Looooooooong essay in the latest New York Times Magazine by journalist Ron Suskind on the subject of George W. Bush’s faith and how it shapes his administration and the country. The article paints a picture of a White House governed by an executive with an almost messianic view of himself. After slogging through all 8,000 words, I don’t think Suskind has delivered the goods.
The article leads off with a quote by economist Bruce Bartlett explaining why “George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them.” And if you stopped reading right there, well, then you probably weren’t being paid to continue.
Suskind makes a lot of hay about the fact that Bush referred to the war the he was pulled into with al Qaeda as a “crusade,” but he gets the context all wrong. The White House backtracked and Bush has rarely repeated the line. (I’d say “never” but Suskind says that Bush reiterated it at a speech delivered in Alaska. Uh, maybe.)
Further, far from rushing into war with Afghanistan, Bush delayed the invasion. He gave the country several chances to give up Osama bin Laden and he delayed attacks in part because the pope was touring in the region. Bush’s approach to militant Islam has been not to condemn this ancient faith but to insist that the terrorists do not represent the real deal. According to my old colleague Charles Paul Freund, “In his address to Congress, Bush actually assumed the role of Islamic theologian, pronouncing any such violent variant to be ‘blasphemy.’”
There are other things about Suskind’s piece that are just weird. He dredges up the story of a reported exchange in the Oval Office between Bush and Representative Tom Lantos over what to do about Israel. Lantos suggested dispatching the Swedish army to oversee the region. Bush replied that “they’re the neutral one. They don’t have an army.” Lantos replied that, uh, no, the president is thinking of Switzerland. Bush insisted that he was right, and there the assembled Democrats decided to leave the matter.
We learn that at the White House Christmas party a few weeks later, “the president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder. ‘You were right,’ he said, with bonhomie. ‘Sweden does have an army.’” Ha! The president mixed up Sweden and Switzerland is what I’d take from the story, but the author instead launches into the following:
This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a meeting about one of the world’s most nagging problems.
As I said, it’s a long, weird piece. Suskind quotes an anonymous source to set up a contrast between the “reality-based community” and the faith-based community, and assumes that a lot of the decisions that Bush made could only have been arrived at by an irrational person of faith, which is the sort of stereotypical thinking that we’ve come to expect from the New York Times.
More interesting, I think, would be a piece on the role confidence plays in politics and about the practical reasons why leaders rarely apologize (e.g., groups push for legislative concessions in addition to an admission of error). In one sense, Bush’s critics have a point: The president can be extremely stubborn. Because he derives some of his confidence from religion — and because a lot of his supporters are conservative Christians — it would be easy for someone who didn’t know better to chalk it up to religious zeal.