Friday, May 24, 2002

WHY I DON'T TRUST PRESIDENT BUSH -- EVEN THOUGH I DO: George W. Bush -- his enemies underestimate him, and his friends never quite trust him. Case in point: Andrew Sullivan's reaction ("IS BUSH SURRENDERING?") to this Washington Post report that military bureaucrats don't want war against Iraq and think they've persuaded the President to abandon plans for military action against the Hussein regime. Of course, Sullivan shoots from the hip on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while the rest of the week he knows bureaucratic infighting is what makes the Executive Branch work and thinks President Bush masterfully balances competing advisors and interests. So by tomorrow, he may be arguing -- and finding ample support in the Post article -- that some top Pentagon brass have mistaken the lack of any final decision from the White House on Iraq for acquiesence, are over-playing their hand, and will get a good thrashing from SecDef Rummy in due course. The peacetime military has always been full of unimaginative, risk-averse senior officers; we can hope, maybe even expect, that war will weed them out. (See, e.g., McCellan v. Grant and Sherman; but see Eisenhower and Marshall v. Patton.) The problem is, I'm not sure I believe that argument, which brings me back to my original point: many friends of the President, one of which I count myself, just don't trust him. Where does this distrust come from? For me, it all goes back to candiate Bush's absurd campaign theme, "compassionate conservatism." It was just what his dad did, define himself not against his ideological opponents on the Left, but against the Left's caricature of the Right, as "mean-spirited," "greedy," and "uncompassionate" villains. By defining himself as a "compassionate conservative," Bush implied that some conservatives weren't, and turned them into a straw man to beat the crap out of for the benefit of an adoring press -- all the while expecting them to vote for him. It was cynical and opportunistic. But it worked. I distrusted George W. Bush in 2000 because he took conservatives' loyalty for granted so that he could try to win votes from moderates, but he squeaked by the incumbent vice-president in a popular administration in a time of economic plenty. I distrust him now because he sold out free trade for the long-shot of winning votes in the steel belt, because he refuses to explicitly embrace Israel's war against terror as our own, and because he hasn't come out and said we're going to overthrow Hussein, occupy Iraq,and rebuild it in our image. I doubt selling out on steel tariffs will matter one whit this Fall (although signing the odious farm bill probably will). But I do know that Arafat wet his pants with fury as Sharon demolished his plutocracy and killed and jailed his supporters -- as George Bush demanded immediate withdrawal from one side of his mouth, while praising Sharon's non-cooperation as cooperation from the other. It was cynical and opportunistic. But it worked. Now I don't trust President Bush to go to war with Iraq. Colin Powell, the man who advised Bush I how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in 1991, has Bush II's ear. The military brass, too afraid of failure to risk victory, are bragging to reporters that the "Iraq hysteria" of some senior Bush administration officials has been "diffused" by their sobering predictions that war would require hundreds of thousands of men and entail great risk. Meanwhile, the EU-nuchs demand "consultation" (rhymes with "emasculation") and counsel appeasement and weapons inspectors over wary, and the President responds by saying "I have no war plans on my desk" ("He said it almost proudly," Andrew Sullivan complains). How could I trust the President to do the right thing? And yet, past performance indicates that George W. Bush will probably do the right thing. The State Department will take his indecision for "restraint," the brass for inertia, and the EU-nuchs for cowardice ("After all, that's why we're indecisive"). Then we'll collectively glance at the news ticker for the latest on Chandra Levy and look up to see live video of American G.I.s and their Iraqi rebel allies marching into Baghdad as a joyful mob hangs Saddam Hussein's bullet-riddled corpse from the nearest lamp post. (But I still won't trust the President to manage the occupation.) In a war that has induced a popular craving for principle and moral clarity, pragmatism looks cheap and cynical and engenders distrust. But as long as George W. Bush's "conservative pragmatism" wins the war, the occasional distrust of his friends will be a fair price to pay.

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