February 15, 2003


The Crude Crusader (Richard Cohen, February 11, 2003, Washington Post)
It's not that I don't think [George W. Bush] is right about Saddam Hussein and, if need be, the necessity to deal with him through war. It's rather that I see America going to war; he sees us embarking on a crusade. His cause is right because he feels right about it.

The rest of the world, particularly Western Europe, recoils from that approach. It senses in Bush's body language, not to mention his oft-repeated references to God, a man who is tone deaf to subtleties and nuances -- "In Texas, we don't do nuance," he once told CNN's Candy Crowley -- and whose speech evinces not suppleness but a certain crudeness. Even in the high formality of the State of the Union address, he said of al Qaeda terrorists who had been killed, "Let's put it this way, they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies." It was a rhetorical smirk.

Recently, Bush has been telling us something in his walk. It is virtually a strut, the parade-walk of a man who has puffed himself up to show determination, leadership -- something like that. Whatever it is, it is not welcoming. It has a "no trespassing" sign all over it.

Bush's rigidity can come across as smugness. This has always been his least appealing quality, and it was on display, or so I was told, at a lunch he had for network anchors before the State of the Union message. He reportedly came across as cocky, not so much sure of himself as too sure of himself.

It has taken an iron sense of mission for Bush to confront the United Nations -- not just Saddam Hussein -- with its obligations. Another man might not have done as well. But this narrowness of focus is disquieting, because it suggests that Bush does not see the bigger picture. Is Iraq so pressing a menace that the imminence of a North Korean bomb can be put on the back burner? Is the Israeli-Arab conflict peripheral or, just maybe, central to what's happening in the Middle East? How does going to war with Iraq fit in with America's other challenges?

Maybe this single-mindedness of the president's is the product of his deep religious belief -- the conviction that he has been chosen for the task of decking Hussein. This, too, is unsettling, especially in Europe, which is much more secular than America. Destiny and providence are a siren's call that assures some, unnerves others. "I have been saved, destiny has chosen me, providence has preserved me," said Adolf Hitler after he survived an assassination attempt.

By no stretch of the imagination am I putting Bush in the same category as Hitler.

No, not at all--where would we get that impression?

Here though is the interesting thing about this type of analysis of George W. Bush and his administration--an analysis by no means unique to Mr. Cohen: he thinks the current conflict is about Saddam Hussein personally and says that Mr. Bush, who thinks it's about the lack of Western values (like democracy) in the Middle East (and North Korea), has too narrow a focus. If you can make sense of that we'd welcome an explanation. It strikes us that such critics have a rather shallow, People Magazine-style, understanding of what's going on in the world, while the Administration has adopted a deeper clash of civilizations view. This does in fact give the war on terror the savor of a crusade, but it also grounds it in ideas rather than personalities. Meanwhile, we wonder whether it's really appropriate for someone who's entire vision consists of "Saddam is bad" to be criticizing someone for lack of nuance who opposes the entire form of repression that Saddam is merely a representative of, even if the worst representative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2003 7:10 AM

The 90s were great for liberals, who remained as unserious about foreign policy as ever, because they were largely able to avoid the topic. So long as Jim Cramer's stock picks were flying high, why would he care about international politics (he has since changed his view, very much to his credit)? But now they are forced by events to care again, because, interestingly enough, the populace is concerned about the threat posed from fanatics abroad at least as much as prescription healthcare for the old folks -- and the old weaknesses of the left on foreign affairs are highlighted daily (the return of the liberal crackup).

Posted by: Kevin Whited at February 15, 2003 10:58 AM

I'm disappointed the writer didn't mention what Mr. bush was wearing; and what that would indicate to him. Perhaps a comment, at least, on his selection of tie color and its meaning. Great column otherwise.

Posted by: Genecis at February 15, 2003 2:28 PM