The Magazine

Bush's Greatness

From the September 13, 2004 issue: There's a good reason he infuriates the reactionary left.

Sep 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 01 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT'S OBVIOUS not only that George W. Bush has already earned his Great President badge (which might even outrank the Silver Star) but that much of the opposition to Bush has a remarkable and very special quality; one might be tempted to call it "lunacy." But that's too easy. The "special quality" of anti-Bush opposition tells a more significant, stranger story than that.

Bush's greatness is often misunderstood. He is great not because he showed America how to react to 9/11 but because he showed us how to deal with a still bigger event--the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 left us facing two related problems, one moral and one practical. Neither President Clinton nor the first Bush found solutions--but it's not surprising that the right answers took time to discover, and an event like 9/11 to bring them into focus.

In moral terms: If you are the biggest boy on the playground and there are no adults around, the playground is your responsibility. It is your duty to prevent outrages--because your moral code demands that outrages be prevented, and (for now) you are the only one who can prevent them.

If you are one of the two biggest boys, and the other one orders you not to protect the weak lest he bash you and everyone else he can grab--then your position is more complicated. Your duty depends on the nature of the outrage that ought to be stopped, and on other circumstances. This was America's position during the Cold War: Our moral obligation to overthrow tyrants was limited by the Soviet threat of hot war, maybe nuclear war.

But things are different today. We are the one and only biggest boy. We can run from our moral duty but we can't hide. If there is to be justice in the world, we must create it. No one else will act if the biggest boy won't. Some of us turn to the United Nations the way we wish we could turn to our parents. It's not easy to say, "The responsibility is mine and I must wield it." But that's what the United States has to say. No U.N. agency or fairy godmother will bail us out.

Of course our moral duty remains complicated. We must pursue justice, help the suffering, and overthrow tyrants. But there are limits to our power. We must pick our tyrants carefully, keeping in mind not only justice but our practical interests and the worldwide consequences of what we intend. Our duty in this area is like our obligation to show charity. We have no power to help everyone and no right to help no one. In the event, we chose to act in Afghanistan and Iraq to begin with--good choices from many viewpoints.

The end of the Cold War means that our practical duties have changed too, in a limited way. Since the close of World War I in 1918, our main enemy has been the terrorist-totalitarian axis--still true today. Different nations and organizations have occupied this axis of evil, but the role itself has been remarkably stable. Until the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the main terrorist-totalitarian power (except when it was eclipsed by Nazi Germany and Warlord Japan). The Berlin Wall fell in 1989; in 1990, Saddam marched into Kuwait. Radical Arab terrorism and totalitarianism go way back; the Nazis and then the Soviets supported them. When the Soviets fell, Arab tyrants and terrorists were ready for the limelight. Our job was to find new ways to do what we had always done--fight and (ultimately) beat our terrorist and totalitarian enemies.

President Bush had to respond to these post-Cold War realities; 9/11 meant that our pondering period was over. He announced, with deeds and not just words, that we would meet our moral obligations, police the playground, and overthrow tyrants; we would meet our practical obligations and continue to lead the fight against this new version of the terrorist-totalitarian axis.

We have often been told that we face, today, a whole new kind of war. Only partly true. For more than half a century we have battled totalitarian regimes (the Soviets, North Vietnam, Cuba . . . ) and the terrorists they sponsored. Today we are battling totalitarian regimes (Baathist Iraq and the Taliban's Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea) and the terrorists they sponsor. What's changed? Since we became modern history's first monopower, our obligations and maneuvering room are both greater. But the basic nature of the struggle is the same.

Lincoln said, "Let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." Bush answered: "Okay; let's roll." We accept our obligation to be the world's policeman. If not us, who? If not now, when?