David Brooks' field trip to the White House

The worshipful report from the NYT columnist raises some uncomfortable questions about Bush's theological views.

Published July 17, 2007 1:32PM (EDT)

As George Bush has become more and more isolated, and as his presidency has collapsed around him, he has increasingly arranged White House events where like-minded admirers come and gather around him and genuflect to his greatness. As The Washington Post's Peter Baker recently reported, these events are attended exclusively by small groups of right-wing pundits, "journalists" and neoconservative theorists and activists who sit around the President and both soak in and bolster the Rightness of his choices.

NYT columnist David Brooks was fortunate enough to have been invited to the most recent such gathering -- also attended by Event Regulars Rich Lowry and Kate O'Beirne of National Review -- and Brooks came away so impressed that he wrote a homage to Bush -- headlined "Heroes and History" -- that would even make Ultimate Bush worshipper John Hinderaker blush:

I left the 110-minute session thinking that far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.

All this will be taken as evidence by many that Bush is delusional. He's living in a cocoon. He doesn't see or can't face how badly the war is going and how awfully he has performed.

But Bush is not blind to the realities in Iraq. After all, he lives through the events we're not supposed to report on: the trips to Walter Reed, the hours and hours spent weeping with or being rebuffed by the families of the dead. . . .

Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.

We also learn that "far from being beleaguered, Bush was assertive and good-humored"; "he is unshakably committed to stabilizing Iraq"; "Bush remains energized by the power of the presidency"; and "he's convinced leaders have the power to change societies."

Aside from his depiction of Bush as the Strong, Determined, Principled Warrior-Leader, Brooks also includes this report:

[H]is self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: "It's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist."

This has been the great unexamined issue of the Bush presidency -- the extent to which Bush's unwavering commitment to Middle East militarism is, as Bush himself has made clear, rooted in theological and religious convictions, not in pragmatic or geopolitical concerns. That Bush's foreign policy decision-making is grounded in absolute moral and theological convictions and therefore immune from re-examination or change is an argument I examine at length in A Tragic Legacy because it is one of the principal -- and most dangerous -- forces driving the Bush presidency.

At a September 2006 gathering of right-wing pundits, Bush waxed endlessly about his belief that the U.S. is currently in the midst of a Third Religious Awakening and that the wars over which he presides are a central part of that Awakening. At least in large part, Bush sees the "battles" he is waging in epic theological and religious terms, and as a result, political constraints and pragmatic limits are irrelevant to his actions. It is such an uncomfortable reality -- that religious fervor drives our wars and other foreign policy -- that it has been ignored almost completely over the last five years, even though ample evidence exists proving that it is true, beginning with his own continuous statements.

The danger in cynically dismissing religious fervor as a motivating force for Bush -- the insistence that Bush's religious beliefs are contrived and nothing more than a political tool -- is that it conceals the true threat posed by having a President who is not merely religious (there is nothing uncommon or dangerous about that), but who draws no distinction between his political decisions and his religious obligations.

As I documented in the excerpt from A Tragic Legacy published by Crooks & Liars, neoconservatives who seek to persuade the President of his obligation to wage war with Iran do so by appealing to his religous obligations to act against Evil and in service of his messianic self-perception as delivering "God's gift" to the world. As The Weekly Standard's Irwin Stelzer wrote about yet another right-wing gathering with the President earlier this year:

On one subject the president needed no lessons from Roberts or anyone else in the room: how to handle pressure. "I just don't feel any," he says with the calm conviction of a man who believes the constituency to which he must ultimately answer is the Divine Presence. Don't misunderstand: God didn't tell him to put troops in harm's way in Iraq; belief in Him only goes so far as to inform the president that there is good and evil. It is then his job to figure out how to promote the former and destroy the latter. And he is confident that his policies are doing just that.

Another luncheon attendee, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute recalled (also in The Weekly Standard) the President saying: "I want to have my conscience clear with Him. Then it doesn't matter so much what others think."

Everything we do in the Middle East has religious and theological overtones. Whatever else is true, we are sending a largely Christian army into Muslim land to wage war against devotees of Islam. Many of the President's evangelical supporters are explicitly supportive of this militarism because of a generalized belief in the need to wage religious war (the Gen. Boykin view) or the specific doctrinal belief in the need to re-make the Middle East in preparation for apocalyptic events. That applies not only to Iraq, but to Iran and the broader Middle East.

This is something Establishment Washington and the media simply refuses to digest. The way we show "respect for religion and people of faith" is by never questioning the specific prongs of the belief system and/or the role it plays in their public decision-making. Instead, these Wise Elite Opinion-makers continue to believe -- long after any rational person could -- that Bush is susceptible to Washington Wise Man persuasion, or to political pressure, or to the constraints of resources. That simply is not how Bush works. He believes he is supported by a much higher authority and as long as he acts in accordance with that, nothing can or should stop him.

That is why -- even in the aftermath of a shattering midterm election defeat for his party and the wrist-slapping of the Wise, Bipartisan Consensus Baker-Hamilton Report -- Bush not only stayed in Iraq but announced we would escalate. And nothing stopped him. He could not have cared any less about those standard Washington influences or even the limits of reality.

And if Bush believes -- as he almost certainly does -- that a military confrontation with Iran is necessary, nothing will stop him there either, no matter how many solemn David Broder columns and Fred Hiatt editorials or public opinion polls oppose it. After all, as David Brooks quoted him:

"It's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist."

Bush told us back in January 2002 that he believes Iran is Evil, and just as was true for his identical statement about Iraq, he meant it. The religious views of our political leaders matter and ought to be open much more to examination and questioning. That is particularly true when they continuously tell us, even if we don't want to believe it, that their beliefs and decisions are grounded in theology and religion and moral absolutism, not politics or pragmatism.

By Glenn Greenwald

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