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The Bush Dilemma
If the president is willing to take risks abroad, why won't he do it at home?


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Victor Davis Hanson

Recent developments in the Middle East–whether democratic unrest in Lebanon, Syrian vows to keep within its own borders, promises of elections in Egypt, or Sunni clerics’ professions that they may cease opposition to the elected Iraqi government–should be welcome to the American people and substantiate the unfairly caricatured Middle East policies of the Bush administration.

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Who would have believed a year ago that there would now be headlines reading, “Was George Bush Right?” in the European left-wing newspapers, or admissions in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Republic that the removal of Saddam Hussein and the efforts at democratization of the Middle East might have been right all along?

We are at the crossroads of history, thanks largely to the resoluteness of the United States military and its commander-in-chief. Contrary to the advice of D.C. pundits, CIA apparatchiks, and the beltway brain trust, the president grasped that Islamic fascism was not a criminal justice matter. Nor was the plague of fundamentalism to be redressed through a Marshall Plan of American largess. Stopping bin Laden was certainly not grounds for appeasing Yasser Arafat or Wahhabist Saudi Arabia.

Rather, al Qaeda was best understood as an inevitable symptom of a larger Middle East disease, endemic to the region’s failed autocracy and cured only by real transparency that follows from democratic reform. Note too that all the past expert advice–set a time-table for withdrawal, delay the elections, trisect the country, invite in “moderate” Sunni participants from neighboring countries, and turn over the “occupation” to the U.N.–has in retrospect proved flawed and is now quietly abandoned.

Yet after the president’s successful reelection, and the stunning news of the Iraqi voting and its encouraging aftershocks in the region, George Bush enjoys little more than a 50 percent approval rating. Unemployment is low. Inflation remains moderate. Interest rates are affordable, and real growth is strong, Why, then, the discontent?

Perhaps the wear and tear of being targeted by elites for nearly five years, from Michael Moore to the New York Times, has taken its toll. Or perhaps the casualties from the Iraq war and hysteria over Social Security reform explain the discontent. It is said that the Terri Shiavo matter did not win the president American support either.

Perhaps. But I think the answer lies instead in a strange paradox of George W. Bush and the optimistic prospects he has raised about solving problems of the first order. The President has shown himself so resolute in matters of foreign policy that he has raised the bar of his expected performance on the home front.

That is, by standing nearly alone in the Middle East, by never wavering in the face of unprecedented venom, and by weathering everything from Abu Ghraib to the televised beheadings, Bush has established himself a man of principle who welcomes the chance to offer unpopular but needed solutions to real crises.

But, on the domestic front, there are at least three critical issues that engage Americans Left and Right–and right now Social Security reform, as salutary as it could be, is unfortunately not one of them. In contrast, worry about long-term American financial strength, illegal immigration, and soaring energy prices most surely are.

If Jimmy Carter, Bush I, or Bill Clinton were president, most Americans would shrug that these are impracticable problems. But not with George W. Bush, whose forcefulness abroad makes us think he will similarly swagger in and solve equally unpopular dilemmas at home.

No doubt free-market economists are right in the long run that tax cuts will free up and grow the economy. I concede that their controversial, though often unspoken idea of “starving the beast” of spiraling entitlements through deficits might have a perverse logic as well. Who can disagree that a weak dollar helps U.S. imports, or that the export economies of China and Japan have little choice but to keep lending us money to buy on credit their plethora of consumer goods?

All that is fine and good. But it does not convince the average American that his wartime government is strong, principled, and disciplined–not when he reads of record debts and deficits, and hears ad nauseam international worries about a chronically weak American currency.

You see, we are all creatures of the heart as well as of the mind. Thus, at a time of war, we wish for our country to appear as strong financially as it appears militarily, and for our tough president to be backed as much by a respectable dollar as by our singular military. Perhaps we wish to believe that the USS Abraham Lincoln is the reification of a fat trade surplus, or that a country that can take out Saddam and the Taliban in mere weeks can do so because it prefers surpluses to deficits and is as disciplined with its checkbook as it is with its soldiers.

Similarly, we don’t need any more lectures from economists–accurate and commonsensical though they are–that in real dollars a $2.50 gallon of gas is actually cheaper than what we paid in the dark days of the late 1970s during various embargos, or that the present economy is not so dependent on fossil fuels in its postmodern age.

Instead, we are folk of emotion as well as reason, and we simply don’t like seeing our gas prices soar while we borrow money to pay billions to illegitimate regimes who recycle those dollars in ways that often hurt the United States. Every time an American fills up at the pump, he is reminded not that it is a good deal compared to prices in Japan or Europe, but that the billons we send abroad for $55-a-barrel oil are insults to our pride as well as to our pocket books–and so we wish it all to stop, pronto.

Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to the National Council of La Raza assures us that open borders offer a cure for the demographic crisis of an affluent West, ensure cheap laborers, and reflect a confident multicultural society. Once again: Perhaps.

But a growing number of Americans simply doesn’t like the idea that their laws are not enforced but mocked. They bristle at lectures about national security’s not applying to a porous 1,500-mile border. And they go ballistic when a failed Mexican president hectors Americans about how insensitive and callous they are to be concerned about their own sovereignty–and all this from a corrupt government that can neither feed nor house its own people, depends on billions from U.S. worker remittances to stay afloat, and publishes illustrated guides for its emigrating population on how to thwart American laws.

In short, the president’s critical strength–his bravery in the face of bitter status-quo invective, his worry more over history’s verdict than polls of the hour, and his concern over the honor, rather than the mere happiness, of the American people–is either being untapped or is dissipated here at home.

The Social Security remedy was perhaps not the proper arena for the president’s resoluteness, because for all the logic of his much-needed correctives, the national debt will soar even more in the short term under his proposed reforms. However unfairly, personal accounts are seen as an addendum rather than as an alternative to a flabby and inequitable present system: We are all promised more borrowed money rather than asked to tighten our belts and either pay more in or take less out. That is the image of old-style, 1960s Democrats, not conservatives.

Americans do not wish to read daily the caricatures that they are profligate, greedy, short-changing their grandchildren, inordinately consuming the world’s resources, and flooding the globe with funny money–not when in their own lives they still pride themselves on working harder than anyone abroad and balancing their bank accounts.

Again, this is a matter of perception that goes to the heart of the pride of being an American citizen and cannot be addressed simply by cold reason, with its talks about the long-term benefits of open borders and the advantages of a weak currency and deficit spending. Americans could in theory believe all that, but they will never like it–and are coming to resent it.

Instead, we all wish to rise to the occasion to restore American financial credibility, to reestablish the autonomy of our energy supplies, and to recapture the ideal of legal citizenship that entails unique rights and responsibilities within definable and recognized sovereign borders.

After the first four years, even the president’s critics expect him to take on tough issues and offer controversial solutions. Calling for bipartisan efforts to cap federal spending and balance the budget, craft an energy policy involving more alternative and traditional domestic fuel sources (coupled with conservation and nuclear power), and close the borders to illegal immigration, fine employers who break the law, end ethnic Balkanization and state-subsidized bilingualism, and return immigration policy to equity and legality–all that is what we might have expected of someone who remade the Middle East.

How odd that the more risk-taking and principled the administration’s sense of purpose abroad, the more we demand the same at home–and thus feel it sorely when such tough leadership on what matters most to Americans is wanting. And that, I think, explains the paradox of why a president, in the midst of crafting one of the most successful foreign policies since World War II, can only convince half the population that they are, in fact, living in historic times.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.



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