Joseph Bottum writes:
After six years of President Bush”thought by nearly every observer to be the most socially conservative president of recent decades”where does social conservatism stand? No one can deny there have been some bright spots: the defeat of the Democrats’ Senate leader Tom Daschle in 2004, the nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court in 2005, a few successful state referenda in 2006.
What isn’t so clear is what it all amounts to. The noise has been overwhelming since George W. Bush took office. Abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, public Christmas displays, same-sex marriage, pornography in the movies, faith-based initiatives, immigration, visible patriotism: We’ve been warned by the media, over and over again, that Republicans are reshaping America into a Puritan’s paradise. But, at the end of the day, the media mostly won and the Republicans mostly lost. Social conservatism is in little better shape now than it was when Bush was first elected. In many ways, it is in worse shape.
In truth, no branch of conservatism has prospered much under Bush, particularly since the beginning of the Iraq War. Economic conservatives have had several victories, particularly with tax cuts, but on their fundamental worries about bloated government spending, they’ve been routed. From 2000 to 2006, the Republican Congress proved as financially undisciplined as its Democratic predecessors”and occasionally even less disciplined, as the prescription-drug entitlement and Katrina relief showed. And that’s to say nothing about the scandals involving Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, and all the rest. The Gingrich Republicans used the long parade of congressional corruption to help defeat the Democrats in 1994, but they seemed all too ready to join it themselves once they had held power for a few years.
Even the neoconservatives have suffered. The original agitators for the toppling of Saddam Hussein”and the first to see clearly the threat of global Jihadism”they seemed to the media to have gotten what they wanted with the invasion of Iraq. But the Bush administration did not give them the kind of war, much less the kind of peace, for which they had called.
Why, these days, should the Sudanese government fear the United States will intervene to halt the slaughter in Darfur? Why should the Iranians worry about an American strike against their development of nuclear bombs? Shortly after the success of the initial invasion of Iraq, Libya announced it would dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. It’s hard to imagine any Middle Eastern country doing the same now. Since 2003, the neoconservatives have been the whipping boys of a left invigorated by the floundering Bush administration”all while that same administration has systematically rejected their policy suggestions, culminating in the disheartening appointment of the self-proclaimed realist Robert Gates as the nation’s new secretary of defense.
So why were conservatives supposed to cheer the president’s State of the Union address this January? If we haven’t yet demonstrated to the world that we can successfully oppose the Jihadists, if we haven’t yet brought government spending under control, if we haven’t yet established any permanent advances on the life issues”if all that Republican government has successfully managed over the past six years is to inspire a rabid opposition at home and abroad”then many opportunities have been squandered. Every conservative I know is depressed these days, and they are right to be. Under President Bush, conservatism has won only in the sense of not losing as quickly as it would have under a President Gore or a President Kerry.
The common turn among commentators, once they’ve recognized Bush’s weakness, has been to declare the betrayal of some form of authentic conservatism. In book after book”from Bruce Bartlett’s Imposter and Patrick Buchanan’s State of Emergency to Jeffrey Hart’s The Making of the American Conservative Mind and Richard Viguerie’s Conservatives Betrayed ”a number of self-declared conservatives have announced the apostasy and treachery of George W. Bush. Thus Bush is an ideologue where sincere conservatives are pragmatists. Or Bush is a spendthrift where true conservatives are budget-balancers. Or Bush is an expansionist where genuine conservatives are isolationists. Or Bush is a religious believer where real conservatives are religious skeptics.
Some of these commentators, particularly the economic conservatives, have valid complaints, though like the rest of us they must face the fact that things would have been even worse under a Democratic administration. But their conclusion that the White House has flown under false colors is ludicrous. In all that he has tried to do”reform education, fix social security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges”Bush has proved himself a conservative. Of course, along the way, he has also proved himself hapless. The problem isn’t his lack of conservatism. The problem is his lack of competence.
Apart from the still not certain pro-life views of the two new Supreme Court justices, where is there a major success to which one can point? In the opening days of his presidency, Bush declared that the return of government support for faith-based institutions would be the great legacy of his administration”as well it might have been, if the whole thing had not quickly collapsed into a clown show of political missteps, fumbled chances, and administrative infighting so vicious that the director of the faith-based office eventually took to the pages of Esquire to denounce his co-workers as a bunch of “Mayberry Machiavellis.”
