those with ears to hear, the State of the Union address should have removed all traces of ambiguity from the Bush Doctrine as originally enunciated on September 20. Yet there were many—once more, both at home and abroad—who contended that the United States needed smoking-gun evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11 in order to attack Saddam Hussein, and to do unto his regime what we had just done to the Taliban in Afghanistan. As it happened, such evidence existed, even if it might not have been enough to secure a conviction in an American court of law or in the hypocritical tribunals of the “international community,” not to mention the “Arab street.”
Nevertheless, that particular issue was rendered moot by the codicil now tacked on to the Bush Doctrine. According to this codicil, Saddam’s development of weapons of mass destruction sufficed all on its own to make him a legitimate target in a preemptive war of self-defense.
The first pillar of the Bush Doctrine, then, was built on a rejection of moral relativism. The second stood tall on a reconception of terrorism as a problem involving states and therefore calling for a military response (along with other instruments of power, whether economic or diplomatic). And the third was the assertion of our right to preempt.
Strangely, that this right to preempt was a logical extension of the general outline Bush provided on September 20, and that it was articulated in the plainest of words in the codicil of January 29, went largely unnoticed. Until, that is, he reaffirmed it in the third of the series of major speeches defining the Bush Doctrine—the one delivered on June 1 at West Point to the 2002 graduating class of newly commissioned officers of the United States Army.
Perhaps the reason the preemption pillar finally became unmistakably visible at West Point was that, for the first time, Bush placed his new ideas in historical context:
For much of the last century, America’s defense relied on the cold-war doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizen to defend.
This covered al Qaeda and similar groups. But Bush then proceeded to explain why the old doctrines could not work with a regime like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq:
Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons or missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.
Refusing to flinch from the implications of this analysis, Bush repudiated the previously sacred dogmas of arms control and treaties against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as a means of dealing with the dangers now facing us from Iraq and other members of the axis of evil:
We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systematically break them.
Hence, Bush inexorably continued,
If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. . . . [T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.
But Bush did not confine himself in the West Point speech to questions of military strategy. He also reaffirmed—and even more defiantly in the face of the critics he had brought out of the woodwork—the universality of the moral purposes animating this war:
Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. . . . We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.
Then, in a fascinating leap into the great theoretical debate of the post-cold-war era (though without identifying the main participants), Bush came down squarely on the side of Francis Fukuyama against Samuel Huntington:
The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.
Having endorsed Fukuyama’s much-misunderstood view of “the end of history,” Bush now brushed off Huntington’s rival theory of a “clash of civilizations”:
When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes. . . . Mothers and fathers and children across the Islamic world, and all the world, share the same fears and aspirations. In poverty, they struggle. In tyranny, they suffer. And as we saw in Afghanistan, in liberation they celebrate.
All this was fully consistent with the two previous speeches Bush had made on September 20 and January 29. But—a very big but—it was not consistent with the realities on the ground in the Middle East. In the Islamic world, and particularly the Arab countries (including such of our “friends” as Saudi Arabia and Egypt), mothers and fathers were celebrating Palestinian children (including their own) who blew themselves up as a way of killing as many Israeli Jews as possible.
Bush, again unlike his father, seemed to harbor no animus against Israel; and again like Reagan, he seemed to have a sense of kinship with the Jewish state. Nor did Bush evince the slightest indication of agreeing with the idea that we had been attacked by Osama bin Laden because we were too friendly to Israel. To those who held on to this idea for dear life, it made no difference that bin Laden himself had given it the lie by treating the issue of the Palestinians as relatively unimportant (which did not prevent those same Palestinians from dancing in the streets on September 11, along with millions of other Arabs in other countries who regarded him as a great hero).
But it did make a difference to Bush, who believed, as he said on September 20, that the terrorists hated us for “our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” On this premise, they must hate Israel for the same reasons. And in fact, Bush added, their wish “to drive Israel out of the Middle East” was only one element of their larger ambition “to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa.”
Yet this short but accurate summary was compromised by the strangely discordant note that preceded it: “They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.” The problem here was not that Bush was wrong: al Qaeda and related Islamic terrorists most assuredly did want to overthrow those governments. But the great sin of the Saudi regime in bin Laden’s eyes had nothing to do with Israel: the sin was to have allowed infidel American troops onto soil sacred to Islam. Similarly, the rulers of Egypt and Jordan were guilty because they had aligned themselves politically with the United States, the “Great Satan.”
