The Final Push

November 2nd, 2004 at 12:00 am David Frum | No Comments |

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“Whatever it takes.” – From George W.Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, September 2, 2004

“Not necessarily.” – John Kerry’s reply to Mr Bush’s charge that Mr Kerry would have left Saddam Hussein in power, October 8, 2004

In case anybody needed reminding of what this US election is all about, Osama bin Laden popped up on the world’s television screens to remind us all. Different eyes saw different realities in the face of the old killer. Some saw he was still alive and at liberty, despite George W. Bush’s pledge to find him “dead or alive”. Mr Bush’s critics accuse him of mistakes in the war on terror. Mistakes have surely been made, as in every war ever fought. There have been successes too: al-Qaeda prefers to communicate with murder and terror; it is a sign of how badly the network has been damaged that it has been reduced to broadcasting threats by videotape.

Yet ultimately it is not anger at the president’s mistakes, real or imaginary, that motivates Mr Bush’s critics, domestic and international. It is outrage at his goals. Mr Bush responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 as a world-changing catastrophe, one that demanded a rethinking of US policy in every realm, from nuclear proliferation to global alliances. For a short period, most world leaders and nearly all US Democrats pretended to fall in with that view. But many privately dissented and have since voiced their opposition with growing force. These dissenters agree with mainstream American opinion that 9/11 was a moral atrocity whose perpetrators had to be punished. Strategically, however, they grant 9/11 much less importance. For them, it was essential that the US avoid over-reaction; that it resist the impulse to retaliate in ways that could destabilise a global economic and political system that functioned pretty well.

This is the viewpoint for which Mr Kerry speaks. This is what he meant by his remark to the New York Times: “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they’re a nuisance.” No wonder Mr Kerry and his supporters see Mr Bush as an agent of disruption. For Mr Bush has utterly rejected this cautious view of terrorism. The temptation that the president has been determined to resist at all costs is that of under-reaction. He has responded to the 9/11 attacks with fury and policy radicalism.

Domestic counter-terrorism has been hauled into the modern age by Mr Bush’s Patriot Act. Security agencies scattered about the government are being welded together into a Department of Homeland Security. Mr Bush vetoed the US military’s first battle plan for Afghanistan as too unwieldy and slow. He gambled his presidency on a plan that relied primarily on air power, special forces and ad hoc alliances with local Afghan groups. As a result, Kabul fell in less than 60 days and a looming famine averted.

In Iraq, Mr Bush had to confront the utter collapse of the policies of the 1990s. Saddam Hussein had manoeuvred inspectors out of the country in 1998; sanctions were discredited; and France and Russia stood in the way of any renewed United Nation action against Mr Hussein. US troops on his borders pressured Mr Hussein to re-admit inspectors in 2002 but the inspectors would have remained only as long as the troops did. Critics may complain that Mr Bush gave short shrift to the UN and other international institutions. But as the UN “oil for food” scandal reminds us, these institutions gave short shrift to the US.

Mr Bush has become a bitterly controversial figure around the world. Consider the words of an American observer who lived in Britain for years: “London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial: it created a nightmare of its own and gave it the name of (George W. Bush). Behind this it placed another demon, if possible more devilish, and called it (Paul Wolfowitz). In regard to these two men, English society seemed demented. Defence was useless; explanation was vain; one could only let the passion exhaust itself. One’s best friends were as unreasonable as enemies, for the belief in poor (Mr Bush’s) brutality and (Mr Wolfowitz’s) ferocity became a dogma of popular faith.”

As the brackets probably warned you, I have played a little trick. The American I am quoting is Henry Adams. The war during which he lived in London was the US civil war, and the names that originally appeared were not “Bush” and “Wolfowitz”, but “Abraham Lincoln” and “William Seward”, Lincoln’s secretary of state.

I am not going to compare Mr Bush to Lincoln. But I will note that Lincoln was the last US president to seek re-election in the middle of a big war whose outcome remained uncertain. He was disliked in Europe because he too was seen – and correctly seen – as a disturbing and destabilising force in the world, who spurned peace in favour of victory. And he was, finally, the author of the words that best sum up how millions upon millions of Americans feel about the 43rd president: “We cannot spare this man. He fights.”

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