I hate it when publications subject readers to self-indulgent bickering between writers and columnists. But David Horowitz asked a provocative question in his last column that readers have been clamoring to answer: As we put it in a headline, "If you like the war Bush has prosecuted, how can you continue to insist he's stupid?" Or as Horowitz wrote in his column: "If you like the results, common sense and common decency require proper respect for the man responsible."
I've been thinking about that all week, since I'm one of the "liberal commentators" Horowitz was complaining about in his rejoinder to David Talbot's cover story, "Axis of Stupidity." More than once since Sept. 11, I've nodded respectfully to Bush's handling of the war in Afghanistan, only to quickly rap him for his other sins -- the way the White House has tried to micromanage the news about the worldwide war on terror, the shortcomings of Bush's "Axis of Evil" State of the Union address; just last week, his administration's behind the scenes work to scuttle tough campaign finance reform while pretending to back it.
But I think Horowitz raised a fair question, one that deserves an answer: If you believe Bush did a good job in the wake of Sept. 11, as I do, can you still think he's doing a lousy job overall as president? Isn't commander in chief his most important role? And, considering the president's mostly mistake-free execution of the war, is it really fair for critics to seize once again on his easy-to-spoof verbal foibles -- like his weekend gaffe in Japan, when, confusing "deflation" with "devaluation," he sent the ailing yen into a teeth-chattering tailspin?
Of course, the answer to Horowitz's question is yes, you can support Bush's handling of the war to date and still criticize the job he's doing as president. Because it's becoming increasingly clear that almost everything admirable about Bush's early war effort -- the hard work lining up international support; the careful outreach to Muslim nations and communities to make clear the war wasn't against Islam; the four weeks of restraint after Sept. 11 before bombing began on Oct. 7 -- represented an all-too brief departure from his administration's normal modus operandi. Now that the smoke has nearly cleared in Afghanistan, the bad old Bush has become plain for all to see -- from his administration's nose-thumbing unilateralism to its obsessive secrecy about its inner workings to its simplistic religious world view.
There were two whopping examples on Tuesday alone: the stunning news that the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence is preparing a disinformation campaign about the war, including planting false stories in the foreign media, and a remarkable story about Attorney General John Ashcroft assuring a Christian broadcasters' group that God is on our side in the war against terror. Both news items illustrate what's most worrisome about the latest phase of a war that seems increasingly ill-defined and unlimited: an arrogance and self-righteousness that makes everything permissible -- including trashing the country's most precious democratic traditions -- as long as it's presented as an anti-terror measure.
In effect, Horowitz admonished the media that it was improper to criticize a president who has just prosecuted a successful war. But the truth is the media has already docilely accepted this argument. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is being hailed by pundits as a "rock star" for his jolly, tell-them-nothing, Borscht-belt-on-the-Potomac sessions with reporters, should we really be surprised that the Pentagon thinks it can get away with dishing out blatant lies too? And when smart journalists like the New York Times' Tom Friedman and CBS's Lesley Stahl praise Bush for acting a little "crazy" in order freak out our enemies -- even if it wigs out the rest of the world too -- maybe the real surprise is that the administration thinks it needs to use disinformation at all, given the media's eagerness to spout the White House line.
But arrogance combined with ignorance may yet cost Bush, and the country, quite dearly. John Ashcroft's remarks to a group of Christian broadcasters this week were particularly unnerving, a window into the administration's fundamentalist worldview. Contrasting "the way of God and the way of the terrorists" (and forgetting for a moment that the terrorists believe they, too, are acting in God's name, even though they call him Allah), Ashcroft said the following:
"Civilized people -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator. Civilized people of all religious faiths are called to the defense of His creation. We are a nation called to defend freedom -- a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God."
Ashcroft's inclusion of Muslims and Jews in his theocratic musings fooled no one. His remarks made clear that like other hard-line Christian rightists, the attorney general puts his religion ahead of the Constitution. This is an administration that divides the world into believers and nonbelievers, and that's dangerous.
Ashcroft has a particularly feeble grasp of the division between church and state, of course, but anyone who thinks he was straying off the reservation with his remarks should consider why Bush can't stop talking about "evil" and "evildoers." (It's also worth noting that Ashcroft was subbing for Bush himself at the Christian broadcasters meeting, after his trip to Asia forced the president to send a stand-in.) Bush's obsession with evil is not only simplistic and childlike, as pointed out in "Axis of Stupidity," it's also language that marks him as a religious fundamentalist, a true believer who can't conceive of a different way of looking at the world. I have no doubt he agrees with Ashcroft, and even though I happen to be a believer, that rattles me. Why? Because there is too much religious fervor in world politics today, and it has brought nothing but misery. It's not reassuring when the administration starts to out-fanatic the religious fanatics who have declared war on us.
So even though I supported his early moves in the war, I think Bush deserves far more scrutiny, and criticism, than he's been getting. Even his verbal gaffes matter (although I agree with Horowitz on one point: Bush isn't stupid, and they're not a sign of stupidity). It's not about the media playing petty gotcha games: Mixing up "deflation" and "devaluation" had international consequences. Even his goofy comments at the DMZ border between North and South Korea bear examination, not just a snicker: Commenting on a grisly attack on American soldiers by axe-wielding North Koreans along the DMZ, Bush mused, "No wonder I think they're evil" -- as though he hadn't quite known why he thought they were evil up until that point, but was just aping his advisors' views. (Or maybe he was really talking about "Axes of Evil" in his State of the Union speech -- bada-bing! OK, that was a cheap shot.)
Bush's gaffes aren't a symptom of stupidity, but of his rich-kid's luxurious detachment, his frat-boy's "Whatever, dude!" attitude. He may not be dumb, but he's a lightweight. He's used to people cleaning up after him. It was wrong to give him a pass on that trait when he was running for president, and it's wrong now, even in wartime. He veers weirdly between this fortunate-son insouciance and, when seeking gravitas, a born-again absolutism (the force that helped pull him out of his drunken youth).
Yes, Bush did succeed in mopping up the terrorists in Afghanistan -- with the glaring exception of their leaders. But his brief success as commander in chief can't erase his increasingly apparent flaws as president. From his ideology-driven bungling of the economy to his historic assault on civil liberties to his dangerous global overreach, this is a president whose performance falls far short of his poll numbers. And it's time for the media to start calling it like it is.