By professing friendship for the United States, these three regimes had earned the sobriquet “moderate” in the West, no matter what else they did or failed to do that ill-consorted with such a characterization. None of the three governments mentioned by Bush, least of all Saudi Arabia, though with the partial exception of Jordan (which, however, had allied itself with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war), permitted its people any of the freedoms to whose prevalence in America the President had just attributed the hatred of us that had so horrifically exploded on September 11.
Moreover, the controlled and official state media in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were full of vitriolic attacks on the United States. To top it all off, the Saudis provided much of the financing for the madrassas, the religious schools in Saudi Arabia itself and throughout the entire realm of Islam in which students were indoctrinated with the very form of Islamic radicalism that bred in their young souls a seething lust for holy war and the “martyrdom” of suicide bombing. Small wonder, then, that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and that two of the others were Egyptians.
In spite of all this, the Bush administration was apparently determined to spare no effort in enlisting these regimes in its “coalition.” Even more extraordinary was the courting of Syria and Yemen, both of which were on the State Department’s own list of states that harbored and sponsored terrorism. How was it possible to reconcile such a policy with the President’s declaration on September 20 that “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime”?
The same question might have been raised in the case of Pakistan, which had supported both the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and al Qaeda. But here it had been easy to reconcile the contradiction. For when, shortly after Bush’s speech of September 20, the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was persuaded to be “with us” militarily. No similar military rationale could be unearthed for the administration’s kowtowing—no weaker word would do—to the Arab despots throughout the Middle East.
True, one heard much buzzing about all the help the Saudis and the Egyptians were giving us. But the talk was empty. The Saudis vetoed any plan we might have to launch air strikes against Iraq from their territory, and would not even willingly cooperate in cutting off funds to terrorist groups. As for the Egyptians, the “intelligence” we were supposedly getting from them had no discernible value in the Afghanistan campaign, and they too opposed attacking Saddam Hussein. Nor did their controlled press let up on the anti-American (and anti-Semitic) filth that was a central component of the daily diet fed to its readers. While President Hosni Mubarak made soothing sounds in interviews with American and other Western papers, or when speaking privately to Washington, the editor-in-chief of his own government daily al-Akhbar was inventing an “axis of evil” of his own that consisted of “Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.”
I was assured by people better informed than I that, while Saudi cooperation would be convenient for a military attack on Iraq, it would not be indispensable. If so, one was driven back to the hoary explanation of oil. Was it then the Texas oil interests, so disproportionately represented in the elder Bush’s administration and still working behind the scenes in the younger’s, that accounted for the contradictions between the President’s words and his policy in this area? For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I could not bring myself to swallow this interpretation.
By far the starkest, and most puzzling, of the contradictions between Bush’s words and his policy was the intransigent refusal of the administration to acknowledge that there was not a smidgen of difference between what the United States was doing in Afghanistan and Israel’s acts of retaliation against the wave of suicide, or rather homicide, bombings that had been afflicting the country for nearly two years.
The low point was the President’s announcement that “Enough is enough” in demanding that Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon immediately withdraw his forces from the West Bank, to which they had been sent in late March. Yet Sharon had sent them there for exactly the same reason ours had been dispatched to Afghanistan: in order to root out the terrorist infrastructure being harbored, trained, and financed in that area with the express purpose of killing as many citizens of his country as possible.
Admittedly, Bush never put teeth into his demand on Israel. Although he did not exactly give Sharon a “green light,” as the Arab world and its sympathizers charged, he did give him a flashing amber light in the form of a few more weeks: not enough to finish the job, but enough to make a dent in the terrorist infrastructure that had been built up under the Palestinian Authority (PA) over which Yasir Arafat presided. In due course, Bush also seems to have realized that there was something worse than incoherent—something almost crazy—in supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state run by Arafat and his henchmen. Why should America acquiesce, let alone help, in adding yet another state to those that harbored and sponsored terrorism precisely at a time when we were at war to rid the world of just such regimes?
