It happened again this morning. I saw a picture of our president—my president—and my feelings about him were instantly rekindled. The picture was taken after his speech to the graduating seniors at the Air Force Academy. He was wearing a dark suit, a light-blue tie, and a white shirt. His unsmiling visage was grim and purposeful, in pointed contrast to the face of the elaborately uniformed cadet standing next to him, which was lit up with a cocky grin. Indeed, as something more than a frozen moment—as a political statement—the picture might have served, and been intended to serve, as a tableau of the resolve necessary to lift this nation out of this steep and terrible time. The cadet represented the best of what America has to offer, all devil-may-care enthusiasm and willingness to serve. The president, his hair starting to whiten, might have represented something even more essential: the kind of brave and, in his case, literally unblinking leadership that generates enough moral capital to summon the young to war.
Although one man was essentially being asked to stake his life on the wisdom of the other, both were melded in an attitude of common purpose, and so both struck a common pose. With the cadet bent slightly forward and the commander in chief leaning slightly back, each man cocked his right arm and made a muscle. They flexed! I didn't know anything about the cadet. About President George W. Bush, though, I felt the satisfaction of absolute certainty, and so uttered the words as essential to my morning as my cup of Kenyan and my dose of high-minded outrage on the editorial page of the Times : "What an asshole."
Ah. That feels better. George W. Bush is an asshole, isn't he? Moreover, he's the first president who seems merely that, at least in my lifetime. From Kennedy to Clinton there is not a single president who would have been capable of striking such a pose after concluding a speech about a war in which hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis are being killed. There is not a single president for whom such a pose would seem entirely characteristic—not a single president who might be tempted to confuse a beefcakey photo opportunity with an expression of national purpose. He has always struck me as a small man, or at least as a man too small for the task at hand, and therefore a man doomed to address the discrepancy between his soul and his situation with displays of political muscle that succeed only in drawing attention to his diminution. He not only has led us into war, he seems to get off on war, and it's the greedy pleasure he so clearly gets from flexing his biceps or from squaring his shoulders and setting his jaw or from landing a plane on an aircraft carrier—the greedy pleasure the war president finds in playacting his own attitudes of belligerence—that permitted me the greedy pleasure of hating him.
Then I read the text of the speech he gave and was thrown from one kind of certainty—the comfortable kind—into another. He was speaking, as he always does, of the moral underpinnings of our mission in Iraq. He was comparing, as he always does, the challenge that we face, in the evil of global terrorism, to the challenge our fathers and grandfathers faced, in the evil of fascism. He was insisting, as he always does, that the evil of global terrorism is exactly that, an evil—one of almost transcendent dimension that quite simply must be met, lest we be remembered for not meeting it . . . lest we allow it to be our judge. I agreed with most of what he said, as I often do when he's defining matters of principle. No, more than that, I thought that he was defining principles that desperately needed defining, with a clarity that those of my own political stripe demonstrate only when they're decrying either his policies or his character. He was making a moral proposition upon which he was basing his entire presidency—or said he was basing his entire presidency—and I found myself in the strange position of buying into the proposition without buying into the presidency, of buying into the words while rejecting, utterly, the man who spoke them.
There is, of course, an easy answer for this seeming moral schizophrenia: the distance between the principles and the policy, between the mission and "Mission Accomplished," between the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Still, I have to admit to feeling a little uncertain of my disdain for this president when forced to contemplate the principle that might animate his determination to stay the course in a war that very well may be the end of him politically. I have to admit that when I listen to him speak, with his unbending certainty, I sometimes hear an echo of the same nagging question I ask myself after I hear a preacher declaim the agonies of hellfire or an insurance agent enumerate the cold odds of the actuarial tables. Namely: What if he's right?
As easy as it is to say that we can't abide the president because of the gulf between what he espouses and what he actually does , what haunts me is the possibility that we can't abide him because of us—because of the gulf between his will and our willingness. What haunts me is the possibility that we have become so accustomed to ambiguity and inaction in the face of evil that we find his call for decisive action an insult to our sense of nuance and proportion.
