Bush's incomprehension of foreign viewpoints.

Politics and policy.
March 7 2003 12:18 AM

Gray Matter

Bush's incomprehension of foreign viewpoints.

If you tuned in to President Bush's Thursday night press conference to understand his point of view on Iraq, you got what you came for. If you tuned in to find out whether he understood yours, tough luck. That was the deal when we traded in Bill Clinton for Bush. We got a president who understood the difference between truth and lying. We gave up one who understood everything in between. The upside is that our president is doing the right thing in Iraq. The downside is that he can't talk anyone else into going along.

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Clinton was famous for seeing three sides of a two-sided issue. There was the time he agreed with the congressional majority on the Persian Gulf war but said he shared the concerns of the minority. There was the time he lamented having raised people's taxes too much. And of course, there was the time he pondered the meanings of "is."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Bush suffers no such ambivalence. Everything he knows about foreign policy, he learned in kindergarten: Love your neighbor, stand by your friends, honor your word. Thursday night, a reporter asked whether Bush held a grudge against Saddam Hussein. "I swore to protect and defend the Constitution," said Bush. "I put my hand on the Bible and took that oath. And that's exactly what I am going to do." He described the United Nations the same way: "The fundamental question facing the Security Council is, will its words mean anything?"

Bush has no trouble calling a lie a lie. While French sophisticates parse the adequacy of Iraq's latest ploy, Bush sees Saddam's game as a whole. "These are not the actions of a regime that is disarming. These are the actions of a regime engaged in a willful charade," said Bush. As for those who preach peace, the president observed, "Allowing a dangerous dictator to defy the world and harbor weapons of mass murder and terror is not peace at all. It is pretense."

But sometimes, things aren't black and white. Sometimes they're gray. When the governments of France, China, or Mexico don't see things your way, you have to start the process of persuasion by understanding where they're coming from. That's where Clinton was at his best and Bush is at his worst. Four times at his press conference, Bush was asked why other countries weren't seeing things our way. Four times, he had no idea.

Bloomberg News reporter Dick Keil asked Bush why American allies who had seen U.S. intelligence on Iraq didn't agree that the threat was sufficient to require war. Bush replied that other countries agreed with him. Fox News reporter Jim Angle asked why "so many people around the world take a different view." Bush replied that protest was healthy but that it wouldn't change his opinion—as though the question had been about his opinion. ABC News correspondent Terry Moran asked why "so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power." Bush replied that the world would come around. Finally, Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Ron Hutcheson asked Bush about critics who feared war would destabilize the Middle East: "Do you ever worry, maybe in the wee, small hours, that you might be wrong, and they might be right?" Bush didn't budge. "I know we'll prevail," he said. "And out of that disarmament of Saddam will come a better world."

Again and again, Bush was asked to explain why other nations didn't see things his way. Again and again, he changed the subject to himself and his supporters.

At one point, Bush declared that Iraq's failure to disarm "cannot be denied." At another, he said of Saddam's compliance with U.N. resolutions, "It's hard to believe anybody is saying he isn't in defiance of 1441." At no point did Bush grapple with the fact that Iraq's failure to disarm is being denied and that other governments are saying Saddam isn't in defiance of 1441.

"I pray daily," Bush told the press corps. "I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength." Oh, well. Two out of three ain't bad.