It was, I would imagine, out of the inability to answer this question that a new idea entered and straightened out Bush’s thinking: the PA had to be reformed in order to qualify for statehood. Yet even on the dubious assumption that reform of the PA was a viable project, the Palestinian issue was not isolated or autonomous. It had always been the instrument of the Arab/Muslim world as a whole: an instrument to be wielded against Israel and to distract the attention of the Muslim peoples from their grievances against their own rulers. This being so, there could be no peace between the Palestinians and Israel unless the region as a whole were to reconcile itself to the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in its midst and give up the dream of wiping it out once and for all.
Enter the de-facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, who was among the first to perceive that, sooner or later, the logic of his war against terrorism would force Bush to confront and then act on this truth about the war against Israel. Grasping the point, and worried, too, about the unprecedentedly bad press his country was suddenly getting here, Prince Abdullah enlisted the eagerly docile services of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times to unveil a “peace plan” that would, he claimed, involve the acceptance of Israel by the entire Arab world.
But even if the Abdullah plan were more than a public-relations ploy (and a tactic calculated to turn Washington’s attention away from Iraq), the contradiction was still left hanging between, on the one hand, Bush’s unqualified endorsement of the craving of Muslims for “the same freedoms and opportunities” we enjoyed and, on the other, his courting and coddling of regimes that denied them such freedoms and opportunities.
It would seem that Bush had been snookered by the Saudis (no doubt with the complicity of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell) into the delusion that “the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem”—that, in other words, the Palestinians had to be accommodated before Iraq could be attacked. And so, for several weeks, Bush lost his way. He dawdled through a series of meetings with the Saudi and Israeli leaders, issuing various statements after each encounter that deepened the bog of confusion into which he had sunk.
Gone was the moral clarity that had previously been granted to him, and with it went the sharpness of his strategic focus on Iraq. Bush had months earlier warned us that time was “not on our side”: that Saddam already had a store of chemical and biological weapons and that (as confirmed by high-level defectors from Iraq) he was very close to developing nuclear ones as well. Yet here Bush was squandering large amounts of that precious time on a peripheral issue, and undermining what he had been trying to accomplish ever since the post-9/11 revelation of his mission as President of the United States.
Perhaps it was all this that accounted for the amazing paucity of media attention to his West Point speech. Yet that speech represented an attempt to regain the moral clarity Bush had temporarily lost (he even brought in the phrase itself), while integrating moral considerations more organically than before into the strategic imperative half-created and half-illuminated by this clarity.
Even though it hardly caused a stir, the speech (as we have already seen) succeeded beautifully in reaffirming and refining the ideas Bush had been advancing since September 20, 2001. What was even more important, it succeeded in concentrating the President’s own mind. In the three weeks that elapsed between his West Point address and his remarks on the Middle East of June 24, Bush at last managed to achieve the same moral clarity about that region that had come to him about terrorism in general after 9/11.
Thus, having earlier become the first American President to endorse publicly the establishment of a Palestinian state, Bush on June 24 explained why he would not and could not stick by this endorsement unconditionally:
Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing terrorism. This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.
But accomplishing this required the election of “new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror” who would embark on building “entirely new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism.”
It was with these words that Bush brought his “vision” (as he kept calling it) of a Palestinian state that could live in peace alongside Israel into line with his overall perspective on the evil of terrorism. And having traveled that far, he went the distance by redepositing the Palestinians into the larger context from which Arab propaganda had ripped them. Since this move was something else that passed almost unnoticed (though incidentally it was what led me to reject our dependence on Saudi oil as an explanation for how and why Bush had temporarily lost his way), it is worth dwelling on why it was so important.
Even before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Muslim countries of the Middle East had been fighting against the existence of a sovereign Jewish state—any Jewish state—on land they believed Allah had reserved for those faithful to his prophet Muhammad. Hence hundreds of millions of Arabs and other Muslims, in control of more than two dozen countries and vast stretches of territory, had ranged themselves against a handful of Jews who then numbered well under three-quarters of a million6 and who lived on a tiny sliver of land the size of New Jersey. But after 1967, by redefining the Muslim war against the Jewish state as one merely between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Arab propagandists succeeded brilliantly in transforming Israel’s image from David to Goliath, thereby alienating the old sympathy it had enjoyed as an underdog.