The people who dislike George W. Bush have convinced themselves that opposition to his presidency is the most compelling moral issue of the day. Well, it's not. The most compelling moral issue of the day is exactly what he says it is, when he's not saying it's gay marriage. The reason he will be difficult to unseat in November—no matter what his approval ratings are in the summer—is that his opponents operate out of the moral certainty that he is the bad guy and needs to be replaced, while he operates out of the moral certainty that terrorists are the bad guys and need to be defeated. The first will always sound merely convenient when compared with the second. Worse, the gulf between the two kinds of certainty lends credence to the conservative notion that liberals have settled for the conviction that Bush is distasteful as a substitute for conviction—because it's easier than conviction.
IN 1861, AFTER CONFEDERATE FORCES shelled Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus from Philadelphia to Washington and thereby made the arrest of American citizens a matter of military or executive say-so. When the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court objected to the arrest of a Maryland man who trained troops for Confederate muster, Lincoln essentially ignored his ruling. He argued that there was no point fixating on one clause in the Constitution when Southern secession had shredded the whole document, and asked, "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" During the four-year course of the Civil War, he also selectively abridged the rights of free speech, jury trial, and private property. Not that the war went well: His army was in the habit of losing long before it learned to win, and Lincoln did not find a general to his liking until he found Ulysses S. Grant, whose idea of war was total. He financed the bloodbath by exposing the nation to ruinous debt and taxation, and by 1864 he had to contend with an antiwar challenge from Democrats and a political challenge from a member of his own Cabinet. On August 23, 1864, he was motivated to write in a memorandum that "it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected," and yet his position on peace never wavered: He rejected any terms but the restoration of the union and the abolition of slavery. The war was, from first to last, portrayed as his war, and after he won landslide reelection, he made a vow not only to stay the course but to prosecute it to the brink of catastrophe and beyond: "Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.' "
Today, of course, those words, along with Lincoln's appeal to the better angels of our nature, are chiseled into the wall of his memorial, on the Mall in Washington. And yet if George Bush were to speak anything like them today, we would accuse him of pandering to his evangelical base. We would accuse him of invoking divine authority for a war of his choosing, and Maureen Dowd would find a way to read his text in light of the cancellation of some Buffy spin-off. Believe me: I am not comparing George W. Bush to Abraham Lincoln. The latter was his own lawyer as well as his own writer, and he was alive to the possibilities of tragedy and comedy—he was human —in a way that our president doesn't seem to be. Neither am I looking to justify Bush's forays into shady constitutional ground by invoking Lincoln's precedents with the same; I'm not a lawyer. I am, however, asking if the crisis currently facing the country—the crisis, that is, that announced itself on the morning of September 11, 2001, in New York and Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia—is as compelling a justification for the havoc and sacrifice of war as the crisis that became irrevocable on April 12, 1861, in South Carolina, or, for that matter, the crisis that emerged from the blue Hawaiian sky on December 7, 1941. I, for one, believe it is and feel somewhat ashamed having to say so: having to aver that 9/11/01 was a horror sufficient to supply Bush with a genuine moral cause rather than, as some would have it, a mere excuse for his adventurism.
We were attacked three years ago, without warning or predicate event. The attack was not a gesture of heroic resistance nor the offshoot of some bright utopian resolve, but the very flower of a movement that delights in the potential for martyrdom expressed in the squalls of the newly born. It is a movement that is about death—that honors death, that loves death, that fetishizes death, that worships death, that seeks to accomplish death wherever it can, on a scale both intimate and global—and if it does not warrant the expenditure of what the self-important have taken to calling "blood and treasure," then what does? Slavery? Fascism? Genocide? Let's not flatter ourselves: If we do not find it within ourselves to identify the terrorism inspired by radical Islam as an unequivocal evil—and to pronounce ourselves morally superior to it—then we have lost the ability to identify any evil at all, and our democracy is not only diminished, it dissolves into the meaninglessness of privilege.
