EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the November 8, 2004, issue of National Review.
In his bid for reelection, George W. Bush deserves the support of conservatives. His presidency has not turned out as anyone expected. The country was struck hard early in his term. He rose to the occasion. The terrorists had to be hunted down, and our defenses had to be strengthened: On these points there was a consensus. Bush took a fateful, and necessary, further step: The political culture of the Middle East had to be changed as well, lest it incubate more terrorists. Bush has overseen progress on all three fronts. Afghanistan is no longer a secure base for terrorists. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan seem to be responding, ever so slowly and inadequately, to American pressure to side with us in the war on terrorism. The Pakistani nuclear bazaar has been shut down. Libya has agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq is no longer a threat to our interests in the region, and the country has begun to take its first halting steps toward decent self-government. Law enforcement has gotten new tools with which to investigate and deter terrorist plots. Bush has reduced the gravest threat we face, that of terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.
#ad#There have been mistakes along the way. Bush relied on flawed intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. When the error became apparent, he did not admit it forthrightly and explain to the American public why regime change was nonetheless necessary. Bush allowed bickering between departments of his administration to complicate post-war operations. He backed off in Fallujah in April, with grave consequences. Bush’s diplomacy toward Europe has lacked vigor and far-sightedness. If Bush understands that continued European integration would deprive us of many of the allies we still have, he has shown no evidence of it. The ideological component of the war on terrorism should be stronger.
Yet Bush has shown evidence of being able to learn from his mistakes. We have made political strides in Iraq, the most visible one being the handover of power to a friendly government. Military progress has taken place in Najaf, and may soon in Fallujah. Most important, Bush has resisted considerable pressure to abandon Iraq to the killers. And the soundness of his strategy would outweigh tactical errors much larger than any he has made.
We remain convinced that President Bush’s most important foreign-policy decision — the decision to invade Iraq — was the right one. The status quo, in which the U.S. kept troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, enforced the no-fly zone, and tried to fight foreign efforts to weaken sanctions on Saddam, was unsustainable. The regime would sooner or later have emerged from sanctions to wreak havoc. Its record included gassing the Kurds, provoking a war with us, and attempting to assassinate one of our former presidents. Its reigning ideology was both expansionist and anti-American. Finally, its elimination created the opportunity to begin to change the region in ways favorable to America’s long-term security.
The Clinton administration dealt with gathering threats by deferring confrontation — by kicking the can down the road. That was its pattern in North Korea and Iraq, and it is still John Kerry’s position on Iran. President Bush has preferred to address threats now, even at some risk. The situation in North Korea remains perilous. But Bush has had more success than the critics expected at assembling a coalition, including China, to constrain Pyongyang, and at prodding the Europeans to wake up to the Iranian threat.
Contrast this approach to that of the challenger. In his foreign policy, as in his cultural politics, Kerry is one of the most liberal men a major party has ever nominated. He is deeply suspicious of American power. And his approach to the Iraq war has not been notably public-spirited.
Bush risked his presidency on the Iraq war. Kerry has risked nothing. He kept his options open, positioning himself to be able to say he supported the war if it proved successful and that he opposed it if not. On his own telling, he voted to let Bush threaten Iraq with war. But the French proving recalcitrant, and dragging Germany and the U.N. Security Council with them, Kerry thinks that Bush should not have actually gone to war. What Kerry voted for, in other words, was an empty threat. After the war, he voted against funding the reconstruction effort — just weeks after saying such a vote would be “reckless” and “irresponsible.” Perhaps there is room for electoral calculation in foreign policy, but the level of cynicism displayed here goes well beyond the normal bounds.
Kerry believes that Bush has been too unilateralist, too dismissive of allies. There may be some truth to this. But many of the things Bush has done to offend Europe were necessary and right. He withdrew from the ABM treaty, said no to Kyoto, and said an equally firm no to the International Criminal Court. In so doing, he protected American security, the American economy, and American sovereignty. Kerry’s alternative approach to Europe — deferring as a matter of principle to the French and the EU — would be folly. (To be more precise, the Kerry alternative is to defer to the Europeans except on trade, where he would defer instead to the labor unions.) Alliances are a means, not an end. In Iraq, we suspect that Kerry’s real policy would be to quit prematurely. That is what his party wants, and it is the logic of his underlying view that the battle there is a diversion from our true interests.
Bush deserves conservative support, as well, on domestic issues. We are well aware of all the legitimate conservative criticisms that can be made of his record, having made them ourselves. On campaign finance, on education, on immigration, and above all on spending he has disappointed us, sometimes deeply. In a second term we will urge him to do better — and urge congressional Republicans to insist on it.
But the president cut income-tax rates for the first time in 15 years. His tax cuts probably softened the recession he inherited. They also improved the structure of the tax code, which will no longer be as biased against savings and investment. The president has given official support, for the first time, to a reform of Social Security based on private investment. That reform, if enacted in Bush’s second term, could reduce federal spending over the long term so substantially that the recent budget increases would begin to seem like a rounding error. After decades in which Republicans either neglected health care or acquiesced in liberal policies, Bush enacted the robust free-market reform of health savings accounts, which may arrest and even reverse our long drift toward socialized medicine.
In his nominations, Bush has sought to move the federal judiciary toward a properly restrained view of its role. If the Democrats retake the White House, school choice could well be ruled unconstitutional, the people’s right to decide whether to impose the death penalty could be substantially restricted, and the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion will continue to be protected from the bench. Bush has gone far, within the bounds of political possibility, to address the injustice of abortion and other assaults on nascent human life. And he has tried to prevent the courts from assuming even more power, by supporting a constitutional amendment to keep them from redefining marriage.
We cannot guarantee that in a second term, Bush would nominate judicial conservatives to the Supreme Court, or press for Social Security reform, or fight the war on terrorism with intelligence and firmness of purpose — nor that he would succeed if he did those things. But his willingness to embrace startling changes, to ignore his media critics, and to set conservative priorities argues in favor of optimism. He is certainly more likely to promote these conservative policies than John Kerry would be. Kerry’s top domestic priorities appear to be to raise the top marginal tax rates, to appoint liberal judges, to fund research that clones and then kills human embryos, and to expand government control over health-care markets.
It has been a long and difficult four years, largely as a result of events not of Bush’s making. For conservatives, however, backing Bush’s reelection should be an easy decision.