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Thursday, July 27, 2006 - Bush Gut Check

July 26, 2006

Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.

When President Bush was caught on tape saying to Tony Blair, “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over,” more than a few progressives said to themselves, “Well that’s a trenchant analysis of the situation, Sherlock.” And more than a few conservatives said, “Damn straight”—or as Michelle Malkin put it, “Sometimes, profanity is called for.”

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Not that in mid-2006 anyone needed more proof that Bush is, depending on your perspective, either a simpleton or an admirably forthright straight talker who cuts to the chase. But as more and more evidence of the administration’s incompetence and hubris is revealed, we are presented with more proof that under George W. Bush, U.S. policies are governed by a strange amalgam of impulse and fantasy.

As Newsweek told us this week, Bush “still trusts his gut to tell him what's right, and he still expects others to follow his lead.” One might have thought Bush would have learned by now to view the proclamations of his gut with some suspicion—but then, that would be asking the president to rely on evidence and experience to make conclusions.

And it isn’t only friendly reporters like those at Newsweek who have noted the way policy is dictated by The Decider’s intestinal rumblings. One of the many disturbing pictures that emerges from Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine, is the way Bush’s preference for making decisions not on the basis of facts and analysis but on his “gut” meshed so perfectly with Dick Cheney’s desire not to let facts and analysis get in the way of his visions of empire. The two were perfect partners, and when 9/11 happened, it was like the pins of a combination lock clicking securely into place in Bush’s mind. Everything made sense—there are evildoers out there, and his divinely appointed mission is to smite them. (If you’ve wondered why Bush has such affection for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, all you need to know is that at their first meeting, Koizumi said Bush reminded him of Gary Cooper.)

For his part, Cheney was finally unbound, free to bend the government to his will. The presidency—and of course, the vice presidency—need no longer be constrained by petty bureaucrats with their “analysis” and their “laws.” If we wanted to invade Iraq, we’d damn sure invade Iraq, and if we wanted to say it was because they were about to attack us with their fearsome arsenal of weapons, well that’s what we’d say.

A few days ago William Kristol, who is as responsible as anyone outside the Bush administration for the neocon dream of creating an empire in the Middle East—which has become the now-familiar nightmare—made clear his preference for military action against Iran, sooner rather than later. And not only that, once we start dropping bombs, the Iranian people will do their part and rise up to overthrow their government. “The right use of targeted military force,” Kristol told Fox News, “could cause them to reconsider whether they really want to have this regime in power.”

That Kristol could make such a prediction without getting laughed out of Washington, never to be invited on television again, tells us something about the miasma of inanity and insanity that envelopes our politics like a fog. Being wrong—or being an outright fool, or being possessed of not a shred of morality, for that matter—carries no cost. Only being “weak”—that is, insufficiently enthusiastic about spilling others’ blood—will earn you the contempt of the Washington establishment.

Why? Because that establishment, both governmental and journalistic, is ruled by weenies. They burn to show that they’re real men, that they’re tough and strong and mean, that they don’t cower from a fight, that they’re the ones who get going when the going gets tough. Washington is an arena of institutional and ideological competition, but it is also a throbbing mass of insecurities.

We sometimes see it as ironic that those calling for the most bellicose foreign policy are almost invariably those both in and out of government, like Bush and Cheney and Gingrich and DeLay and Limbaugh and O’Reilly, who never served in the military and never got within a thousand miles of combat. But it is not ironic at all; in fact, it is absolutely predictable. Combine a personal history devoid of evidence that one’s manliness has been tested (let alone proven) with an ideology inclined to divide the world into enemies and friends, and you have a recipe for frantic muscle-flexing.

Those with actual military experience, on the other hand, have been of late far more hesitant to beat the war drums. For one thing, they tend to have a better understanding of how easily things can go wrong when you start lobbing ordnance around. But they also seem to feel the need to prove their manhood far less urgently.

In 2004, Dick Cheney reacted to John Kerry’s suggestion that in the war on terror we had to be “sensitive” to our allies’ concerns by responding contemptuously, “He talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror, as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side.” No one asked just why Cheney was so concerned with “impressing” al-Qaida.

But listen to Republican rhetoric and it begins to seem as though they are practically obsessed with how the terrorists think about us. Are they impressed? Do they think we’re weak, or do they think we’re strong? Have we sent them the right message? Indeed, there may be no justification for failed policy offered more frequently than the need to send the right message. And while we’re sending messages to al-Qaida, we’d better send some messages to the troops. Look at some of the things George Bush said during the first presidential debate in 2004:

What kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, wrong war, wrong place, wrong time? Not a message a commander in chief gives... I know we won't achieve if we send mixed signals… The way to make sure that we succeed is to send consistent, sound messages to the Iraqi people… But by speaking clearly and sending messages that we mean what we say, we've affected the world in a positive way.

Some might wonder why it is that all this posturing, message-sending, and attempts to look “tough” are so seldom seen for what they truly are. The answer is partly repetition: say that Bush is “strong” and “bold” and “resolute” enough times, and after a while it becomes part of how people think about him. That includes reporters, who fancy themselves cynical enough to see through the theater to the truth, but end up eating the image-making with a spoon.

As each new development occurs, they place it in the context of what they already believe. So when Bush changes his mind about something, he’s not a weak flip-flopper but a smart politician who tempers his unquestioned strength with realism. And his reliance on his “gut” is evidence of a man who knows what he believes.

As we move into the 2008 election, reporters will once again begin plumbing the candidates’ personal psychology to determine their “character.” This is critical work, which makes it all the more galling that they so often miss the mark. Think about the 2000 race, in which we were told that Bush was dumb and Gore was a liar. We saw who the liar turned out to be. But the real question with Bush was not whether he could pass a current-events quiz, but whether his Manichean worldview, his tendency to over-simplify, and his burning desire to show his father he’s a real man might have dire consequences for our country and the world.

As for the current Republican front-runner, John McCain, his solution to the quagmire in Iraq, as he told an audience at a fundraiser two months ago, is this: “One of the things I would do if I were president would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit.’” You might say those are the words of someone possessed of a truly epic and dangerous naïveté. Or you might say it shows him to be a strong, straight-talking kinda guy. Want to guess what the reporters who will be covering the 2008 campaign think?
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