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
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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?

THE WAR IN IRAQ is dual-purpose, like most American wars. Take the Civil War. At the beginning, the North fought mainly for pragmatic reasons. No nation can tolerate treason, or allow itself to be ripped to bits or auctioned off piece-wise by malcontents. Midwesterners couldn't allow the Mississippi to fall into foreign hands; they needed their outlet to the sea. And so on. Slavery was overshadowed. But as the war continued, slavery emerged as the issue, and the war's character changed.

The Iraq war started as a fight to knock out a regime that invaded its neighbors, murdered its domestic enemies with poison gas, subsidized terrorism, and flouted the international community. Obviously such a regime was dangerous to American interests. But as the war continued and we confronted Saddam's gruesome tyranny face to face, the moral issue grew more important, as emancipation did in the Civil War. For years the Iraqi people had been screaming, in effect: "Oh, my God. Please help me! Please help me! I'm dying!" How could America have answered, "We don't want to get involved"? We are the biggest kid on the playground. If we won't help, who will?

I have just quoted the death-cries of Kitty Genovese, who died on the streets of New York 40 years ago. And I have quoted the response of an onlooker who didn't feel like helping. Her case still resonates in America's conscience, and tells us more than we want to know about the president's enemies.

The New York Times ran the story in March 1964.

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

The left wanted America to watch Saddam stab Iraq to death and do nothing. That is the left's concept of moral responsibility in the post-Cold War world.

Miss Genovese screamed: "Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!"

The Iraqi people were dying. The left had no pity. The Bush-haters were opposed to American "arrogance." The New York Times shrugged.

It was 3:50 by the time the police received their first call, from a man who was a neighbor of Miss Genovese. In two minutes they were at the scene. . . .

The man explained that he had called the police after much deliberation. He had phoned a friend in Nassau County for advice. . . .

"I didn't want to get involved," he sheepishly told the police.

Let's not get involved, said the Bush-haters. It's none of our business. Let the U.N. do it.

One couple, now willing to talk about that night, said they heard the first screams. The husband looked thoughtfully at the bookstore where the killer first grabbed Miss Genovese.

"We went to the window to see what was happening," he said, "but the light from our bedroom made it difficult to see the street." The wife, still apprehensive, added: "I put out the light and we were able to see better."

Asked why they hadn't called the police, she shrugged and replied, "I don't know."

We have paid a steep price in Iraq, a thousand dead; but if you choose duty, you must choose to pay. Speaking for America, the president has said: We choose duty. What do we get in return? Nothing. Except the privilege of looking at ourselves in the mirror, and facing history and our children.

Opposition to Bush's policy in Iraq goes even further than the Kitty Genovese defense. Its real nature finally came clear when I heard about an anti-Bush harangue by a survivor of Hitler's Germany. He was a young boy when he and his family got out, just in time. "I hate Bush," this man said--or words to that effect--"because America today reminds me of Germany then. Bush is on his way to creating a fascist America." Other Bush-haters have said similar things.

Notice (it is a thing we will have to explain) that this man hates Bush not because of but despite the facts. Has the Republican Congress decreed a U.S. version of the Nuremberg race laws? Has the administration transformed every American news source into a propaganda machine? Demanded that Jews (or anyone) be fired? That Jewish (or any other kind of) shops, businesses, professionals be boycotted? Propaganda posters everywhere? Students thrown out of schools? Secret police grabbing people off the streets? Children urged to inform on parents? All opposition parties banned? Churches harassed? A "Bush Youth" that every "Aryan" boy must join? Storm-troopers holding torchlight parades, singing hate-mongering war songs? Gigantic communal fines levied against Jews (or anyone else)? State-sponsored pogroms? Massive regimentation and rearmament? A führer cult and special schools to train disciples? Brutal suppression of all regime opponents? No? Actually America under Bush resembles Nazi Germany in no way whatsoever, isn't that so? Then why did you lie and say it did?