Stem cells are perhaps the exception, for there President Bush did indeed hold the conservative line. It is worth remembering, however, the way in which he did so: letting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research become a public crisis when quicker action would have kept it off center stage. By allowing it to boil over, the administration allowed its opponents to shift the focus off abortion, where the pro-life movement seemed to be gradually winning, and onto embryonic stem cells, where the nation has yet to be convinced. There’s a reason the word abortion was never spoken from the podium of the 2004 Democratic convention, while the phrase stem cells was trumpeted dozens of times. Correct action, even when strongly undertaken, is not the same thing as persuasive leadership.
Regardless, little else comes to mind. 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. The White House saw clearly that education in this country needs a complete overhaul, and we got as a consequence only the bureaucratic annoyance of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Republicans’ lack of political savvy abandoned an astonishing number of unconfirmed judicial nominees”and now we have a Democratic Senate unlikely to confirm any conservative judges at all.
Many things contributed to the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 election, but, by any reckoning, a considerable part came from the electorate’s unhappiness with the situation in Iraq. So what, then, are conservatives to make of the war?
This much seems certain: If the United States loses in Iraq, the consequences will be incalculably bad. Indeed, those consequences will come even if the war is won, as long as the perception remains that it has been lost. For all the absurdity of the media’s endless comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, the parallel here seems exact: We will not be helped by recognizing, years later, that the struggle was going better than it seemed at the time. Nearly every historian now realizes that the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese. The American belief that our opponents had won, however, proved a sufficient political triumph to swell the anti-war movement. From that moment on, Vietnam was over. Eventually, we admitted defeat and abandoned our allies”with the Cambodian killing fields, the Cuban adventure in Angola, and the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan all following like dominoes through the 1970s.
Things at home were little better. For conservatives, the 1970s stand as the nadir of American social history”the “decade of nightmares,” in Philip Jenkins’ phrase. This was the era that installed the media culture of suspicion, surrendered the nation’s cities to crime zones, suffered double-digit inflation, nationalized the sexual revolution, and gave us Roe v. Wade . Direct cause and effect for such things are always difficult to decide, but, in one way after another, we were demoralized for a decade after America’s defeat in Vietnam.
The consequences of American defeat in Iraq are likely to be similar. Around the globe, the Jihadists will be inspired to greater and greater violence”as the “lesson of Iraq” keeps any U.S. government, Democrat or Republican, from committing troops to a foreign struggle. The weaker opponents of radical Islam will quickly become even more vulnerable. Can southern Sudan hold without at least the distant intimidation of American military intervention? Can Nigeria? Can Indonesia? Terrorism, too, will surely expand as a chastened United States finds it cannot realistically threaten such nations as Syria, Iran, and North Korea with military consequences for supporting terrorist organizations.
Domestically, a large range of conservatives will seem discredited by an American defeat in Iraq, which is why their liberal and radical opponents so quickly, and fecklessly, embraced the claim that Iraq is lost. On crime, abortion, education, government spending”the whole litany of domestic concerns”the American conservative movement may well find itself starting over, back once again where it was in 1974. The result will be perhaps most disheartening for social conservatives, as decades of intellectual and political gains against abortion are frustrated.
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. The security concerns after the attacks of September 11 and the general tide of American conservatism carried Republicans through the elections of 2002 and 2004. But by 2006 Bush had squandered his party’s advantages, until even the specter of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House was not enough to keep the Republicans in power.
To abandon Iraq now would be the height of irresponsibility. It would lock in place the perception of defeat, with all the predictable consequences, and it would abandon the Iraqis to whom we promised freedom and democracy. President Bush has clearly done the right thing in refusing retreat and pledging to stay the course in Iraq.
But hasn’t that always been the problem? 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.
Michael Novak writes:
Shortly after President Bush’s State of the Union Address this January, I attended a conservative summit in Washington, D.C., where I heard a raft of criticism about the president’s falling away from conservative principles. There was hope and energy, of course, but also more demoralization than I expected”a demoralization Joseph Bottum clearly shares.
