In person, George W. Bush is extremely forceful. He has a restless energy when he sits in a chair, and nearly leaps out of it when making certain points. Yesterday, in an on-the-record session with a few journalists in the Oval Office, he untwisted (what looked like) a paper clip as he talked, then twisted it around his finger until it was in a little bow, like a reminder of something.
He exudes an easy self-confidence. When he mispronounces a word or comes out with some malapropism, he asks what the correct expression is or makes fun of himself. He often slips self-deprecating lines or amusing comments into his answers. A woman whose job it is to sit off to the side unobtrusively and record the session for posterity with a large mike — and who must be very accustomed to listening to him talk — can’t help breaking into a smile at regular intervals.
Bush’s confidence goes well beyond comfort in his own skin. He exhibits a sincere, passionate, and uncompromising conviction in his principles. He is arguably losing a war in Iraq that could destroy his hopes for the Middle East and sink his party’s hope in the midterm elections. But there’s no wobble in Bush. If anything, the opposite.
Basically right after “hello,” the next words out of his mouth are: “Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions. I firmly believe — I’m oftentimes asked about, well, you’re stubborn and all this. If you believe in a strategy, in Washington, D.C. you’ve got to stick to that strategy, see. People want you to change. It’s tactics that shift, but the strategic vision has not, and will not, shift.”
Never been more convinced. It’s that kind of certainty that drives Bush’s critics batty. For Bush, it is essential to meaningful governance: “If you don’t have a set of principles to fall back on, you flounder, and it matters. It creates waves, and the waves rock the decision-making process. I’ve just got a set of principles I believe in. And I tell people out there when I speak to them, I say, one thing about my presidency is when I get home — and home is Texas — I’m going to look in the mirror and say, ‘The same set of principles that were etched in my heart when I told the people in 2000 what I believe are still there.’ That may be — tactics are different, you adjust, you make different decisions. But the principles are inviolate.”
When he talks about principles these days, of course, Bush is mainly thinking about the War on Terror. He repeatedly says that the war is an ideological struggle, and liberty is our best ideological weapon. He makes as good a brief, informal explanation of the negative and positive aspects — both necessary, in his view — of the War on Terror as you will hear: “The issue and debate is, can liberty work? That’s really the fundamental question in many ways in the long-term strategy. Short-term strategy is to deny: Deny safe haven, deny money, deny weapons, and get them. The long-term strategy is to change the conditions that enable this ideology to flourish, to out-compete it with better ideas. And that’s the fundamental — the fundamental question of my approach.”
Where critics see the radical attacks on the forces of moderation and liberty — in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere — as evidence of the looming failure of Bush’s long-term strategy, the president sees them as confirmation of the essential rightness of his vision: “The ideological struggle is being manifested as radicals attack young democracies. The attack of Hezbollah is destabilizing for Lebanon. That’s where much of the focus has been. But it also destabilized the emergence of a Palestinian democracy. And it should be — it’s noteworthy that extremists and radicals flocked to Iraq to stop the emergence of a democracy. And it’s just — people say, well, all these problems are overwhelming. No, all these problems help remind us what the task is.”
The most important attack on a young democracy is taking place in Iraq, of course. I had this exchange with Bush about troop levels there:
Q: Mr. President, you said last night that the safety of Americans depends on the battle in the streets of Baghdad. If that’s the case — and I believe it is — why wouldn’t you send more, even more troops than we are now to Baghdad to ensure that you actually win that battle?
BUSH: We just moved a Stryker Brigade from Mosul, as you know, to Baghdad. I think we’ve now got 147,000 troops in the theater. The answer to that question is, if General Casey feels like he needs more troops, we’ll send them.
You know, it’s interesting, I guess if you’re 60 years old you tend to be a product of the Vietnam era — you are a product of Vietnam — not tend to be, you are a product of the Vietnam era. I remember the tactical decisions being made out of the White House during that period of time. I thought it was a mistake then and I think it’s a mistake now. And, therefore, a President must have confidence and faith in the people who are actually there determining whether or not our strategy — our tactics are going to achieve the objective, which is a free country that can sustain itself, govern itself and defend itself. General Casey — I’m constantly asking General Casey that question. I’ve got direct contact with him through secure video.
