Speak Softly, Mr. Bush

Recently I wrote a column on a particular anxiety I’ve been feeling regarding the coming election and the prospects of President Bush. I stated that some voters may be feeling or come to feel that history has simply become too dramatic the past few years, and one way out of the drama might be to change presidents, and hire Mr. Kerry to, in effect, make things more boring and force history to calm down. This has given rise in the blogosphere (see this Instapundit entry, for example) to a question: Do I, and others who have written on this subject, think that what might be called the new nervousness should compel the Bush administration to stop fighting the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and change its policy in the war on terror? Should we, in a word, withdraw?

My answer is no. We cannot leave Iraq and should not leave Iraq. Certainly lately, since the transfer of sovereignty, things seem to be looking up, but that may well prove temporary. But the great reason, as I have written before on Iraq, is that there’s no way ‘round it but through it. We have to stay, and we have to win. I define winning as the yielding up of, at the least, a relatively stable society unafflicted by governmental sadism and dictatorship, and, at the most, a stable society in a fledgling democracy that demonstrates, with time, that the forces of Arab moderation, tolerance and peacefulness can triumph. Such an outcome would give so much good to the world. What a brilliant beacon this Iraq could be, and what a setback to terrorists, who thrive in darkness.

I do not feel America is right to attempt to help spread democracy in the world because it is our way and therefore the right way. Nor do I think America should attempt to encourage it because we are Western and feel everyone should be Western. Not everyone should be Western, and not everything we do as a culture, a people or an international force is right.

Rather, we have a national-security obligation to foster democracy in the world because democracy tends to be the most peaceful form of government. Democracies tend to be slower than dictatorships to take up arms, to cross borders and attempt to subdue neighbors, to fight wars. They are on balance less likely to wreak violence upon the world because democracies are composed of voters many of whom are parents, especially mothers, who do not wish to see their sons go to war. Democracy is not only idealistic, it is practical.

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What I wrote about a few weeks ago was my fear that the American people have grown or are growing tired of the heightened drama of the times. Americans like drama in their lives—they like graduations and first jobs and prizes and the birth of a baby in the family; they like triathalons and great stories and local mysteries. They like movement and action on a personal level. But they do not want it on a historical level if they can avoid it. They don’t want to send their sons, or daughters, off to war. They don’t like that kind of excitement, or they don’t like it for long. This is part of why we used to be called Isolationists. We weren’t and aren’t—we just have a bias for peace. Can that bias be overcome? Of course. Pearl Harbor overcame it. The Soviet desire to expand and impose communism overcame it. Sept. 11 did too.

Which gets us to Mr. Bush, and Mr. Kerry, and which of the two is likelier to make things historically boring again.

You may say history will never be boring again, and I’d agree with you. And you may say “Bush and perseverance” is the way to achieve progress, that victory in Iraq and against terrorism is the only path to something like the old boredom, and the old safety. I’m with you there, too.

Or you may decide that Mr. Kerry, by jumbling things and murking them up and speaking French will, by his very presence, tend to calm things down because—well, because he doesn’t really seem deeply wedded to any particular principle, or even to long-term strategic thinking in the national interest. And the world can tell, and a good portion of the world will like him all the better for these flaws. And so will some voters.

That’s my anxiety. If I am right, what can the president do to address this problem? How to approach an electorate that I believe respects Mr. Bush and likes him, but that is also capable of letting his contract expire and hiring Mr. Kerry for four years?

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Here is a criticism I have spoken of but not written of regarding President Bush. When you are president and you are doing hard things in history like making war, and you are doing it in the jingle-jangle of the modern media environment, you have a kind of moral responsibility to make it clear that you hate war, really hate it, and love peace. This would seem obvious, but is not. Men and women in the midst of planning war forget to say it and insist it. Sly old FDR didn’t forget, though. Lincoln didn’t forget it either. He always made it clear he thought the impending and then ongoing war a painful tragedy. Mr. Bush has not made it clear, or has not repeated often enough, that he hopes for peace, yearns for peace, loves it. He seems part of the very drama he has been forced to wage, and seems sometimes to enjoy it.

This is delicate. A leader cannot seem ambivalent about crucial actions and decisions, and he can’t seem so weighed down by the facts and implications of those decisions that people begin to wonder if he’s lost his fight. There’s a reason people like a happy warrior. A happy warrior tends to be a winning warrior. And yet. In the world we live in a leader must seem almost palpably yearning for life and peace even as he makes tough decisions that will soon deny either or both to some.

Lately I am reminded of something I learned from a pollster. I always thought I never learned anything from pollsters when I worked in politics, but this has stayed with me long enough to realize I absorbed a lesson. It was in the mid-1980’s, I was a speechwriter for President Reagan, and we were working on a speech he would give on Central America. The speech centered on attempted communist incursions and mischief in El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere. The president gave the speech, and explained U.S. interests and intentions: We will help this pro-democracy group here, that democratically elected government there.

As I remember it, shortly after the speech was given, the president’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, a smart man, came in and met with the speechwriters. He wanted to give us a read on how the speech had gone over. I remember silently disagreeing with several of his points but being struck by this one. I can’t give you quotes so I’m going to give you what I remember Mr. Wirthlin saying in italics. People think we are declaring war all over the place, he said. We probably harrumphed back something like ‘Well, we’re in a war.” Mr. Wirthlin told us, You’re getting people nervous, as if America is launching a war here and here and here and here.

I imagined in my mind a map, and all the countries we had referred to as having problems that had to be addressed. I wondered if in other people’s minds, as they had listened to Reagan, they weren’t seeing something like a World War II planning map, and some captain with a pointer saying “We’ll commence the bombing runs here and here at 0800.”

And I thought, in time: Mr. Wirthlin may be right. There must be an equally candid but less unnerving way to speak of these things. Sometimes when you’re doing the hardest things you have to speak in the softest language.

People get nervous. And they’re not wrong to be nervous. Experience has taught them to be. Life is hard, and we all fear loss. I have had a very few conversations with Margaret Thatcher, and each time she has said something wise, but maybe the wisest was this. It was years ago, after she had lost power following an attempt to change the poll tax in Britain. She told me she had learned that in politics one must “never underestimate people’s fears.” At the time I thought that a surprising thing for the Iron Lady to say, or think. Those who know her well would know if she was saying what she’d always thought, or what she’d just learned, or relearned.

But it was knowing about human nature, and I think a little more of that kind of knowledge is what we need more of from the Bush administration. It won’t make things boring again, but it might make people feel better, and that’s not bad.