- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006


By Fred Barnes

Crown Forum, $23.95, 220 pages


Few journalists have had the access and insight into the inner workings of the Bush presidency that has been granted to Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host of the Fox News Channel’s “Beltway Boys.”

There are probably two good reasons for this. One is that President Bush has very little regard for members of the Washington press corps as a whole, a feeling that often seems to be entirely mutual. The other is that Mr. Barnes approaches his subject as a patient and sympathetic listener, genuinely interested in getting to the essence of Bush the man.

The result is “Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush,” an eminently readable analysis of the deep sense of purpose that motivates the Bush presidency.

George Bush emerges from the book as a contradiction in terms. In Mr. Barnes’ words, “President Bush operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents, an elected band of brothers (and quite a few sisters) on a mission. He’s an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters. He’s a different kind of president in style and substance.” This surely accounts for the fact that Mr. Bush routinely arouses such strong feelings in others, Americans and foreigners alike. As Mr. Bush said after September 11, you are either with him or against him — hardest of all is finding anyone who is indifferent.

The source of Mr. Bush’s convictions is his faith ? a foundation of strength he shares with many of his closets advisors like Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Michael Gerson.

It is what insulates him from the chatter of the Washington power elites and the pull of national opinion polls. He answers to a higher, different authority than most Washingtonians, a city where people tend to watch the television morning shows rather than attend church on Sunday.

This has given Mr. Bush great strength, both to face the national trauma of September 11, when Mr. Bush performed superbly as the leader of a nation under attack and to pursue the vision that emerged from the ashes of the World Trade Center, the idea of spreading democracy to the Middle East as the antidote to the poisonous ideologies that had blossomed there.

Mr. Bush found himself in complete sympathy with the ideas articulated in Natan Sharansky’s book “The Case for Democracy,” which argues that the urge for self-determination and freedom is a universal characteristic of human nature. This message is one that Mr. Bush has repeated in speech after speech, most prominently his 2004 Inaugural Address and his 2005 State of the Union address.

As a consequence, Mr. Bush has never deviated from the plan that democratic elections and a political settlement had to be the precondition for any American withdrawal from Iraq. Throughout 2005, his faith in the Iraqi people was rewarded.

Whether the erupting Sunni-Shi’ite violence, which represents the most serious threat we have faced so far to the stability and coherence of the country will have an impact on Mr. Bush remains to be seen. It is unlikely, though, that the president could afford to change course in Iraq, even had he wanted to.

Now, Mr. Bush’s deliberate and well-advertised independence from Congress and from the political classes in Washington is often a strength. As Mr. Barnes writes, “He treats Washington like a detention center and is no admirer of Congress. Bush has set records for most days spent outside the nation’s capitol by a president. He makes no excuses for this.” This helps the president speak to the American people in a way many politicians forget once they become immersed in the hothouse atmosphere of the capital city.

But it also means that Mr. Bush and his staff can at times make serious political misjudgments, one of which is haunting the White House right now — the decision to allow a Dubai-based company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates to operate container terminals in six major U.S. ports, including New York and Baltimore.

Had the Bush administration been more politically attuned, it would have anticipated the reaction on Capitol Hill and among Mr. Bush’s own conservative base. This is not to say that the congressional reaction is correct, only that it surely could have been predicted and mitigated. As it was, Mr. Bush’s subsequent angry threat to veto any legislation that would block the contract was equally counterproductive.

Here Mr. Bush differs from Ronald Reagan, whose effectiveness as president was based partly on the strength of his vision and partly on his willingness to engage and charm even his most recalcitrant opponents when this was needed.

Now, the port security debacle blew up after the publication of “Rebel-in-Chief” and therefore needless to say is outside its scope. Yet, one could have wished for somewhat more extensive analysis by the insightful Mr. Barnes of policies where Mr. Bush’s outsider approach to Washington has backfired, though he does mention a number in his final evaluation of the “rebel’s legacy.” Particularly, some of Mr. Bush’s major domestic initiatives have faltered — energy policy and Social Security reform come to mind.

Unlike his predecessor in office, Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush does not seem obsessed with the “legacy question” — how will history judge my presidency? Mr. Bush already has a sense of purpose for which he does not need the approval of historians. Yet, this may give him the mark of a great leader, the way Ronald Reagan’s vision has become clearly recognized almost two decades after he left office. In the case of George W. Bush, his character “may make him a great leader, too,” writes Mr. Barnes. “And one day, probably decades from now, we’ll know for certain.”

Helle Dale is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. Her weekly column appears on the Op-Ed page of The Washington Times.

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