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The Certainty Crisis

From the March 7, 2003 London Times: George W. Bush's waffle-free directness alarms the fashionably doubtful commentariat.

11:00 PM, Mar 9, 2003 • By DAVID BROOKS
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THE AMERICAN COMMENTARIAT is gravely concerned. Over the past week, George W. Bush has shown a disturbing tendency not to waffle when it comes to Iraq. There has been an appalling clarity and coherence to his position. There has been a reckless tendency not to be murky, hesitant, or evasive. Naturally, questions are being raised about President Bush's leadership skills.

The United States is in the midst of the certainty crisis. Time magazine is disturbed by "The blinding glare of his certainty," as one headline referred to Bush's unwillingness to go wobbly on Iraq. "A questionable certainty" was the headline in the Los Angeles Times. "This kind of certainty worries Bush's critics," noted U.S. News & World Report. "Moral certainty, for the most part, is a luxury of a closed mind," observed William Lesher, a Lutheran school of theology professor, who presumably preserves a subtle open-mindedness about the Holocaust and other such matters.

Meanwhile, among the smart set, Hamlet-like indecision has become the intellectual fashion. The liberal columnist E. J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post that he is uncomfortable with the pro and antiwar camps. He praised the doubters and raised his colors on behalf of "heroic ambivalence." The New York Times, venturing deep into the territory of self-parody, ran a full-page editorial calling for "still more discussion" on whether or not to go to war.

The leading Democratic presidential contender, John Kerry, has become the political standard-bearer of the high-toned, agnostic, and incomprehensible. He begins his speeches on sunny days and under crisp skies and proceeds to lay down such a miasma of equivocation and on-the-other-hands that the sun is blotted out and you can't see the question marks as they fly by in front of your face. The fog of peace is thick indeed.

In certain circles, it is not only important what opinion you hold, but how you hold it. It is important to be seen dancing with complexity, sliding among shades of gray. Any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion--that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed--but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis. And they want to see their leaders paying homage to this style. Accordingly, many Bush critics seem less disturbed by his position than by his inability to adhere to the rules of genteel intellectual manners. They want him to show a little anguish. They want baggy eyes, evidence of sleepless nights, a few photo-ops, Kennedy-style, of the president staring gloomily through the Oval Office windows into the distance.

And this prompts a question in their minds. Why does George Bush breach educated class etiquette so grievously? Why does he seem so certain, decisive and sure of himself, when everybody--tout le monde!--knows that anxiety and anguish are the proper poses to adopt in such times.

The U.S. press is filled with psychologizing. And two explanations have reemerged.

First, Bush is stupid. Intellectually incurious, he is unable to adapt to events.

Secondly, he is a religious nut. He sees the world as a simple battle of good versus evil. His faith cannot admit shades of gray.

The problem with the explanations is that they have nothing to do with reality.

The charge that Bush is too simple to change course flies in the face of his whole career. As governor of Texas, he proposed one version of tax reform. When it faltered in the legislature, he pivoted and embraced an entirely different plan.

He entered the White House with one sort of minimalist foreign policy. After September 11, he adapted to the new era more quickly and comprehensively than any other figure in the world, proposing an entirely new and expansive national security strategy.

As for those who claim Bush's faith gives him a Manichean worldview, have any of them actually read the Bible? The holy texts that Bush cites do not divide humanity between good and evil, but emphasize the sin, temptations, and goodness entwined in each soul. And when Bush calls a regime evil, surely only the most simple-minded secularist believes he is saying a simple thing. If they think evil is simple, haven't they at least read Dostoevsky?

Now it is true that Bush values what Shirley Robin Letwin called the vigorous virtues: "upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends, robust against foes." But the main difference between Bush and his critics is that he is in a position of responsibility and they are not. On the colloquium couch, everyone can show off their full appreciation of the strategic ambiguities. In the parlor of intellect, timing is never a problem, because battle plans never have to be made, actions never have to be put in train.

But those who actually have to lead and protect, and actually have to build one step on another, have to bring some questions to a close. Bush gave Saddam time to disarm. Saddam did not. Hence, the issue of whether to disarm him forcibly is settled. The French and the Germans and the domestic critics may keep debating, which is their luxury, but the people who actually make the decisions have moved on to more practical concerns.

Bush has decided that Saddam is a menace to the world. All of the difficulties that now arise--a negative vote in Turkey, for example--complicate the issue of how to achieve the goal. They do not change the goal. You can call that dangerous certainty. Those of us who agree that Saddam is a menace may choose to call Bush resolute, which is a much finer word.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.