Did W really believe he was doing God’s work?


I am surprised how little play this story has received. SecDef Rumsfeld apparently lathered Bible phraseology on reports for W as the Iraq war went south. If I were a Muslim, I would be saying I told you so! All this suggests that W was not only too weak-minded to manage a globe-spanning conflict, but also needed simplistic black/white language, and believed, as was widely-suspected, that he was doing God’s work.

The problems are obvious of course. One reason the MBA president was a terrible manager was that he didn’t have the ability to synthesize and reflect on complex data that did not fit easy, pre-existing categories like ‘evil.’ Here both Clinton and Obama exceed W significantly. But we kinda already knew that already.

More important is the role of Christianity as a secret or hidden motivator. Bush long adopted a liberal or secular language to describe the GWoT. We were fighting for US national security, to drain the ME swamp, kill international outlaws, to spread democracy, etc. But Bush’s own deep personal history with evangelical Protestantism raised persistent questions that these revelations obviously justify. Bush, an evangelical devoutly committed to Jesus, was a terrible choice to convince Muslims we weren’t fighting their religion.

There are several possible ideological frames for the GWoT that I develop when I teach it.

1. To the left, the GWoT is more American exceptionalist imperialism. This is the school of Noam Chomsky, Hugo Chavez, the Chinese scholar I encountered last week, Why We Fight, and Chalmers Johnson (the most serious leftist on this issue, IMO, but who still said US democracy is close to collapsing because of militarism!). The idea here is that the US has a history of imperialism (cf Walter LaFeber) and that the GWoT is just the latest extension of this. Frequently this critique includes a capitalist subsection – that US wars are about oil or arms contracts. I must say I find this childish and reflexive (even though I think Johnson and Chomsky are great scholars). Haven’t we heard this about every US foreign conflict? I think it betrays an ignorance of the Muslim revival since 1967 and just how deeply it has penetrated ME politics, which has both politicized ME Islam and radicalized it because the governments there are so generally corrupt and repressive.

2. To the right, the GWoT is epochal. It is Huntington’s clash of civilizations, Norman Podhoretz’ WWIV, or Bernard Lewis’ argument that the current GWoT is just the latest round in the millennium-long conflict between Christianity and Islam. The most extreme version of this is the evangelical Protestant spin that this is indeed a religious war. Both Huntington and Lewis also channel the religious war theme, without openly advocating a Judeo-Christian strategy or victory. Huntington defines his civilizations mainly through religion, and Lewis sees just another chapter in a long on-again-off-again struggle. Podhoretz gives you a secular version: Islam has become infected with a fascistoid cult of death, glorification of violence, and totalitarian governing impulse. Hence “Islamofascism.” But I find Podhoreetz’ language actually more frightening than Lewis or Huntington’s. The latter two just analyze. They don’t prescribe a WWIV-style national mobilization for a limitless “long war” (D Rumsfeld) with no realistic benchmarks of victory. Podhoretz openly embraces the global neo-con strategy of a wide-ranging, long-term campaign. The US would become like Israel – a barracks democracy engaged in long-term hostile commitments in various places across Barnett’s "arc of instability." Yikes! Does it really have to be that bad?!

3. The liberal/centrist take on the GWoT is actually what George Bush tried to argue, although it was obscured by Iraq, his evangelical Christianity, and persistent brain-failures like the “axis of evil” or “bring ‘em on.”  Zakaria and Friedman are better. The Middle East is experiencing a dramatic religious upheaval as reactionaries clash with modernists (a fight as old as the Ottoman Empire in the 18th C, but fired anew after the 6-Day War). This conflict did not interest us much until it crashed into the WTC. Now, the US must advance the liberalization of the ME; it has become a matter of national security. This involves not just pursuing terrorists, but promoting good governance, democracy, and liberalization. This is a secular approach that emphasizes counter-terrorism, state-building, democratization, and, most importantly, an internal conflict inside Islam rather than an external one with other religions. This narrative invokes liberal values that just about everyone supports. It avoids the hair-raising language of the Christian right about religious war, or a possible ‘forever war’ suggested by calling it WWIV.

Which position one adopts is influenced by both reality and political desire. E.g., Muslims are likely to prefer 1 because it defers criticism from the atrocious governance of the ME and generally changes the subject to the well-springs of US foreign policy, Israel, US energy needs, etc. 9/11 is a passing blip in the long history of US imperialism. 2 is also attractive because it rewrites Iraq and Afghanistan as religious imperialism, against which there is a clear global norm today. Devout Christians ironically are probably also driven to position 2, because OBL has so consistently argued for the clash of civilizations; US evangelicalism (as well as Orthodoxy) is so conservative; and the ME seems so chaotic, backward, and violent on TV.

The liberal position (3) is the polite, PC one. I genuinely hope it is correct too; I think it is. 1 is clearly incorrect. It is a simplistic hangover from Vietnam uninformed by recent developments in Islam. 2 might be correct. OBL and a good chunk of ME opinion think this is a religious war. If enough Muslims (and evangelicals in the US, orthodox in Russia, and Hindu nationalists in India) think this is a religious war, does that make it one?

So ultimately the problem for this PC version of the GWoT (3) – the one we desperately want to be true, even if it isn’t – is that Bush and the GOP are the wrong salesman for it; they may genuinely believe in 2 also.  The story motivating this post makes it pretty clear that Bush was somewhere between 2 and 3, as many (Muslims and Westerners) suspected. And the GOP has become increasingly Christian and increasingly contemptuous of due-process and secular good government: Rove’s christianization of GOP voter mobiliization, Schiavo, Katrina, torture/Guantanamo. In short, only the liberal internationalist center of US politics has the ingrained attitudes – secularism, liberalism, dislike for the culture wars -  necessary to pursue the GWoT without it becoming a religious war. There is just no way that an evangelical like W, with the backing of a christianist GOP and belligerent Fox News, could sell the GWoT to Muslims as a liberal, limited, modernizing endeavor.

2 thoughts on “Did W really believe he was doing God’s work?

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Worst Eurasian Sociopaths of the 20th Century « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  2. Pingback: Illiberal Zionism Update: Beinart Nails It « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

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