Woodrow Wilson was a political scientist and became president of Princeton before he became president of the United States. Yet the consensus is that he was one of the worst presidents of the 20th century from a foreign policy point of view, if not the very worst. Thanks to Wilson's passion for intellectual abstractions, not one but two empires -- the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman -- were dismantled with catastrophic results. Where there had been peace for more than 100 years in the Balkans and the Middle East prior to World War I, since then there has been endless national conflict, including a World War, ethnic wars (in the Balkans) and two wars -- a ten-year interstate war between Iran and Iraq and a 50-year war between the Arab states and Israel. Of Woodrow Wilson we can safely say: Stupid is as stupid does.
I am reminded of Wilson when I behold the inability of the intellectual class -- including my friend and editor David Talbot -- to overcome their snobbery toward George W. Bush and recognize wise leadership when they see it. My own awakening to the advantages of character over intellect and practical wisdom over Mensa smarts -- particularly where the Oval Office is concerned -- came with the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson. His predecessor, a civilized Harvard charmer and the darling of the urban elites, led us into one international crisis after another in his brief spin in the Oval Office, including a bungled covert invasion of Cuba, a nuclear confrontation over Berlin and a nuclear missile crisis. At the same time the John F. Kennedy still beloved by liberals failed to achieve any but the most modest steps in implementing his domestic social agenda.
When Kennedy was replaced by Lyndon Johnson, there was an outcry from the chattering classes, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. Johnson was a political manipulator who stamped his initials on his cuff links, his pencils, his daughters, his wife and his dogs, giving even Texas vulgarity a bad name. But he was so shrewd a politician that within a year he had passed revolutionary civil rights acts and a massive domestic agenda (including the war on poverty) that would transform American society in the next generation. I learned then that what's good for evenings at the Smithsonian Center may not translate into real-life benefits for the folks on Main Street.
Likewise, Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar who could talk circles around George W. Bush and any other politician. But he disarmed his country in the face of al-Qaida -- gutting its military, hamstringing its intelligence agencies, letting bin Laden escape on three separate occasions -- while antagonizing Muslim populations with misguided and unauthorized missile salvos at poorly chosen Afghan targets half a globe away. His tawdry affair with a post-pubescent intern and his subsequent attempts to cover it up, all while al-Qaida was blowing up American embassies in Africa, cost this nation a vital window of opportunity to stave off the disaster of Sept. 11. For eight years Clinton failed to prepare an anti-terrorist strategy smart enough to defeat America's new enemies. Instead he was content with the "Whack-A-Mole" diversions of his feckless National Security Advisor Sandy Berger.
No sooner had he taken his position as commander-in-chief than George W. Bush addressed the terrorist threat with the attention it warranted. By Sept. 10, 2001, a detailed plan to combat terrorism had already reached his desk. As Andrew Sullivan commented in Salon: "It remains a fact that the new administration had devised in eight months a strategy that Bill Clinton had delayed for eight years." By any reasonable standard, from the point of view of America's national security interests Clinton was a stupid -- not to say reckless -- president, while George Bush has proven to be a smart and responsible commander-in-chief.
I don't think anybody, left or right, can quarrel with the fact that Bush put together perhaps the best foreign policy and defense teams of any postwar administration. Clinton had a National Security Advisor that the intelligence community itself rejected (Anthony Lake) and a CIA director who wound up under investigation himself for carelessness with sensitive information (John Deutsch). Clinton didn't even bother to meet regularly with his intelligence chiefs or, in the case of James Woolsey, at all.
David Talbot and other Bush critics admit that the war against al-Qaida has been brilliantly conducted. How can a dummy put together an ace national security team and successfully conduct a complex war with both diplomatic and military fronts? The answer is he can't. If we had a weak dummy in the White House -- as Talbot and many other commentators on the left would have us believe -- one of those really smart and strong people -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell -- would have immediately taken advantage of either or both of those defects and be running the show. But that hasn't happened. The fact of the matter is that this is George Bush's team, George Bush's war and George Bush's strategy. If you like the results, common sense and common decency require proper respect for the man responsible.
Talbot's view is that although Bush's strategy rallied American forces and won the Afghanistan war, it has become an obstacle to conducting the next phase of the campaign. Fair enough. But like so many other Bush critics from the left, Talbot is not content with a focus on the strategic issues. Instead he perceives a characterological root cause of his differences with the president. Bush is not only mistaken, he is over his head -- not smart enough, not even mature enough for the job: "Bush utters the word 'evil' the way a child does when it first dawns on him that there is darkness and danger in the world."