Q: What if he’s wrong?
BUSH: Then I picked the wrong general.
Q: You wouldn’t override his decision in any instance?
BUSH: Well, how — I mean — I query him thoroughly. I’m certainly not a military expert, nor am I in Baghdad. I talk to Zal [Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador] all the time. In other words, we get — and I ask for data. So I know how to ask questions. I think I’m pretty good about filtering out which is real and which is not. I mean, in this job you tend to get the cook’s tour. And if he’s wrong, I’m wrong.
This is a mistaken lesson to draw from Vietnam — since the generals were as wrong as LBJ. The conventional wisdom that sending more troops now would hurt Bush politically might well be erroneous, for a reason that Bush himself points out: “I believe that people who try to interpret the polls and all that stuff misread the American mentality. The American mentality is: We want to win. They’re not saying, leave; they’re saying, we want to win. And if you can’t win, what the heck are you doing there? That’s what they want.”
In any case, Bush is still determined and ultimately optimistic about Iraq, but has a more realistic appreciation of the difficulties inherent in Iraqi society and the time that it will take to change it.
“Distrust was so predominant amongst the different groups of people,” he says, “that time will help heal that. And more importantly than time, the actions of a government to convince people that a unified Iraq is in their interests.”
He adds, “I am told — and, again, I don’t know this for a fact — but people still believe Saddam Hussein has a chance to come back. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Which goes to show kind of the depth of anger, distrust, concern, worry about whether or not one should stake their life, frankly, on a different type of society in Iraq. We probably could have trained people, got the Iraqis moving quicker. I mean, there’s all kinds of ways to look back. But it’s the psychology of the country that has concerned me the most, because Saddam was effective at pitting groups of people against each other.”
Time is also something Bush emphasizes in the Iran crisis. But his language suggests that the Robert Kagan-thesis that the seemingly interminable Iran diplomacy is the necessary run-up to a strike on Iran has something to it. Bush says, “It is very important for the United States to try all diplomatic means.” That’s what we did in Iraq: “I’m often asked what’s the difference between Iran and Iraq. We tried all diplomatic means in Iraq.” Iran, he seems to imply, might eventually prove impervious to diplomacy, but that’s something we have to find out. He says, of members of the military, “I owe it to their loved ones and I owe it to this country to see if we can’t achieve [diplomatically] the objectives which, in Iran’s case, the short-term objective is no nuclear weapon. So that’s what you’re seeing happen.”
Bush’s faith in the rightness of his strategy in the broader war is deep-seated — it is, indeed, a product of faith. “Freedom is universal,” Bush says. “And I recognize there’s a debate around the world about the kind of — whether that principle is real. I call it moral relativism, if people do not believe that certain people can be free. I mean, I just cannot subscribe to that. People — I know it upsets people when I ascribe that to my belief in an Almighty, and that I believe a gift from that Almighty is universal freedom. That’s what I believe.”
So it is somehow appropriate that a wide-ranging conversation on the war and the capacities of cultures to change swings around toward the end to the role of faith in our own culture. “Cultures do change,” Bush says. “Ideological struggles are won, but it takes time. It just takes time. You look back at the ‘50s, I don’t know how evident it was that — I guess there was — when you think about it, there was a pretty stark change in the culture of the ‘50s and the ‘60s. I mean, boom. But I think something is happening here.”
“I don’t know,” he continues, “I’m not giving you a definitive statement — it seems like to me there’s a Third Awakening with a cultural change. And it would be interesting to get your observations if that is accurate or not accurate. It feels like it. I’m just giving you a reference point, if this is something you’re interested in looking at. It feels like it to me. I don’t have people coming in the rope line saying, ‘I’d like a new bridge, or how about some more highway money.’ They’re coming to say, ‘I’m coming to tell you, Mr. President, I’m praying for you.’ It’s pretty remarkable.”
And so is the confidence of the man they are praying for — ever calm in the political storm all around him, ever certain that the difficult task he has set for himself and his country is right and will be a success. At the end of the interview, he tosses his paper clip on a table next to him and thanks everyone: “I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.”
– Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.