Winston Churchill Bush? Nah. Guess Again.
George W. Bush's all-in gamble of other people's stakes in Iraq has become the mother of all disasters. Even relatively conservative members of the Washington establishment have labeled it the biggest foreign policy debacle in American history. Heck, even Henry Kissinger has consigned it to Bummerville. If you're a Republican president, you know you're hurting when your foreign adventure is too stinky for even the likes of Kissinger - a guy who hardly ever met an American invasion he didn't applaud.
Indeed, so ugly is the situation in Iraq, there's just about only one good thing that can still be said about it, which is that it is not yet nearly as bad as it could turn out to be. One country has been destroyed and turned into a textbook case of a failed state. Perhaps a million of its people have been murdered, several million more have departed as refugees from the violence, and there are now multiple civil wars going on, alongside other wars between Americans and Iraqi forces and militias and al Qaeda elements. Could even Hobbes have envisioned this Hell? Probably not. Probably it's more Dali's speed.
But that's the good news, ladies and gentlemen. The bad news is that the potential for this first-class debacle to go world-class is quite significant. Among the possible exponential exacerbations we're staring at here is the potential to bring on World War III, pitting Sunnis versus Shiites in a Muslim version of Christianity's devastating Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants. Fortunately, only some of those countries have nukes, so we can all breathe a big sigh of relief there. And now that gasoline prices have doubled in the United States, it's also not hard to envision a serious global depression whacking industrialized countries everywhere, not unlike the effects produced when OPEC cranked down on the spigot twice in the 1970s.
So, in short, there are basically two possible outcomes here. Iraq either turns out to be just a giant disaster, or - instead - it becomes an epic disaster. A thing of biblical proportions. Something for people to fight over two thousand years from now.
This, of course, leaves certain folks in a rather uncomfortable position - namely, George W. Bush and the conservative clones who have celebrated his depravities. In order to avoid appearing (at least to themselves - most of the rest of us are not fooled) as the purveyors of catastrophe they actually are, they are desperately scrambling to find some sort of cover for their cataclysmic foreign policy disasters.
These face-saving inanities take multiple forms, but the leading explanation offered by Bush and his neocon acolytes for their grand failure is that it is actually a brave success that historians will later recognize, even if we wimpy appeasers of the present tense lack the wisdom to recognize Great George's leadership, courage and prescience.
The model for this, of course, is Winston Churchill, who got a lot of things wrong in his political career, but managed to get one big thing right. While the rest of the world was either admiring Hitler or hoping that if they pretended hard enough he'd just go away, Churchill identified - accurately and early - what was perhaps the greatest menace in human history.
Now comes George W. Bush, comparing himself to Churchill, believing that he (almost) alone recognizes the new epochal peril, and that his policies in Iraq and elsewhere will be judged by history just as Churchill's lonely vigil of the 1930s has been, despite - or especially because of - the effete public indifference during our time to the grave existential threat only the solitary seer Bush wisely divines. Laughable, eh? It's actually even worse than that. At least Churchill never claimed - that I know of - that god told him to go fight Hitler. Not so Bush, who has said that his "higher father" told him, "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq". Probably you think I'm making this up, huh? I wish.
Apart from the effect that such a comparison to Churchill has of causing legions of people to fall off their chairs in shock and hurt themselves (could that be part of their secret plan for defeating progressives and other thinking members of the species?), this claim has all sorts of logic problems associated with it. Not that either logic nor fact matter any more to our good friends of the post-empirical right, but for those of us still proudly inhabiting the "reality-based community", a little analysis of this proposition might prove more than a bit enlightening (which is precisely why the other guys find it so very frightening).
So let's unpack this hail-mary desperation pass attempt at saving the right's reputation, and see what we find. And what we find are a whole bunch of built-in assumptions that we're not supposed to question. There's very good reason for that, of course. The notion of Bush as some sort of latter-day Churchill unravels faster than Jerry Falwell's soul went south if one departs even slightly from gross superficialities to examine these assumptions.