Bush now reversed this reversal. Not only did he reconstruct a truthful framework by telling the Palestinian people that they had been treated for decades “as pawns in the Middle East conflict.” He also insisted on being explicit about the nations that belonged in this larger picture and about what they had been up to:
I’ve said in the past that nations are either with us or against us in the war on terror. To be counted on the side of peace, nations must act. Every leader actually committed to peace will end incitement to violence in official media and publicly denounce homicide bombs. Every nation actually committed to peace will stop the flow of money, equipment, and recruits to terrorists groups seeking the destruction of Israel, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah. Every nation committed to peace must block the shipment of Iranian supplies to these groups and oppose regimes that promote terror, like Iraq. And Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.
In these highly significant remarks, then, Bush rebuilt the right context in which to understand the Middle East conflict. Simultaneously he made a strong start in bringing not the Palestinian Authority alone but the entire Muslim world, “friends” and enemies alike, into his conception of the war against terrorism.
Most supporters of that war—and especially those among them who were friends of Israel—praised this speech. But more than a few pro-Israel observers criticized its renewed promise of a (duly reformed) Palestinian state as “rewarding terrorism” or even as reviving the discredited Oslo “peace process.”
To the extent that these responses stemmed from the view that Bush’s expectations were unrealistic, they could hardly be disregarded. The great Orientalist Bernard Lewis once quipped that to ask Yasir Arafat to give up terrorism was like asking Tiger Woods to give up golf; an analogous criticism was now leveled by Daniel Pipes and several other commentators at Bush’s demands both on the Palestinian Authority and on all the other despotisms in the Middle East. Pipes summed up the case with his usual incisiveness:
Palestinian terrorism has caused terrible tragedies, but it is not the heart of the problem. Terrorism, after all, is but a tactic in the service of a war aim. That war aim—the destruction of Israel—is the heart of the problem.
In this short piece, Pipes did not apply the same point to the entire Muslim world, though he has often done so. Other commentators have also recognized the falsity of all the syrupy talk emanating from that world, in Western languages and for Western consumption, about the peace that could be reached if only Israel ended its “occupation”7 and agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. But as is clear from what they say to one another in Arabic, neither the Palestinians nor their Muslim “brothers” have given up on the dream of wiping Israel off the real map, just as they have already done in the maps they draw for the textbooks given to their children.8
Even though I am one of these commentators, I am still persuaded that Bush’s remarks on the Middle East constituted a great breakthrough. “Whatever happened to the Bush Doctrine?” asked a critic of this speech. My answer is that in addition to the rejection of moral relativism, the holding of states responsible for the terrorists they sponsor, and the assertion of a right to preemption, it now includes a fourth pillar: namely, the assimilation of Israel’s war against terrorism into our own. All four pillars together now comprise the Bush Doctrine, which—thanks to this newest addition—has become much more coherent than it was before, and consequently more solidly based.
This is not to say that the count is yet in on whether Bush will walk the walk as well as he has talked the talk. For example, shortly after the June 24 remarks, Bush and Powell were again meeting with the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians, who all left feeling “reassured” when they should have been frightened. And there were other such episodes as well.
Yet even if Bush fails to match his deeds fully with his words, those words will exert an impact all by themselves. In many instances, Ronald Reagan’s actions were not always precisely in harmony with his words: sometimes they fell well short of what the words promised, and sometimes they even conflicted with his declaratory policy. But as we have discovered from former dissidents throughout the “evil empire” of cursed memory, those words had a power of their own that enhanced immeasurably the weight of the missiles behind them.
In Afghanistan, Bush’s walk matched his superb talk, in that he would settle for nothing less than a change of regime. But that, of course, was only the first step in a very long journey—and one that is still far from over even in Afghanistan. The second step will be a change of regime in Iraq—sooner rather than later, many of us hope and pray. When Saddam Hussein goes, the Iranian domino might also fall, toppled not by American military force but by the internal revolution already brewing there against the rule of the mullahs. To this revolution, Bush (though not his own State Department!) has given his blessing.
The best-case scenario is that Bush will eventually come to grips with the reality that Afghanistan and Iran are far from the only countries in the Middle East where “reform” is not enough to bring about the actions he has called upon all of them to take. In other words, as in Afghanistan and Iran, changes of regime are the sine qua non throughout the region.
