2-YEAR A.A.R.

Kevin Drum asks an interesting question about President Bush and his anti-terrorism policies:

It’s impossible to tell what really motivates him, just as it’s impossible to tell how much his policies are driven by genuine conviction vs. how much they are driven simply by crass electoral considerations.

And so I dither. In an age where nuclear weapons are, if not easy to come by, at least possible to come by, an aggressive military posture toward radical Islamic terrorism makes perfect sense — if it will work. Keeping a strong American presence in Iraq to ensure security and guide them toward some kind of democracy makes perfect sense — if it will work. And insisting on the obliteration of terrorist groups like Hamas as a precursor to a Palestinian state makes perfect sense — if it will work.

But will it work? And is George Bush the kind of person who is willing to look at the facts on the ground and change his policies if they aren’t working? Or does “firmness” demand that he pursue his policies forever regardless of success or failure?

Let’s take these in reverse. It’s rather clear from the criticisms that come from his own core constituency that Bush will change his policies based on changing circumstances; the criticism from both left and right is that he does this while pretending that he’s staying the course and was right all along.

As to whether using violence to stop terrorism will work, that’s an excellent question. Clearly, dead terrorists are much less dangerous than live ones. But killing terrorists can also breed new ones. In all candor, I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this one. The Brits haven’t figured it out, and they’ve tried both force and diplomacy. Ditto the Israelis. I’m hoping that systematic targeting of terrorist cells combined with a plan to establish civil society in their breeding grounds will do the trick. But, unlike traditional combat ops, I’m not sure how we even go about evaluating success, let alone creating an exit strategy. We’ve now gone two years without a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. That could end before this post is finished; it could continue for several more years.

I don’t know what motivates anyone, let alone a man I’ve never met. My sense of George W. Bush is that he’s incredibly blase and pragmatic/opportunistic toward issues he’s not passionate about and operates with a near-missionary zeal on those few things he truly cares about. He’s much like Ronald Reagan in that regard. Reagan talked about issues near and dear to the cultural conservatives but did nothing about those issues. But he was adament about fighting communism, big defense budgets, and deregulating the economy (although he did engage in some anti-Japanese protectionism). He was able to get much of that done. How about GWB? My sense is:

  • Free trade: He sort of believes but he’s not passionate. So, if Karl Rove can persuade him that some steel tarrifs won’t do much harm but they’ll help him get votes so he can do the stuff he cares about, he’ll go along.
  • Judicial nominees: He’d like to see “Anthony” Scalia types on the bench, but he’ll settle for a campaign issue.
  • The economy: He’s zealously commited to tax cuts. Tax cuts solve all problems. And the economy can get you un-re-elected (see Dad), so you have to do stuff to pretend that you’re trying to fix it, even though you’re pretty sure it won’t work.
  • Terrorism: He believes this is his ultimate test and he’s committed with literally a missionary zeal. This doesn’t mean he’s above using “terrorism” in much the way Cold War era Republicans used “national security” as a tool to get his way on other issues. But he’s consumed by this one.
  • The Axis of Evil: He truly believes Saddam is/was an evil man who had to be deposed. I think he believed that before 9/11. But 9/11 also fundamentally changed his world view (see the Kaplan piece). He now believes that, as the WWII generation learned with Hitler, allowing evil men with the capability to do harm in power is unacceptable. Military force was appropriate for dealing with Saddam because the upside was huge and the downside was slim. With North Korea, now that they have nukes, the downside is pretty damned steep. And he’s hoping Iran solves itself from within.

So, I see Bush as a complicated man who is passionate on terrorism and largely believes what he’s saying there. But he’s also a pretty cunning politician for someone with relatively little experience. He’s clearly learned a lot from his dad’s failure to win re-election and is willing to listen to his political advisors on the issues outside his core. Which, ironically, is very similar to Bill Clinton–except that I don’t think Clinton had a core. Except, again ironically, free trade.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JohnC says:

    I think he’s a pure bred 90’s CEO. Bungy jumping, thrill seeker who’s convinced of his absolute predestination to be a success.

    And he’ll end up like the rest of those guys on the trash heap. Sorry. I know Paul will rip me a new one.

    But everything about this group of jokers screams CEO from a dot-com or WorldCom.

    The illusion can only go so far. And he’ll turn on a dime if it’s politically advantageous I just laugh thinking about how people think he’s a man of principle.

    He’s a salesman on a testosterone overdose surrounded by yes men.

    🙂

    Your turn Paul.

  2. jen says:

    John,

    While I agree with your assessment that the President is in the model of a CEO, I disagree that he’ll end up on the trash heap. Where you say he’ll turn on a dime if it’s politically advantageous isn’t quite true – yes, he’ll compromise on the issues where he doesn’t feel as strongly. While compromise may not make one side or the other 100% happy, it serves to get something done. But he is a man of principle, especially on the issues about which he is zealous – like national security. For that, I’m grateful and I’ll take the rest of the package along with it.

    And for those who complained that Clinton compromised too much, I was one who thought it was shrewd politics on his part. He wanted to have a record of getting things done and he managed to do that, on some things at least. While I disagreed with pretty much all of his policies, I have to give him credit for that. I can only hope that President Bush will get the same credit from the opposition.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Military force was appropriate for dealing with Saddam because the upside was huge and the downside was slim.”

    Considering the history of occupations by Western govenments (not to mention Israel) in the Middle East, how could the Bush Admin. believe that the downside was slim? Considering Vietnam, Russia in Afganistan, and any other historical context, how could anyone believe we could occupy Iraq with ease?

    Considering the animiosity of the US promolgated throught the Middle East, how could any thinking person believe it would be easy to win over the Iraqi people? It took a cruel, iron handed dictator to keep the public in tow. If we become what Saddam was in order to provide security, are we any better?

  4. JohnC says:

    Jen, if your still reading this, check out this. Pretty much sums up what I said, eh?

  5. Paul says:

    hmmm

    As to whether using violence to stop terrorism will work, that’s an excellent question. Clearly, dead terrorists are much less dangerous than live ones. But killing terrorists can also breed new ones. In all candor, I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this one.

    It sure as hell beats leaving them alive…

    Kevin Says:

    In an age where nuclear weapons are, if not easy to come by, at least possible to come by, an aggressive military posture toward radical Islamic terrorism makes perfect sense — if it will work. Keeping a strong American presence in Iraq to ensure security and guide them toward some kind of democracy makes perfect sense — if it will work. And insisting on the obliteration of terrorist groups like Hamas as a precursor to a Palestinian state makes perfect sense — if it will work.

    Will the alternative work? Will doing nothing work?

    Since the Iranians took over the embassy under Carter’s watch we have learned the hard way that doing nothing about terrorism does not work. It took us 4000+ lives to figure that out.

    It seems 2 years later we are faced with a choice. (especially when watching Dem candidates debate)

    We can go back to doing nothing and accept the murder of our people or we can do something about it.

    Apparently choosing the former requires you to be a Republican today.

    But I’m OK with that.

    Paul

  6. Jen Speaks says:

    Presidential Analysis
    Outside the Beltway has a good analysis of President Bush’s leadership and political style on the issues in response to Kevin Drum’s questions about his policies. I think James has President Bush pretty well pegged.

  7. Carnival of the Vanities – #52
    It’s been a year since the Carnival of the Vanites debuted. To celebrate, I’m going to break a cardinal rule of blogging and update this post later on with more of an intro, not to mention thanks all round. Update:…