YEAH, YEAH, I KNOW: Nobody who opposes Bush thinks that terrorism is a good thing. The issue is not whether the United States should be involved in a war on terrorism but rather whether the war on terrorism is best served by war in Iraq. And now that the war has defied the optimism of its advocates, the issue is no longer Bush's moral intention but rather his simple competence. He got us in when he had no idea how to get us out. He allowed himself to be blinded by ideology and blindsided by ideologues. His arrogance led him to offend the very allies whose participation would have enabled us to win not just the war but the peace. His obsession with Saddam Hussein led him to rush into a war that was unnecessary. Sure, Saddam was a bad guy. Sure, the world is a better place without him. But . . .
And there it is: the inevitable but . Trailed by its uncomfortable ellipsis, it sits squirming at the end of the argument against George Bush for very good reason: It can't possibly sit at the beginning. Bush haters have to back into it because there's nothing beyond it. The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, but . . . but what ? But he wasn't so bad that we had to do anything about him? But he wasn't so bad that he was worth the shedding of American blood? But there are other dictators just as bad whom we leave in place? But he provided Bush the opportunity to establish the doctrine of preemptive war, in which case the cure is worse than the disease? But we should have secured Afghanistan before invading Iraq? But we should have secured the cooperation of allies who were no more inclined to depose Saddam than they—or we, as head of an international coalition of the unwilling—were to stop the genocide in Rwanda ten years before? Sure, genocide is bad, but . . .
We might as well credit the president for his one great accomplishment: replacing but with and as a basis for foreign policy. The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, and we got rid of him. And unless we have become so wedded to the politics of regret that we are obligated to indulge in a perverse kind of nostalgia for the days of Uday and Qusay, we have to admit that it's hard to imagine a world with Saddam still in it. And even before the first stem-winder of the Democratic convention, the possibility of even limited success in Iraq has reduced the loyal opposition to two strategies: either signing up for the oversight role they had envisioned for the UN, or else declaring the whole thing a lost cause, in their own war of preemption.
Of course, Iraq might be a lost cause. It might be a disaster unmitigated and unprecedented. But if we permit ourselves to look at it the way the Republicans look at it—as a historical cause rather than just a cause assumed to be lost—we might be persuaded to see that it's history's judgment that matters, not ours. The United States, at this writing, has been in Iraq fifteen months. At the same point in the Civil War, Lincoln faced, well, a disaster unmitigated and unprecedented. He was losing . He didn't lose, at least in part because he was able to both inspire and draw on the kind of moral absolutism necessary to win wars. Bush has been unable to do the same, at least in part because he is undercut by evidence of his own dishonesty, but also because moral absolutism is nearly impossible to sustain in the glare of a twenty-four-hour news cycle. In a nation incapable of feeling any but the freshest wounds, Bush cannot seek to inspire moral absolutism without his moral absolutism becoming itself an issue—indeed, the issue. He cannot seek to engender certainty without being accused of sowing disarray. And he cannot speak the barest terms necessary for victory in any war—that we will stay the course, through good or through ill, because our cause is right and just, and God is on our side—without inspiring a goodly number of his constituents to aspire to the moral prestige of surrender.
