- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2006

It is the final political season for President Bush. After November, he will begin the process leading to the day in January 2009 when he will become irreversibly a former president on the United States. But his season as president is not yet over. He has two and a half years to preside over the American government, regardless of the results this November.

Mr. Bush faces momentous difficulties. Many Americans still do not realize the extent to which the United States is locked into a protracted and dangerous war with Islamofascism.

After we were attacked on September 11, U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly favored the pursuit of our attackers in their base in Afghanistan. Mr. Bush and his advisers realized, however, that this would not solve the new long-term threat now posed by an enemy determined not only to remove our presence from the Middle East and destroy Israel, but also intent upon humiliating and overwhelming Western culture with an aggressive and feudal totalitarian culture of their own.

A war was initiated in Iraq to remove a bestial dictator and to change this totalitarian nature of the Middle East. Virtually everyone concedes Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, but many in the United States and most in Europe resisted the boldness and risk the president took to alter the chemistry of persistent feudalism in the Middle Eastern Islamic world.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush at the outset muddled his true purpose with dire warnings of so-called “weapons of mass destruction,” which were not found after the war. What we did find was absolute evidence of a regime so venal and cruel that it is difficult to understand how it was able to persist for so many decades.

Opponents rightly contend that even destroying this unspeakable regime was not alone worth the risk we took, the lives we have lost, and the huge expense we have made. But the president and his advisors had a much larger strategic purpose. They saw the necessity, given the ominous aggression of the terrorists, to change the nature of the Middle Eastern political landscape which had been altered primarily by a vast and seemingly unending infusion of cash from the sale of its petroleum resources to the rest of the world. This infusion permitted Middle Eastern regimes to arm themselves with sophisticated weaponry and to pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons. It is instructive to point out to Western apologists for these regimes that they did not use their new economic resources to provide civilian infrastructure, universal education and health care to their populations, including the long-suffering Palestinian refugees in their midst.

His opponents continue to demonize Mr. Bush. But I continue to think his strategic vision is the best one, and the risk he took was a valid one. The struggle is not over in the Middle East, contrary to the perennial naysayers, but it is a time when outcomes are uncertain and our purpose is not transparent. The president and his advisors, principally Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tried to follow up their successful military campaign with minimal military force. I think this was mainly due to their lack of personal military experience. Colin Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force” in hindsight (and in the foresight of military history) was much more likely to succeed.

But given the chance to reverse our policy through the presidential election on 2004, American voters chose, intuitively, to continue the president’s course. The fact is that wars are not easily and neatly fought. From Manassas to the Battle of the Bulge to Viet Nam, there are battles lost and grievous mistakes made. It has been this way as long as we have records of history.

Only 16 years after we unilaterally withdrew from Viet Nam, world communism collapsed. It did not collapse from war on a battlefield, but it did collapse from the determination of Western democratic capitalism to contain it until it fell apart from its own economic contradictions. In the case of the Middle East, the continued infusion of billions of dollars into the economies of hostile regimes from the sale of petroleum and the aggression of the terrorists offers no such simple prospect.

I have suggested that George W. Bush came to the right vision and the right strategy after September 11. In this he has served, and continues to serve, the greatest interests of the United States and its values of democracy and economic freedom. This gift, however, has not been matched with equal gifts of communication to the American people. In an environment of uncertainly, terrible images of war and destruction, and a lack of understanding of our foreign policy purposes, it is not surprising that most Americans are unhappy, anxious and unwilling to be optimistic about our military confrontations which seem to have no end.

During the campaign of 2006, Mr. Bush has been touring the country in support of his party’s candidates for Congress. As a sitting, albeit unpopular, president, he raises large sums for their campaigns. But his remarks on these occasions, often given to private and sympathetic audiences, have been restatements of his resolve to carry on the global struggle against the contemporary threat of terrorism. He and his advisers are showing new flexibility in their determination to defeat this enemy even as some leaders of the opposition party are clamoring for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. The American voters are deeply troubled and weary of war, but I don’t think they have any intention to appease the enemy and surrender the field. (Some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Biden, are searching for new ways to hold the field and reject appeasement, while realizing American goals and ideals. But for now they are being shouted down.)

This is why November may not be so dark for the president and his party after all. Mr. Bush has been telling personal stories to his audiences during the campaign of 2006, trying to enable them belatedly to understand what he is doing. Reverting to his native Texglish, and eschewing the more formal contemporary English of so many of his colleagues, Mr. Bush talks of his recent experiences as president. One of the most touching is when he talks about the books he has been reading about his predecessors, particularly the best of them, Washington, Lincoln and FDR. All of them were war presidents, too. His identity with Lincoln is the most revealing.

Lincoln struggled with an unpopular war, was demonized in the press and made many mistakes in his choice of generals and battles. Lincoln’s original stated purpose to preserve the Union evolved into the abolition of slavery, and when he was on the verge of winning, he put it all into what author Ron White and others call, his greatest speech: the second inaugural. Mr. Bush has read Mr. White’s remarkable book (“Lincoln’s Greatest Speech”). He communicates his own anguish, realizing he has no less responsibility and purpose as our greatest president, but knowing he lacks Lincoln’s extraordinary gift of speech. Unlike Lincoln, who wrote his own speeches, Mr. Bush has delivered his best ones with the aid of a superb speechwriter. Even so, he has so far failed to explain fully to the American people his grand strategy and purpose.

But he is an eagle in the autumn of his presidency, stubbornly holding to his vision and overwhelming responsibility, determined to finish his watch holding to his deepest values and ideals. Eventually, those who oppose him, and even those who may despise him now, are likely to recognize and honor his lonely and historic journey.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.



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