I am considerably more supportive of President Bush’s stewardship. Bottum’s judgments”many of which have force, I admit”require two general remarks. The first involves his claim that the war in Iraq is “already lost” (which he qualifies by adding “in perception”). The second is the criterion of “competence,” lack of which in several major areas is Bottum’s single most serious charge against President Bush.
As far as perception of the war in Iraq goes, it’s worth remembering that perceptions are changeable. As the war began in 2003, the New York Times required less than three weeks before it ran a front-page report by a star correspondent of the last generation, R.W. Apple, which hauled out the heavy word of the Vietnam generation, quagmire -as in the quagmire in which, Apple wrote, U.S. troops were already bogged down. Three weeks later, those same quagmired troops had sped into Baghdad, watching as jubilant crowds pulled down the great statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city and organizing a systematic search for the suddenly deposed butcher of Mesopotamia.
Of course, changeable or not, what counts as perception in this country is still defined by the disproportionately liberal media, particularly the New York Times , the Washington Post , and the major television networks. But Ronald Reagan taught us that the perceptions promoted by the liberal media do not, in fact, control the way Americans think. As Clare Boothe Luce once explained, from his experience as a B-movie actor Reagan learned the difference between the box office and the critics. If you win over the first, you can be awfully sweet-tempered to the second. He showed that the hostility of all the liberal media could not, finally, drown out common-sense reality.
I agree with Bottum that in the view of the media the war has been lost. But we may also expect this perception to reverse itself if events in the coming six months unmistakably change direction. Consider three positive possibilities. None of these may turn out to be true, of course, but for one moment assume that they do, just to imagine how perceptions would shift.
Suppose, first, Al-Sadr orders his Mahdi followers to keep their arms out of sight, to tear down their checkpoints in the streets, and to cooperate with the Iraqi Army and the new American battalions. Al-Sadr may, of course, opt to fight a bloody winner-take-all contest. Yet the record of American soldiers directly engaging Iraqi forces is not likely to tempt him overmuch in that direction. He may wish to save his army to defend Shi’ites in future years.
Suppose, second, that al-Qaeda, which is steadily sweeping all other dissident groups under its wing, abandons Baghdad to take up bases in more remote locations north of Anbar Province. It might do so for the same reason that persuaded Al-Sadr: to avoid confrontation with the modern arms, extraordinary skill, and well-demonstrated fearlessness of the American battalions. Al-Qaeda’s way is no longer face-to-face encounters with superior force; its preferred style is sneaky terror by a few. And if they do mass in open battle, all the better for an Iraqi national victory, supported by U.S. firepower.
Suppose, third, that the Sunni tribal leaders and other local authorities in Anbar Province come to recognize two realities: that the goal of reclaiming rule in Iraq is so futile that the goal of the Sunnis must be survival (for which American protection is vitally necessary); and that the empty bravado and overweening ambitions of al-Qaeda foreigners, Sunni anti-American insurgents, and former Baathists are a curse, having brought down on the Sunnis little but bloodshed, pain, and lost hope. With that recognition, the Sunnis could begin to fight back, slowly but with building momentum, turning against the rump insurgency in their midst and also against al-Qaeda terror. The people of Anbar Province might drive out their own tormentors and begin to feel secure.
With these conditions met, Iraq would come to seem reasonably tranquil. Many countries have experienced steady bombings by dissidents, without losing civil control.
In retrospect, it seems clear that President Bush made a serious mistake in not taking up the Democrats on their insistence in 2006 that he must both enlarge the forces in Baghdad and change leadership at the Pentagon and among the generals in the field. The Democrats were in favor of the surge, before they were against it. Bush ought to have abandoned “sweep and clear and leave.” He ought to have changed the mission from “turning it over to the Iraqis as soon as we can.” He should have seen, in warfare, the crucial importance of one key goal: victory.
That goal can be achieved, in an insurgency war, only by bringing security to the people, beginning in Baghdad. (Most of the rest of Iraq, from the Kurdish north to the Shi’ite south, is already reasonably secure, if more sparsely settled.) In any case, the president has now changed strategy, as well as the generals charged with pursuing it. He now has commanders who believe in victory and who, in fact, designed the way to get to it. In war there is no substitute for victory. The ethic of the just war”by requiring “a reasonable hope of success””also demands it.