THERE IS SUPPOSED TO BE a straight line between Bush's moral absolutism—between his penchant for calling our enemies "evildoers" or even, well, "enemies"—and Guantánamo, and then between Guantánamo and the case of Jose Padilla, and then between Padilla and the depravities of Abu Ghraib. More than a mere demonstration of cause and effect, the line is supposed by those opposed to a second Bush presidency to function as a geometric proof of the proposition that the American position in Iraq is not only untenable but ignoble. It's supposed to prove that victory in any such enterprise is not worth the taint and that withdrawal is tantamount to victory, because it will save the national soul. In fact, it proves something quite different: It proves that just as the existence of the animal-rights movement is said to depend on the increasing American distance from the realities of the farm, the liberal consensus on the war in Iraq depends on the increasing American distance from the realities of soldiering. All Abu Ghraib proves is what Lincoln made clear in his writings, and what any soldier has to know from the moment he sizes up another soldier in the sight of his rifle: that war is undertaken at the risk of the national soul. The moral certainty that makes war possible is certain only to unleash moral havoc, and moral havoc becomes something the nation has to rise above. We can neither win a war nor save the national soul if all we seek is to remain unsullied—pristine. Anyway, we are well beyond that now. The question is not, and has never been, whether we can fight a war without perpetrating outrages of our own. The question is whether the rightness of the American cause is sufficient not only to justify war but to withstand war's inevitable outrages. The question is whether—if the cause is right—we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and historians today applaud the restraint he displayed in throwing thousands of American citizens in jail. By the middle of 2002, George W. Bush had declared two American citizens enemy combatants, and both men are still in jail at this writing, uncharged. Both presidents used war as a rationale for their actions, citing as their primary constitutional responsibility the protection of the American people. It was not until two years later that Congress took up Lincoln's action and pronounced it constitutionally justified. Our willingness to extend Bush the same latitude will depend on our perception of what exactly we're up against, post-9/11. Lincoln was fighting for the very soul of this country; he was fighting to preserve this country, as a country, and so he had to challenge the Constitution in order to save it. Bush seems to think that he's fighting for the very soul of this country, but that's exactly what many people regard as a dangerous presumption. He seems to think that he is fighting for our very survival, when all we're asking him to fight for is our security, which is a very different thing. A fight for our security? We can handle that; it means we have to get to the airport early. A fight for our survival? That means we have to live in a different country altogether. That means the United States is changing and will continue to change, the way it did during and after the Civil War, with a fundamental redefinition of executive authority. That means we have to endure the constitutional indignity of the president's declaring Jose Padilla an enemy combatant for contemplating the still-uncommitted crime of blowing up a radioactive device in an American city, which seems a constitutional indignity too great to endure, unless we think of the constitutional indignities we'd have to endure if Padilla had actually committed the crime he's accused of planning. Unless we think of how this country might change if we get hit again, and hit big. In defending his suspension of habeas corpus, Lincoln sought to draw the distinction between liberties that are absolute and those that are sustainable in time of war. Bush seems to be relying on the same question, and the same distinction, as an answer to all the lawyers and editorial writers who suggest that if Jose Padilla stays in jail, we are losing the war on terror by abrogating our own ideals.
Losing the war on terror? The terrible truth is that we haven't begun to find out what that really means.
I WILL NEVER FORGET the sickly smile that crossed the president's face when he asked us all to go shopping in the wake of 9/11. It was desperate and a little craven, and I never forgave him for it. As it turned out, though, his appeal succeeded all too well. We've found the courage to go shopping. We've welcomed the restoration of the rule of celebrity. For all our avowals that nothing would ever be the same, the only thing that really changed is our taste in entertainment, which has forsaken the frivolity of the sitcom for the grit on display in The Apprentice . The immediacy of the threat was replaced by the inexplicability of the threat level. A universal war—the war on terror—was succeeded by a narrow one, an elective one, a personal one, in Iraq. Eventually, the president made it easy to believe that the threat from within was as great as the threat from without. That those at home who declared American moral primacy were as dangerous as those abroad who declared our moral degeneracy. That our national security was not worth the risk to our soul. That Abu Ghraib disproved the rightness of our cause and so represented the symbolic end of the war that began on 9/11. And that the very worst thing that could happen to this country would be four more years of George W. Bush. In a nation that loves fairy tales, the president seemed so damned eager to cry wolf that we decided he was just trying to keep us scared and that maybe he was just as big a villain as the wolf he insisted on telling us about. That's the whole point of the story, isn't it? The boy cries wolf for his own ends, and after a while people stop believing in the reality of the threat.
I know how this story ends, because I've told it many times myself. I've told it so many times, in fact, that I'm always surprised when the wolf turns out to be real, and shows up hungry at the door, long after the boy is gone.