In honor of Presidents' Day (actually, Washington's Birthday Observed), a look at this month's First Things and a very interesting discussion between Joseph Bottom and Michael Novak on "The Leadership of George W. Bush: Con & Pro," which, fortunately is also available online. (And which hopefully means we can finally be rid of that exceedingly tedious debate between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward Oakes.) Bottom takes the "con," and while his entire piece is valuable (both his and Novak's are well thought-out), the case couldn't be put much better than he does in the concluding four paragraphs of his brief, presented here without further elaboration.
And the fact we must face is this: We have already been defeated in Iraq. Perhaps not in literal truth; a better policy, better implemented, might yet bring about a stable, democratic country. And certainly not in historical terms; Iraq is only an early chapter in what must be a long struggle against global Jihadism. But, at the very least, the battle for perception of the Iraq War has gone entirely against the United States. In the eyes of both the American public and the Islamic world, we have lost-and lost badly.
The reason is President Bush. His administration has mishandled the logistics of the war and the politics of its perception in nearly equal measure, from Abu Ghraib to the execution of Saddam Hussein. Conservatives voted for George W. Bush in 2000 [editor's note: not this one] because they expected him to be the opposite of Bill Clinton-and so, unfortunately, he has proved. Where Clinton seemed a man of enormous political competence and no principle, Bush has been a man of principle and very little political competence. The security concerns after the attacks of September 11 and the general tide of American conservatism carried Republicans through the elections of 2002 and 2004. But by 2006 Bush had squandered his party’s advantages, until even the specter of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House was not enough to keep the Republicans in power.
To abandon Iraq now would be the height of irresponsibility. It would lock in place the perception of defeat, with all the predictable consequences, and it would abandon the Iraqis to whom we promised freedom and democracy. President Bush has clearly done the right thing in refusing retreat and pledging to stay the course in Iraq.
But hasn’t that always been the problem? Again and again, he has done the right thing in the wrong way, until, at last, his wrongness has overwhelmed his rightness. How can conservatives continue to support this man in much of anything he tries to do? Iraq is not America’s failure, and it is not conservatism’s failure. We are where we are because of George W. Bush’s failure. All the 2008 Republican presidential candidates should understand the task they face over the next two years. George Bush’s ideals have gotten him elected president twice, and his incompetence has finally delivered the Congress to his domestic opponents and empowered his nation’s enemies abroad. Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush’s principles-and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.