How tough is George W. Bush, really?

September 17, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - In this campaign, Republicans have portrayed George W. Bush as the political equivalent of a New York City firefighter: strong, manly, eager to rescue those in need and utterly fearless in confronting danger. It's a safe bet that the words toughness and resolve got used about as many times at the GOP convention as combat and veteran were heard at the Democratic gathering - which is to say, beyond counting.

Sen. John McCain set the tone in praising the president: "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield."

Mr. Bush himself boasted, "I will never relent in defending America - whatever it takes."

By contrast, Republicans accuse John Kerry of having a pacifistic allergy to weapons systems, as well as a craven tendency to appease ruthless enemies, such as the French. Relying on him to protect the nation's security, they suggest, would be like buying a pet rabbit to ward off burglars.

What's most surprising about this whole picture is how much it leaves out. Anyone looking at his record on defense and foreign policy can see that Mr. Bush has indeed flinched and yielded, time after time. What this president has proved is that Republicans can routinely get away with behavior that in a Democrat would be labeled wimpy.

Most people have long forgotten the crisis that erupted early in his term, when a U.S. spy plane landed in China after colliding with a Chinese fighter. When Beijing demanded an apology before it would release the crew, Mr. Bush refused, only to back down. In the end, the administration issued a letter saying it was "very sorry" for the plane's intrusion.

Early on, Mr. Bush met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and emerged glowing with admiration: "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. ... I was able to get a sense of his soul." Apparently his glimpse into Mr. Putin's soul missed the Russian leader's authoritarian tendencies. Those became hard to ignore this week when Mr. Putin proposed to strengthen his own power - dismaying democracy advocates in Russia, but drawing no rebuke from Mr. Bush.

Nor was Mr. Bush fiercely resolute in confronting al-Qaida. He came into office only three months after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. At first, it was uncertain who carried out the bombing, but by the time Mr. Bush arrived, the CIA had pinned the blame on Osama bin Laden. Yet Mr. Bush let the attack go unavenged.

That's ancient history, you say? He proved his ferocity in Afghanistan and Iraq, you say? To some extent, that's true. At the same time, his refusal to send large numbers of ground troops into Afghanistan allowed bin Laden and many of his confederates to slip the noose.

Mr. Bush also declined to provide a sufficient force in Iraq to ensure peace and order, giving our enemies ample opportunity to mobilize against us - as they did, and as they continue to do.

Mr. Bush's chief tactic in trying to quell the unrest in Iraq also looks suspiciously like indecision and appeasement. Amid the spreading violence, the United States has had to make unpleasant deals with insurgents - most recently letting militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr take his men and leave the besieged city of Najaf unmolested, free to fight another day.

The other day, the Marine Corps general who was ordered to attack rebels in Fallujah in April, and then ordered to stop, said it was unwise to "vacillate in the middle of something like that. Once you commit, you got to stay committed."

And let's not forget North Korea and Iran, both of which have proceeded with nuclear weapon ambitions. It's easy to say, as Mr. Bush did two years ago, "We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather." But that's pretty much what he has done while dangers have been gathering in those two places. North Korea is probably already a nuclear power, and Iran is not far from becoming one.

The administration's supporters can claim that Mr. Bush has done his best in playing a very weak hand, and that Bill Clinton didn't stop them either. But the inescapable fact is that Mr. Bush has failed to prevent two dangerous regimes from becoming even more dangerous.

Mr. Bush, we are told, is a tough man for tough times. But his record suggests one of two things: Either he isn't that tough, or toughness isn't much of a solution.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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