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 Ã¢€” 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 Ã¢€” if it will work. And insisting on the obliteration of terrorist groups like Hamas as a precursor to a Palestinian state makes perfect sense Ã¢€” 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.