We have, unfortunately, to start with the assumption that 9/11 was perpetrated by bin Laden and his merry band of jihadists. Most Americans can't even go there, but if you do, you find that - at the very least - the story told to us by the government as to who did 9/11 (and, more importantly, who didn't), and how, is chock full of some jaw-dropping anomalies and enormously suspicious behaviors. I'm not prepared to render a verdict on what happened that awful day - and neither are the best scholars on the subject, whose commitment to truth and integrity rightly constrains them from making conclusions which out-run the presently available facts, however tempting such determinations may be. But I would say that there is enough in question from what I've read to wonder about the deepest assumption of all - that we've even attacked the proper enemy, on any of the fronts of the so-called "war on terror".
Which brings us to the second great assumption - this one patently bogus - that the war should be against terrorism in the first place. Terrorism is a tool, a weapon, a strategy - and one, by the way, which is almost always employed by the weakest of adversaries, who would otherwise be using conventional weaponry if they had it. So why fight a weapon, rather than those who wield it? If our enemy chose a different weapon, would we be okay with them killing us, as long as it wasn't by terrorism? And what about when we use terrorism, or Israelis do, or when we harbor an admitted terrorist from extradition? Isn't it odd that we haven't been called to a war against al Qaeda (whom we don't even seem to be concerned about anymore, anyhow) or even Islamofascism? Yes it very much is, but only until you realize that the broader rubric of a supposed war on terror gives you better leverage for selling a war in Iraq that was pre-planned well before 9/11. Then it makes perfect sense.
Third, is Islamofascism really a threat to the United States? Probably, yes, at some level. But the insanity of gun policy in this country takes out ten times the number of people killed in the 9/11 attack, every single year. Cigarettes claim more than one hundred times the three thousand lives lost on September 11th, year in, year out. And while I might actually favor sending the Marines in to invade the NRA building or RJ Reynolds boardroom, I never hear the Bush crowd doing anything other than helping these guys pimp their death machines. So, yeah, there are enemies to America's health and welfare both at home and abroad, and yeah, we ought to combat them. But we ought to do so in proper proportion to the threat. I do believe that al Qaeda means us harm. But they ain't Nazi Germany, and this ain't Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations either, though we can certainly turn it into that if we're stupid enough. Without question, our invasion of Iraq has pushed us far further down that path than we've ever been previously. Even our own intelligence agencies - not exactly bastions of lily-livered, bleeding-heart Neville Chamberlain groupies - have said so. The most credible reckoning recently produced estimates that global terrorism has increased seven-fold since the invasion of Iraq, and in large part because of the invasion of Iraq. If Bush wants to play at being Sir Winston, fine. That makes this his Global Gallipoli.
Next, even if we assume that Islamic radicalism represents a serious enemy for the United States to deal with, the fourth assumption built into the conservative face-saving program is that conventional warfare is the proper strategic response to that threat. So foolish is that assumption that it is hard to imagine it took the Iraq meltdown to make it plain to most Americans. Would anyone believe in advance that you could throw a rock to the moon if you just ate enough Wheaties? Would anyone need to actually test that proposition before dismissing it out of hand? What a surprise, then, to learn from the Washington Post this week that two intelligence assessments from before the invasion predicted chaos in Iraq and a boost to Islamic extremists from the occupation. John Kerry was much ridiculed in 2004 for discussing terrorism as a scourge best (though not exclusively) fought using the tools of intelligence assets and police work. Much as it pains me to say anything nice about Kerry after he ran a campaign so abysmal that it bequeathed us another four years of the Creature from Crawford, in this case he was right.
