National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The President

You read it here last summer. When it came to Iraq, the November election would mean nothing to President Bush, no matter how it went. Neither would realities on the ground there. He fully intends to press ahead even as his approval ratings press toward single digits.

Bush confirmed this in his press conference yesterday, especially with phrases generally overlooked for their pivotal role in his obsessive way of thinking. How else to account for a man whose reaction to November’s election and the assessments of his key advisors on the ground in Iraq is to add still more U.S. forces into Iraq? He doesn’t use the term, “stay the course,” any more, but it’s what he’s still determined to do.

The presidency is a perfect place for a madman to be. He sounds smart. He sounds sincere. He looks you in the eye, and by golly, he must be right because, well, look at where he is! People think that nut cases are confined to drooling derelicts hugging inner city gutters or middle management types at their firm. The weird thing about our free market society is that, at least sometimes, the crazier one is, the higher one can go. 

In the case of George Bush, the topography of the inner workings of his grey matter is revealed in the turn-key phrase, “the conflict between competing ideologies,” that he employed repeatedly yesterday.

In short, this is what makes him tick. The president remains gridlocked, mentally, by this notion that there is a cosmic struggle out there that transcends normal, pragmatic considerations and will not end until….well, that’s a good one to put to the president.

I’d ask it, but I’m afraid of the national and global stability implications of him saying what he really thinks: “Armageddon!”

“A conflict between competing ideologies” sounds harmless enough at first. It is passed off as a shorthand way of describing the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan and the so-called “war on terror.”

But it has embedded within it a very big problem, by its own definition. Namely, if the best you can do is think of all this in those “black versus white” terms, then there is no pathway to a final resolution short of one side obliterating the other once and for all. George Bush would be the first to concede that it would take the Second Coming for that to be accomplished once and for all.

“The conflict between competing ideologies” is a mental and moral dead end, as it is from the standpoint of statesmanship and military strategy, as well.

The best military and diplomatic scholars going back millennia articulated strategies for victory that all involve cooptation, for a want of better word. The best pathway for resolving conflict, maintaining an upper hand and sustaining a peace in a world otherwise marked by invasions and conquests starts by asserting that there is one, not two or more, world view involved that simply has different aspects.

It begins by identifying and insisting on what is common between adversaries, not different. It says, paraphrasing the parable of the two blindfolded men, “You have hold of one side of the elephant, I have the other. Let’s work toward a better common idea of this thing is and see if we can’t appreciate each other’s point of view and find lasting solutions.”

George Bush can’t do this. The reason he can’t is not an inherent personal limitation, it’s his own ideology. He believes his own dissipate life was redeemed for him by accepting the claim that there is one and only one way to heaven.

He is trapped in the ideological vice of that brand of fundamentalist Christianity which claims that its Bible, and only its Bible, is the flawless word of God, and that confessing Jesus Christ as lord and savior is the one and only – repeat, only – way to avoid the fiery pits of eternal hell.

Unfortunately, it is people who feel they have to cling tightly to such a world view in order to keep themselves on the straight and narrow who are most likely to assert it to excess, and use it on others in their lives. Such a person can function without unsettling wider society too much as a convenience store clerk or landscaper. One should not operate with this mindset as president of the United States.

The phrase, “A conflict between competing ideologies,” is subtly but profoundly different than “a conflict between different cultures,” “perceived self-interests,” or, most correctly “economic differences.” Each of the latter three can be overcome by discourse, negotiations and peaceful policy shifts. But to claim that there is the evil infidel out there who can be vanquished only by a final and complete conflagration that drives them forever from the face of the earth is an end-game scenario that spins off any measure of reality into the realm of the purely fantastic.   

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