Obviously it would be foolish to anticipate an overnight conversion to democracy and free markets. But I would argue that what might realistically be expected is the creation of conditions that would point in that direction, while also clearing a path to the long-overdue internal reform and modernization of Islam. I have asked the question before9 and ask it again now: why should Islam alone forever be exempt from the processes that affected Judaism and Christianity before it?
The regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as “friends” of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen.
There is no denying that the alternative to these regimes could easily turn out to be worse, even (or especially) if it comes into power through democratic elections. After all, by every measure we possess, very large numbers of people in the Muslim world sympathize with Osama bin Laden and would vote for radical Islamic candidates of his stripe if they were given the chance.
To dismiss this possibility would be the height of naiveté. Nevertheless, there is a policy that can head it off, provided that the United States has the will to fight World War IV—the war against militant Islam—to a successful conclusion, and provided, too, that we then have the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties. This is what we did directly and unapologetically in Germany and Japan after winning World War II; it is what we have indirectly striven with some success to help achieve in the former Communist countries since winning World War III; and it is George W. Bush’s ultimate aim in World War IV.
There was a song that became popular in America during World War II: “We did it before, and we can do it again.” What I am trying to say to the skeptics and the defeatists of today is that yes indeed we did it before; and yes indeed we can do it again.
1 Interestingly, in this respect among others Reagan was in the company of his old hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whom the great pundit of the day, Walter Lippmann, had written in his column in 1932, when FDR was first making a bid for the White House: “He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” The friends of the young Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, shared this view: their nickname for him was the “feather-duster.”
2 The egregious Gore Vidal, always eager not to be outdone in the hate-America Olympics, made his bid in an interview about his latest book of essays: “I mean, to watch Bush doing his little war dance in Congress . . . about ‘evildoers’ and this ‘axis of evil’. . . . I thought, he doesn’t even know what the word axis means. Somebody just gave it to him. . . . This is about as mindless a statement as you could make. Then he comes up with about a dozen other countries that have ‘evil’ people in them, who might commit ‘terrorist acts.’ What is a terrorist act? Whatever he thinks is a terrorist act. And we are going to go after them. Because we are good and they are evil. And we’re ‘gonna git ‘em.’ ” Yet having disposed of Bush as “mindless,” Vidal surprisingly contradicted himself and denied that the President was “an idiot himself.” Rather, Bush was “convinced we are idiots. And we are not idiots. We are cowed. Cowed by . . . a skewed view of the world, and atrocious taxes that subsidize this permanent war machine. And we have no representation. Only the corporations are represented in Congress.” Evidently Vidal realized belatedly that to emphasize Bush’s stupidity would be to undercut his real point: that the President was actually “clever” enough to conceal his undying fealty to the oil interests and his “contempt for the American people.”
3 Here it was Bush more than Reagan who fit Walter Lippmann’s patronizing portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whom Lippmann wrote in the same column I quoted above: “Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege.”
4 “How to Win World War IV,” February 2002. In that article, borrowing the illuminating terminology first adopted by the military analyst Eliot Cohen, I designated the cold war as World War HI, and the war against terrorism as World War IV. I will stick with that terminology here.
5 In this instance, and in the passage I quote just below, the echo was less of Ronald Reagan than of Winston Churchill, who declared as World War II was getting under way in 1940: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end.” And it is worth noting that Churchill, who had been the target of many derogatory epithets in his long career but who was never regarded even by his worst enemies as “simple-minded,” had no hesitation in attaching a phrase like “monster of wickedness” to Hitler. Nor did the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose mind was, if anything, overcomplicated rather than too simple, have any problem in her masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism, with calling both Nazism and Communism “absolute evil.”
6 Today, thanks to immigration and natural increase, the Jewish population of Israel is close to five million.
7 To anyone who wonders why I put quotation marks around this word, I strongly recommend reading Efraim Karsh’s eye-opening article, “What Occupation?,” in the July-August 2002 COMMENTARY.
8 It is to the translations circulated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) that we owe what we have now learned about what appears in Arabic-language newspapers and television broadcasts, as well as what is preached by Islamic clerics in their weekly sermons. An archive can be found on www.memri.org.
9 In “How to Win World War IV”