Fifth, this ridiculous Churchill proposition requires us to assume that any kind of warfare, not just conventional, is the only response to the threat. Bushoids want you to believe that what we do as our country gaily cavorts about the world has nothing to do with the hostility found out there toward the United States. Anytime you hear somebody say something as manifestly absurd as "they hate us for our freedoms" you should immediately have a powerful sense of how bankrupt their casus belli actually is. Is it really imaginable that young people with their whole lives before them would regularly volunteer to blow themselves up into hamburger meat because they're - what, anyhow? jealous? - of somebody else's freedoms? I absolutely believe there is plenty of sickness going around amongst Muslim religious radicals. Indeed, I am quite well acquainted with what it looks like from observing our own homegrown religious radicals. But is it such a far fetched idea that Americans would be hated for toppling Middle Eastern governments or propping up brutal and hated puppet regimes in order to drain the region of its one valuable natural resource? (And, no, I'm not thinking of sand.) Is it so absurd to imagine that being the primary sponsor of Israel, and winking as it builds nuclear warheads and colonial settlements in occupied territories, that these aren't factors driving the hostility America encounters in the Muslim world? And, therefore, would it be such a stretch to reject this assumption that the problem is entirely on their side and can only effectively be countered with more violence? George Bush says yes. In fact, George Bush hopes you're dumb enough never to even consider the question. My own answer is somewhat different.
He also hopes that you don't notice what is actually happening in the supposed war on terror. The sixth assumption behind any attempt to equate Bush to Churchill presumes that the former is actually making any sort of serious attempt to deal with terrorists in general, or even just the ones he claims did 9/11. In fact, though, just the opposite is true. He's even once admitted, regarding bin Laden, "I truly am not that concerned about him". I would have loved to have been monitoring Ari Fleischer's EKG when Bush dropped that particular stinker. The poor SOB was probably wondering if there was enough Spic-N-Span in the whole world to clean up that mess. But even leaving rhetoric aside, it's been clear since 2002 that Bush doesn't really give a damn about terrorism or even al Qaeda. His long-time obsession has been Iraq and Saddam - neither of which had anything to do with terrorism - and he pulled forces from Afghanistan to indulge that obsession, leaving Osama to roam, and paving the way for a wholesale Taliban/al Qaeda resurgence already rolling across the country. Moreover, he's never done a damn thing about his pals in the House of Saud, whose relations to Islamic radicalism are far stronger than Saddam's ever were. Sorry, man, but here's the deal: If you're gonna claim that you're Churchill incarnate, you can't be doing the WWII equivalent of indulging your personal obsession over Finland, while the Wehrmacht rolls across France, Poland and the rest of Europe.
Which brings us to an entire series of assumptions about the Iraq war, none of which bear any relationship to the truth, whatsoever. If Bush is Churchillian, then Iraq had to have had something to do with Islamofascism. In fact, it actually did, in an inverse way. The guy we removed and replaced with a Category Five Hurricane happened to have feared and loathed al Qaeda types a lot more than we actually do. That is, not only did Iraq have nothing to do with 9/11, but Saddam hated al Qaeda more than we do. Hey, what's that old line about your enemy's enemy?
If Bush is a great leader navigating his nation through the perilous waters of mortal danger, based on his uniquely prescient grand vision, then his claim that we only invaded Iraq because he had no choice has to be true. In fact, it is preposterous. We know for a fact that the Bush team knew Iraq was no serious threat. We know for a fact that they had decided long prior to the actual invasion that they were going in, but pretended to still be keeping all the options open, saying they hoped to avoid war. We know for a fact that they were never serious about the WMD inspections, and indeed had only even called for them in order to "wrongfoot" Saddam into rejecting them and thus providing the necessary pretext for a war they craved. We know that it was a lie of the most obscene proportions to claim that we couldn't have waited another month or two for the inspectors to finish their jobs, so urgent was the Iraqi threat. (All this while North Korea actually exploding a real nuclear warhead produced only endless diplomatic kabuki dances of surreal non-confrontation.) For Bush to be a great visionary of geopolitics whose learned scholarship (imagine using that phrase in the same sentence as this president's name) and heightened powers of perception prepared him to see what we mere mortals do not, all of these assumptions must prove true about Iraq. In fact, none of them are remotely truthful, nor was there ever anything remotely accidental about their falsity.
