The Case for Bush: He’s Right on the War

There is much to say about John Kerry, and I hope to say some of it in my last pre-election column. But the focus of a wartime election is necessarily on the incumbent. He is the commander in chief. The big plans are his. His appointees, the military and the enemy all play their parts, but he is the only one we get to vote for or against. John Kerry cannot win this election; George W. Bush can lose it. Two weeks ago, I reviewed Mr. Bush’s failings in the Terror War. What are his virtues? How are they and his failings linked?

The April 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly carried an article of mine called “The Mind of George W. Bush.” It was not, Democrats will be disappointed to learn, a short article. It was finished just before the United States invaded Iraq—ages ago in our frantic consciousness—yet there is nothing important in it that I would change.

One of the keys to Mr. Bush is that he defines himself as a manager. Almost uniquely among modern politicians, he went to business school, and in his 40’s he saw his father’s dysfunctional White House staff first hand.

As a result, he puts great stress on a well-functioning team. His right-hand man is another manager: Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. Key players have worked together a long time: Donald Rumsfeld is another veteran of the Ford administration; Mr. Cheney and Colin Powell are veterans of Bush I. He gives them great responsibility, but also keeps a leash on them and knows how to pick their brains. One of my sources told me that, unlike most politicians, George W. Bush never asked a question to show how smart he was (cf. Bill Clinton); he only wanted information.

These traits carry their own limitations. Mr. Bush is loyal to his team, but he can carry loyalty too far. George Tenet is not personally responsible for underrating Osama bin Laden and for overrating Saddam’s W.M.D. program. But the HUMINT-starved intelligence culture that Mr. Tenet presided over was. In relying on Mr. Tenet for so long, Mr. Bush relied on it.

Would Mr. Bush change anything in his second term? One of his managerial qualities suggests that he might. Mr. Bush believes in follow-through. He doesn’t set off Roman candles in a field at night, then drive away in his muscle car (cf. Bill Clinton, again). When things go wrong, Mr. Bush is unhappy, and he generally wants to set them right.

Management is a matter of technique, albeit very important techniques when the firm to be managed is U.S. Corp. But the thing about Mr. Bush that most inspires his supporters and most distresses his critics (his intelligent critics—not the ones who think that Karl Rove gives him commands through an earpiece) is his religious and moral certainty. The sentence in my Atlantic article that caused the most alarm came in a discussion of Mr. Bush the born again:

“Practically, Bush’s faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey.” This drives a certain kind of modern person apeshit. One of my friends has a bumper-sticker that warns, “Religion ruled the dark ages”—although, since she is a Wiccan high priestess, she is not opposed to all religions.

I don’t think Mr. Bush believes that God gave him his Iraq policy. I do think he believes that God wants men to be free, and that He smiles on America when it defends freedom. I think Mr. Bush also believes that God allows nations to defend themselves, so long as they do it justly. So the line from Mr. Bush’s creed to his war policies is not that long.

Mr. Bush highlighted this issue at the end of the second Presidential debate when he was asked to say what three decisions of his had been wrong, and what he had done to correct them. The developing media shorthand is that Mr. Bush denied that he had ever done anything wrong. What he actually said was this:

“I have made a lot of decisions … some of them little, like appointments to boards you never heard of, and some of them big. And in a war … there’s a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back [on] and say: ‘He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have made that decision.’ And I’ll take responsibility for them. I’m human.

“But on the big questions … whether or not we should have gone into Afghanistan … whether we should have removed somebody in Iraq, I’ll stand by those decisions, because I think they’re right.

” … [W]hen they ask about the mistakes, that’s what they’re talking about. They’re trying to say, ‘Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?’ And the answer is, absolutely not. It was the right decision.”

This is not sparkling, except for the tart understatement of “remov[ing] somebody” in Iraq. But it is subtle enough, as far as means are concerned. Mr. Bush has made mistakes, and will make more. He will not discuss them in medias res, or in the format of a Presidential debate. When the Japanese sunk the Prince of Wales and the Repulse shortly after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons the bad news, threatened vengeance “which will not be forgotten in the records of a thousand years,” and declined “to discuss the resulting situation in the Far East … or the measures which must be taken to restore it.” In other words, he said the obvious, he blustered a bit, and he said nothing else.

But on the heart of the question, Mr. Bush was unbudgeable. He correctly identified the heart as Iraq. (What other mistakes do we care about—hiring, or firing, Paul O’Neill?) And this he stands by.

Is he right to do so? The Duelfer report has been consoling both sides. Opponents of the war, from John Kerry to the earpiece brigades, have fastened on its conclusion that Saddam’s W.M.D. program had fallen into ruins. Supporters of the war have fastened on Duelfer’s confirmation that Saddam was milking billions from the U.N.’s oil-for-food program; that some of those billions were going into the conventional-arms market, while others went to the pockets of French, Russian and Chinese bigwigs (Security Council nations that could keep Saddam safe, and ultimately push to lift sanctions); and that Saddam intended, the moment the heat was off, to go back to his beloved W.M.D. once more. Mr. Bush and Tony Blair misstated their case to the U.N., but the reality, post-9/11, was quite bad enough.

If you believe that Saddam was a threat; if you believe that there are more threats in the offing; and if you believe that Mr. Bush’s response was on the plus side of mixed and could improve, then Mr. Bush deserves re-election.