Bush's `moral vision' leaves no room for error

April 19, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Maybe I shouldn't be hard on the president for flunking his pop quiz on foreign policy. After all, it wasn't a take-home exam, and he didn't have Dick Cheney by his side.

But when a reporter at the prime-time news conference asked what errors he had made and what lessons he had learned, the president was stumped.

"I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet," he said.

After another golly-gee-whiz stumble, he added, "You just put me under the spot here and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."

Of course, if he needs a little help, I'm happy to share a few of the greatest hits from his bloopers reel. Mistakes? Howsabout them weapons of mass destruction? Howsabout the persistent links to nuclear weapons? Howsabout the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11? Howsabout the "Mission Accomplished" speech, or the idea that Iraqis would see us as liberators, not occupiers? Anyone hear an "oops"?

In the aftermath, many called the president's answer a savvy political strategy: Strong men never say they're sorry.

But I think there's something much more chilling going on. He truly doesn't believe he made any mistakes.

Last year, we launched a pre-emptive, nearly unilateral war on the grounds that Mr. Hussein was an imminent threat to our nation. Now the moral justification for this war has simply, seamlessly and without explanation morphed from defending ourselves to "changing the world."

The president said that even if he'd known then what he knows today, he still would have invaded Iraq. In an honest, passionate moment, he proclaimed, "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom. ... That is what we have been called to do, as far as I'm concerned."

But is that what the Senate felt called to do when it gave him the chit for war? Or the country?

It's not just that "weapons of mass destruction" have become "weapons of mass destruction program-related activities." The commander in chief has become the evangelist.

Remember when we disparaged George the Father for his breezy dismissal of "the vision thing"? What was he? A mere pragmatist. Well, George the Son has the vision thing in its pure tunnel form: The facts don't blur the fixed view.

In Texas, they talk about a man who is all hat and no cattle. But in Washington, we have a Texan who is all vision and no reality.

When another reporter asked the president how he got "it" - the WMD, our welcome as liberators - so wrong, Mr. Bush stumbled again. Wrong isn't on his answer sheet because he's conflated two definitions of the same word: the wrong that's "incorrect" and the wrong that's "immoral."

And if what he's done is moral, it cannot be a mistake.

Time and again he has proudly described himself as a man who sees the world in black and white. "We are in a conflict between good and evil." "There is no neutral ground between good and evil." "You're either evil or you're good. This great nation stands on the side of good."

But what happens in his world when right people do wrong things? They don't. Morality is mistake-proof. If the mission is right, everything else is a detail.

Do I hear the word crusade?

Historian Alan Lichtman says the Bush vision "combines Teddy Roosevelt's triumphalism and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's moralism. If you are on a moral crusade, you cannot admit you are on the wrong path. If you are doing the good moral work, you cannot apologize."

Right and wrong are not facts; they're ideals.

The terrible irony is that Iraq has - now - become a front line in the war on terror and a training ground for terrorists. We can't declare victory and leave, as was said of Vietnam. It is indeed unthinkable to depose a tyrant and see him replaced by civil war or a religious despot. We are left seeking a pragmatist to lead us out of Mr. Bush's ideological mess.

The other day, a 20-year-old corporal fighting in Fallujah said, "I just hope we end up improving this country. Otherwise, I'll figure this was a waste of time."

These young men and women are left to correct the mistakes of a president who doesn't even know he made them. So much for the vision thing.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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