One hears many similar accusations nowadays. The Bush administration is spending blood for oil, hopes to expand its imperialist reach, intends to dominate and oppress the Iraqi people, is the world's leading threat to peace. Hates Muslims, despises our allies, plans to suppress the Bill of Rights. There is a name for this kind of hatred--the kind that shrugs off reality, loves to mock its targets and treat them as barely human, capable of any outrage, unspeakably stupid and evil. There is a name for the kind of hatred that applies automatically to any member of a designated group--in this case to American conservatives and especially white, religious American conservatives. The name of this hatred is racism.

We can't understand hatred like the German survivor's or Michael Moore's or a million self-righteous left-wingers' unless we understand that their Bush-hatred is racist hatred.

"Race" has traditionally meant any group that seems like a group, with a recognizable group identity--Americans, British, Jews, Japanese were all called "races." The Oxford English Dictionary says that a "race" is (among other things) "a group or class of persons . . . having some common feature or features." Thus "the race of good men" (1580), "a race of idle people" (1611), "a new race of poets" (1875). The newspaper humorist Don Marquis once wrote about "the royal race of hicks." Racist hatred has clearly recognizable characteristics:

* The hater knows all about his target automatically; no research required. Recall how many leftists were shocked when Bob Woodward informed them, in his Bush book, that the president was an alert, hands-on manager. They had known this to be false a priori.

* The hater harbors a stupendous conceit. Not long ago an Ivy League philosophy professor explained the political homogeneity of so many philosophy departments. Pure merit, he said; you have to be smart to be a philosophy professor, and conservatives are dumb, so what can you expect?

* The hater is moved by a terrible, frantic eagerness to set himself apart from "them." In the spring of 2003, an American pop-singer announced to her London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

* The hater just knows that his opponent acts not on principle but out of greed or stupidity. At an anti-Iraq war demonstration in March 2004, the actor Woody Harrelson read a poem. "I recognize your face, I recognize your name. / Your daddy killed for oil, and you did the same." We often hear this "blood for oil" accusation. After the first Gulf War we had Iraqi and Kuwaiti oilfields in our grasp. If our goal was to steal oil, why did we give them back? Are we that stupid?

* The hater has no shame--because he knows (not by reason but automatically) that he is right. Thus a decent and likable retired businessman, rich and with every reason to be grateful to America--the survivor of Nazi Germany I've mentioned--accuses the president of closet fascism.

That's racist hatred.

I DON'T SAY that all Bush-haters are racist. By no means. We have a long tradition of super-heated politics in this country. Everyone is entitled to hate the president and do his best to get rid of him.

The racist attacks I have in mind come from the reactionary left--not from the average registered Democrat, in other words, but from the liberal elite.

Reactionaries recoil from new ideas and try to suppress and defeat them. They want things to stay the same. Hence their racist hatred of uppity white conservatives, who have developed the cheek to threaten the left's cultural power. Such institutions as Fox News and the conservative Washington think tanks are hugely disturbing to reactionary liberals. The president faces the same thinking as he tries to set policy for post-Cold War America. Reactionary liberals want everything to stay just the same. All trends must continue just as they have been. (Judges must continue to subvert democracy; Congress must continue to create new entitlements.) We must treat the new totalitarians just the same as we once were forced to treat the Soviets--gingerly. Our goal must be not to liberate their victims, not to defeat and disarm their military machines, but to arrange détente with their dictators--just as we once did. (Détente with Saddam was French and Russian policy until we screwed things up.) Our antiquated pre-cell phone, pre-microchip laws and regulations must stay just the same (kill the Patriot Act!), and we must sit still and wait politely for the next terrorist outrage, just as we always have.

Bush has a simple message for the reactionary left: The times change and we change with them. He is a progressive conservative--and a progressive president in the best sense. And he has established his greatness in record time.

David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, teaches computer science at Yale.