Among the many flabbergasting answers that President Bush gave at his press conference on Monday, this one—about Democrats who propose pulling out of Iraq—triggered the steepest jaw drop: "I would never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me. This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live."
George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world is like … well, it's like George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world. It's sui generis: No parallel quite captures the absurdity so succinctly.
This, after all, is the president who invaded Iraq without the slightest understanding of the country's ethnic composition or of the volcanic tensions that toppling its dictator might unleash. Complexity has no place in his schemes. Choices are never cloudy. The world is divided into the forces of terror and the forces of freedom: The one's defeat means the other's victory.
Defeating terror by promoting freedom—it's "the fundamental challenge of the 21st century," he has said several times, especially when it comes to the Middle East. But here, from the transcript of the press conference, is how he sees the region's recent events:
What's very interesting about the violence in Lebanon and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy.
What is he talking about? Hamas, which has been responsible for much of the violence in Gaza, won the Palestinian territory's parliamentary elections. Hezbollah, which started its recent war with Israel, holds a substantial minority of seats in Lebanon's parliament and would probably win many more seats if a new election were held tomorrow. Many of the militants waging sectarian battle in Iraq have representation in Baghdad's popularly elected parliament.
The key reality that Bush fails to grasp is that terrorism and democracy are not opposites. They can, and sometimes do, coexist. One is not a cure for the other.
Here, as a further example of this failing, is his summation of Iraq:
I hear a lot about "civil war"… [But] the Iraqis want a unified country. … Twelve million Iraqis voted. … It's an indication about the desire for people to live in a free society.
What he misses is that those 12 million Iraqis had sharply divided views of what a free society meant. Shiites voted for a unified country led by Shiites, Sunnis voted for a unified country led by Sunnis, and Kurds voted for their own separate country. Almost nobody voted for a free society in any Western sense of the term. (The secular parties did very poorly.)
The total number of voters, in such a context, means nothing. Look at American history. In the 1860 election, held right before our own Civil War, 81.2 percent of eligible citizens voted—the second-largest turnout ever.
Another comment from the president: "It's in our interests that we help reformers across the Middle East achieve their objectives." But who are these reformers? What are their objectives? And how can we most effectively help them?
This is where Bush's performance proved most discouraging. He said, as he's said before, "Resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists." This may or may not be true. (Many terrorist leaders are well-off, and, according to some studies, their resentment is often aimed at foreign occupiers.) In any case, what is Bush doing to reduce their resentment?
He said he wants to help Lebanon's democratic government survive, but what is he doing about that? Bush called the press conference to announce a $230 million aid package. That's a step above the pathetic $50 million that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had offered the week before, but it's still way below the $1 billion or more than Iran is shoveling to Hezbollah, which is using the money to rebuild Lebanon's bombed-out neighborhoods—and to take credit for the assistance.
As for Iraq, it's no news that Bush has no strategy. What did come as news—and, really, a bit of a shocker—is that he doesn't seem to know what "strategy" means.
Asked if it might be time for a new strategy in Iraq, given the unceasing rise in casualties and chaos, Bush replied, "The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and dreams, which is a democratic society. That's the strategy. … Either you say, 'It's important we stay there and get it done,' or we leave. We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president."
The reporter followed up, "Sir, that's not really the question. The strategy—"
Bush interrupted, "Sounded like the question to me."
First, it's not clear that the Iraqi people want a "democratic society" in the Western sense. Second, and more to the point, "helping Iraqis achieve a democratic society" may be a strategic objective, but it's not a strategy—any more than "ending poverty" or "going to the moon" is a strategy.
Strategy involves how to achieve one's objectives—or, as the great British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart put it, "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy." These are the issues that Bush refuses to address publicly—what means and resources are to be applied, in what way, at what risk, and to what end, in pursuing his policy. Instead, he reduces everything to two options: "Cut and run" or, "Stay the course." It's as if there's nothing in between, no alternative way of applying military means. Could it be that he doesn't grasp the distinction between an "objective" and a "strategy," and so doesn't see that there might be alternatives? Might our situation be that grim?