Bush and the Liberals: The Politics of Churlishness
If George W. Bush were to discover a cure for cancer, his critics would denounce him for having done it unilaterally, without adequate consultation, with a crude disregard for the sensibilities of others. He pursued his goal obstinately, they would say, without filtering his thoughts through the medical research establishment. And he didn’t share his research with competing labs and thus caused resentment among other scientists who didn’t have the resources or the bold — perhaps even somewhat reckless — instincts to pursue the task as he did. And he completely ignored the World Health Organization, showing his contempt for international institutions. Anyway, a cure for cancer is all fine and nice, but what about aids?In the wake of the loss of Ronald Reagan, and the loss soon (if not actually as we write) of John Paul II, we might ask the question: what makes for political greatness? One key element is a simple one — moral clarity. That seems to count for more than “sophistication” (at least as the chattering classes define sophistication) and “nuance” and “realism.”
No, the president has not discovered a cure for cancer. But there is a pathology, a historical pathology, that he has attacked with unprecedented vigor and with unprecedented success. I refer, of course, to the political culture of the Middle East, which the president may actually have changed. And he has accomplished this genuinely momentous transformation in ways that virtually the entire foreign affairs clerisy — the cold-blooded Brent Scowcroft realist Republicans and almost all the Democrats — never thought possible. Or, perhaps, in ways some of them thought positively undesirable. Bush, it now seems safe to say, is one of the great surprises in modern U.S. history. Nothing about his past suggested that he harbored these ideals nor the qualities of character required for their realization. Right up to the moment Bush became president, I was convinced that his mind, at least on matters Levantine, belonged to his father and to James Baker III, whose worldview seemed to be defined by the pecuniary prejudice of oil and Texas: Keep the ruling Arabs happy. But I was wrong, and, in light of what has already been achieved in the Middle East, I am glad to say so. Most American liberals, alas, enjoy no similar gladness. They are not exactly pleased by the positive results of Bush’s campaign in the Middle East. They deny and resent and begrudge and snipe. They are trapped in the politics of churlishness.
It’s way to early to say whether Bush in fact will be remembered as a great president. But unlike John Kerry or Al Gore or Jimmy Carter or even (perhaps especially) his own father, Bush has the moral clarity to reach historical greatness. But political greatness never comes solely due to personal virtues. Some historical good luck is needed.