But Bush is also the commander-in-chief, regardless of whether history should somehow someday declare him visionary-in-chief. Even if we assume that by some miracle he manages to achieve that latter reputation, can you imagine what will be said of his management of this war? Even if we were to leave aside the fact that his entire legacy is irrevocably joined at the hip to the war's outcome, it nevertheless remains astonishing how badly Bush has bungled this initiative at every conceivable juncture. From sending in insufficient forces, to allowing looting, to putting complete know-nothing sycophantic boobs in charge of the occupation, to staffing the CPA with an entire legion of more know-nothing sycophantic boobs chosen for their loyalty to the Republican party, to the wholesale dismissal of the Iraqi Army, to alienating friend and adversary alike across the planet, to bungling every rebuilding project while permitting war profiteering American (not Iraqi) contractors to clean out the Treasury - is there anything at all these guys got right in Iraq? This has been a four year long Three Stooges movie. With blood.
Finally, of course, for Bush to be judged by history to have been the Churchill of our time, he bears the burden of showing that his Iraq adventure has left his country more safe, rather than less. This is manifestly not true, and it will become significantly less true as the months tick down to January 2009 when we are rid of this right rollicking cock up of a pretend president, this American Janjaweed, blighting his global sandbox at every turn. Leaving aside the moral balance sheet, the war has already cost half a trillion dollars, and even if it were to end now, the costs in sustained medical care, lost contributions to the economy and the replenishment of war materiel will be staggering, perhaps two trillion altogether, according to the most scholarly estimate. Meanwhile, the Army and the Marines are wrecked, 3,400 good people the less, ten or twenty thousand more gravely wounded, and recruitment is increasingly dependent on lowered standards and increased bonuses. American good will and credibility are spent across the planet. Only six years ago we were the object of near universal affection and sympathy. Now we are hated. Meanwhile, at home, America has never been so badly divided since the last time our presidents lied us into a major war.
In sum, Bush and his army of Stepford robots may think he is the next coming of Sir Winston, but that last-ditch effort to fool us and - especially - themselves depends on a huge series of false assumptions. We have to believe the many absurdities about who did 9/11, how, and why. We have to believe that a 'war on terror' is the appropriate response to such an attack. We have to believe that such a war effort has been proportionate to the threat involved, and that the use of massed conventional forces is the best way to fight that war. Indeed, we have to believe that war itself - as opposed to policy changes - is the only appropriate response to such a threat. We have to believe that the US is actually fighting such a war, and that it is winning it. And last, to buy this insulting analogy one has to believe that all the fairytales we've been told about Iraq are true, and that in addition to the war having been an absolute necessity, it is being managed well, and is succeeding in improving America's national security.
But none of this is true. None of it. And therefore neither is it true that George W. Bush is some sort of Churchillian visionary whose keen intellect and learned wisdom allows him to perceive an existential threat that you and I somehow cannot see. How blotto do you have to be to envision that absurd scenario? How falling-down wrecked do we all have to get to blur our eyes sufficiently to see this little punk - lazier and less intellectually engaged than any president in American history - as remotely thoughtful and informed, let alone prescient?
Which brings me to one other thing. In addition to being a famous statesman, Winston Churchill was also a scholar of great repute. George Bush, on the other hand, got "gentleman's C's" in college (which means he actually got F's before his daddy stepped in and bought him a GPA).
Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and wrote his monumental "History of the English-Speaking Peoples". It's hard to imagine George Bush even speaking English to people.
Sorry, Fool. I can't say that I served with Winston Churchill. I didn't know Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill was not a friend of mine. Still, one thing is abundantly clear: You're no Winston Churchill.
Hell, you're not even a Dan Quayle.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.