I am embarrassed for my friend David when he writes sentences like this. He is a smart man. He has written bravely about his second thoughts on international issues and American foreign policy. But much as I admire him for his candor and intelligence in these matters, I wouldn't bet that he could have conducted a better war against al-Qaida than George Bush has -- or any number of national political figures, Republican or Democrat, that you can name. You can't really separate the man from the achievement. If this was a brilliant war -- and it was -- then George Bush has shown himself to be a brilliant leader. Gentleman, some humility please.
Talbot seems to think that the "axis of evil" comment in the State of the Union address is an indication that George Bush doesn't understand that Iraq and Iran have different policy agendas and has even forgotten that they were at war in the eighties. "Did the president miss the briefing on the history of Iraq-Iran relations?" I don't think so, David. The "axis of evil" is a phrase designed to identify three powers that are developing weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them, and whose hatred of America is all over the public record. The term "evil" describes them accurately. On the other hand, there is not the slightest possibility that George Bush doesn't understand that they are not an "axis" in the sense of Hitler Germany and Japan, which actually signed a formal military alliance.
"Axis of Evil" is a suggestively descriptive term, but it is also a diplomatic subterfuge (not a "mistake," as Talbot worries). It is a substitute for the term "Islamic radicalism and Communism" -- which is the true name of America's global enemies. Many conservatives complained about the president's Sept. 20 speech to Congress after the World Trade Center attack, because he used the euphemism "totalitarianism" for "Communism" in the following crucial phrase: "We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism." It is obvious that the president omitted the term "Communism" to avoid a direct confrontation with China, though China well deserved the epithet. This is not ignorant. It's smart. We cannot fight the necessary war on all fronts, all at once.
This president actually has a subtle and complex understanding of the forces arrayed against us. His moral rhetoric is important and appropriate for rallying a country, which has been lulled into complacency and vulnerability over a decade of rampant value relativism and general excess.
Why not use the term "Islamic radicalism" or Islamo-fascism as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Pipes, among others, suggest? One reason would be not to unify a billion Muslims across Africa and Asia against us. Instead, the smart plan is to take on the radicals one by one and hope that a show of force and a determined will to stay the course will cause others to think again. It's already happening. Yemen and other radical Islamic countries are locking anti-terrorists up. You can thank the man in the Oval Office, George W. Bush, for that. By many accounts he personally added North Korea to the list of "axis" countries, to make clear this is not a war against Islam. And has anybody else noticed that the president's tough talk about Iran is already paying dividends? Last week they booted an Afghan warlord who'd set up camp within their borders; Thursday came the news that they arrested 150 al-Qaida terrorists. Maybe Bush's intimidating speech reminded Iran it better think twice before routinely casting its lot with the enemies of the U.S.
I can't read the president's mind, but I can see the positive results of the policy he has set down and contrast them with the disasters of the previous eight years, and know which is better, smarter.
Our European "allies" are indeed whining, as Talbot and other Bush detractors also point out. But what is new about that? It's the Europeans who have been arming Saddam Hussein; it's they who won't turn over al-Qaida murderers because we might eventually decide they deserve to be executed. It's they who were acquiescent when Iran was leading the United Nations chorus denouncing us as racists and slave-owners a week before 9/11. It's they who did nothing while ethnic cleansers were on the rampage in their Balkan backyard. And prior to that it was they who had to be bailed out of two World Wars in the last century because they had their heads in the sand when dictators were on the march.
It's time for the intellectual class to begin reassessing its self-exposing snobbery toward George W. Bush. This reappraisal has already begun to take place. A February Tarrance Group poll reveals that 65 percent of American college students are now "glad that George Bush is president." Only 18 percent wish it was Al Gore. A summary expression of these second thoughts appeared following the State of the Union speech in Brown University's Daily Herald under the byline Joshua Skolnick:
"Watching the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, I experienced a fundamental change in the way I view our country ... Like an old relationship that was shallow and based on sex, Clinton [feels] like nothing compared to what we have now ... If Clinton was a womanizer (the 'if' is probably unnecessary) then I am a woman. He got me ... He took me out to dinner, paid for everything, and told me that I had beautiful eyes. I was a fool not to notice the mischief going on beneath the table. We scoffed at critics such as John McCain, who rightly stated that Clinton conducted a 'photo-op foreign policy.' We collectively stared into his eyes while terrorist camps were being armed in Afghanistan ... Our foolishness, in part, led to our vulnerability on Sept. 11 ... We woke up with our clothes off. In walked George W. Bush. On Tuesday night, he helped us put our clothes back on. He made us realize that we were more than our GDP, more than the latest tabloid. He gave us the shocking realization that this country is built on actual values. The speech on Tuesday night was like a cool glass of water the morning after a frat party. You can't believe you went home with that girl, can't believe you drank so much, but you're glad to finally be back home."
That's the way I feel. Glad to be back home. Glad to have the country in good hands. Glad to have a leader who knows what he's doing and who cares if he is doing a good job. I hope my friend David Talbot will join me in these sentiments soon.