Bottum’s charge of incompetence is more troubling, although he may expect from government more than government can deliver. A long-established lesson is that, even in the best of times, government is mightily incompetent”and the bigger government gets, the more incompetent it becomes. Think of how much time it takes to obtain a building permit, to go through vehicle registration, to correct a government mistake on tax forms or on public utility bills, etc. Recall how few government offices in the same building communicate with the others, and how often you are shuttled back and forth.
This is why President Kennedy used to joke that he would send out executive orders, and they would sit in offices, and be pondered and discussed, until no action could be taken. He learned quickly how powerless a president is every time he must go through a bureaucracy. And I seem to recall how incompetent Lincoln’s first series of generals were”together with the Department of War, the Department of Justice, and practically everything else. Lincoln himself was frequently charged with incompetence, bumbling, and simplemindedness.
By no means should President Bush get a pass for his errors and misperceptions, or his slowness in correcting them. Still, one ought to use standards that are cut to the cloth of human nature. In politics, Aristotle wrote, we must expect “a tincture of virtue.” Expectations too high for anyone in the presidential office are no proper criterion for evaluation. Besides, despite enormous blows to our banking, investment, and transportation systems, the decisive steps President Bush took allowed our economy not only to recoup the dreadful financial losses of September 11 but also to climb unparalleled heights.
You can see much of this come together in the State of the Union address this January. All day before his address, the press was picturing a president disrespected, unloved, a helpless failure, one of the worst presidents ever. So it was startling when Bush, from his gracious compliment to the new Speaker of the House, faced a suddenly attentive”and frequently applauding”audience. Some, it is true, hated to be applauding him. But the way the president put his points made it very costly for them not to rise.
Two-thirds of the viewing audience, the networks reported, were either Democrats or Independents (probably because of the new Speaker). Startling, then, were the polls showing that an astonishing majority”78 percent”had a positive reaction to the speech. In another surprising turn, those approving the president’s decision to increase troop levels in Iraq jumped from 43 percent to 52 percent. The president hit on a rhetorical style, which he has not quite used before, that suits him very well”a much more plain-spoken, direct, unvarnished way of speaking, considerably less poetic than his most famous speeches.
More, he used half his speech to occupy what some think of as Democrat territory: the environment, energy policy, a comprehensive immigration policy, and health insurance. True enough, given the new majority in both houses, he seemed to go too far in the statist direction on the first three (although, reading between the lines, one could see his reliance on private enterprise). On the fourth, he did take a large step toward individualizing a more competitive health-insurance system.
The single most dominant issue we face remains the threat from Jihadism. The ugly words broadcast by the Jihadists may seem mad, but they are matched by steady actions upon a worldwide front. Their stated aim is forcibly to convert us to Islam or to exterminate us until the caliphate stretches around the world: one religion, one polity. President Bush addressed this threat with the greatest simplicity and power he has ever brought to the subject. A great many do not see the danger as President Bush does. They certainly do not recognize what bin Laden and his lieutenants have often declared”that Iraq is today the front line in that jihad. Some in America seem ready to withdraw U.S. troops. They seem willing to prove bin Laden’s maxim that in any protracted fight, the United States is the weak horse, and the Jihadists are the strong horse, which is the only one that people respect.
I admit that I nearly always love the nuances of political rhetoric, even when delivered by politicians whose policies I oppose. For instance, I was grabbed by this year’s response to Bush’s speech by Jim Webb, even though I despise many of his arguments. So I am probably the least exigent of critics of political discourse. Still, I don’t remember many addresses in which a president faced such a high mountain of opposition. And I will never forget the scenes afterward, in which even the most intense public opponents of the president lined the exit aisle, holding out their programs for him to sign. For nearly ten minutes the banter flowed, backs were warmly slapped, and geniality appeared to reign.
Of course, Washington is a city in which (as the old joke goes) no one takes friendship personally. Yet it is also a city in which widely scorned bravery, such as Harry Truman’s, has appeared in the most modest of persons and years later come to be cherished. Often enough, the nation’s public leaders have been burned in effigy on the spots where their gleaming statues are later paid respect. If the reputation of President Bush meets such a fate, his 2007 State of the Union address just might be seen as one of the modest pivots on which that turn began slowly to revolve.
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.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things . Michael Novak , who holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, is a member of the editorial board of First Things .
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