Bush rejects the global test: reality.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 4 2004 6:49 AM

The Global Test

It's called reality.

Failing the test
Failing the test

We've just reached the crux of the presidential campaign—the moment in which one candidate, purporting to expose the other's fatal flaw, has instead exposed his own.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Saturday morning, President Bush attacked John Kerry for a comment Kerry made in Thursday night's debate. Here's how Bush described Kerry's remark:

He said that America has to pass a global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves. That's what he said. Think about this. Sen. Kerry's approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions. I have a different view. When our country is in danger, the president's job is not to take an international poll. The president's job is to defend America. I'll continue to work every day with our friends and allies for the sake of freedom and peace. But our national security decisions will be made in the Oval Office, not in foreign capitals.

This description, which Bush continues to repeat at campaign stops and in television ads, is plainly false. In his first answer of the debate, Kerry said, "I'll never give a veto to any country over our security." But if that isn't what Kerry meant by a "global test," what did he mean? Let's go back and look at Kerry's words.

No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you've got to do in a way that passes the test—that passes the global test—where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

Here we have our own secretary of state who's had to apologize to the world for the presentation he made to the United Nations. I mean, we can remember when President Kennedy, in the Cuban missile crisis, sent his secretary of state to Paris to meet with [French President Charles] de Gaulle, and in the middle of the discussion to tell them about the missiles in Cuba, [the secretary of state] said, "Here, let me show you the photos." And de Gaulle waved them off, and said, "No, no, no, no. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me." How many leaders in the world today would respond to us, as a result of what we've done, in that way?

It's clear from Kerry's first sentence that the "global test" doesn't prevent unilateral action to protect ourselves. But notice what else Kerry says. The test includes convincing "your countrymen" that your reasons are clear and sound. Kerry isn't just talking about satisfying France. He's talking about satisfying Ohio. He's talking about you.

What do you have in common with a Frenchman? Look again at Kerry's words. He says the test is to "prove" that our reasons for attacking were legitimate. In the next sentence, he gives an example of someone failing that test: Colin Powell's February 2003 presentation to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What did Powell apologize for? The inaccuracy of our intelligence. Kerry contrasts this with the trust France once placed in American spy photos.

Proof, intelligence, spy photos. The pattern is obvious. The test isn't moral. It's factual. What you and the Frenchman share is the evidence of your senses. The global test is the measurement of the president's assertions against the real world, the world you and I can see.

This is the test Bush has failed. He has failed to produce evidence for his prewar claims of Iraqi WMD and operational ties to al-Qaida, or for his postwar claims of success against the insurgency. Now he's going further. He's not simply failing the test. He's refusing to take it.

Listen to Bush's words again. "The president's job is not to take an international poll," he says. "Our national security decisions will be made in the Oval Office, not in foreign capitals." Bush doesn't say these decisions belong to the United States. He says they belong to the Oval Office. He frames this as patriotism, boasting that he doesn't care whether he offers evidence sufficient to convince people in France. He shows no awareness or concern that evidence is also necessary to convince people in Ohio. He says it isn't his job to take a "poll," to hear what others think. He needs no validation.

Bush pretends he's just blowing off the French. But his comments show a pattern of blowing off external feedback in general. He shrugs off information that debunks his claims about WMD, arguing that it's more important for a president to understand the overall nature of the world. He defines credibility as agreement with himself. He reinterprets evidence of policy mistakes in postwar Iraq as evidence of success. In Thursday's debate, he dismissed unwelcome reports from that country as too offensive to heed. And according to Sunday's New York Times, he and his aides exaggerated Iraq's nuclear capability, ignoring warnings from "the government's foremost nuclear experts."

Bush claims he has done all this to protect you. But that claim is precisely what's challenged by the evidence he conceals or disregards. What he's protecting you from is the ability to measure his assertions against the world that you and I can see. That's the global test he's mocking. And he expects you to applaud him for it, because he thinks you resent the French so much you'd rather have a president accountable to no one.

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