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A glorious vision

Whatever Michael Wolff has been smoking, he should pass some of it around. Invading Iraq will cure all the Western world's ills, Wolff writes (sorry about all that alliteration, am I):

The American media will swoon — and the American people will be glued to their sets, cheering the winner, who is us. And, of course, the French and the Germans will, in a New York minute, be on the side of the victors, too. You’ll never find a frog or Kraut who doubted the president.

This is so farcical one would suspect satire (which it may very well be), but coming from Wolff, who it seems would write anything just for the hell of it (he throws the line "a screaming comes across the sky" into this piece just so he can wax poetical), there's no knowing. (Yet another indication he's on something, right?)

In any case, whatever he's actually saying, it does have this value: It shows that, even judging from his far-out column in the New York Times yesterday, Thomas Friedman hasn't lost it by every relative measure. The column starts off OK: "Anyone who thinks President Bush is doing this for political reasons is nuts," Friedman says, which might be an over-generalization but which we know, thanks to Wolff, is at least true of some people. But it goes south from there; not only is the president not doing this for political reasons, Friedman suggests, but he actually paints George W. Bush as — get this — a lofty idealist who has given us "a big, bold, gutsy vision" but, alas, has exhibited a tragic failure to make the necessary political calculations to realize it.

Now, it's hard to dispute that the White House has bungled its political stance on Iraq fairly badly; opposition to it has probably united a greater proportion of the world's population than has ever been united on a single political issue before. And Bush has thrown out all sorts of ostensible reasons why the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein. But this hardly makes Bush an idealist or a great visionary; it just means he's tried to propose rationales for what he's doing. If anything, the world's rather stunning opposition to American intervention in Iraq shows is that our president is not much of a leader. So it's funny to read Friedman's column — all the details he provides of how Bush's poor relations with the rest of the world have hamstrung his efforts are not only unhelpful to his point, they generally seem to hurt it. If Bush is such a visionary, how is it that practically no one shares his vision?

Bush is a visionary of some sort, of course. His own vision of American government is behind the tax cut, for example. His push for the tax cut offers some insight into his push for "regime change" in Iraq, I think: The tax cut isn't idealistic, it's blatantly ideological. Idealism has legitimate value. It says, These are the ideals we should strive for. No one, I think, would dispute that lower taxes (yes, even for the wealthy) are, ultimately, worth striving for. But the White House, in its push for its tax cut, is also pushing the country toward ongoing budget deficits, an anemic economy, crippled state governments (which will have to raise taxes to balance their budgets), and cuts to federally funded programs including everything from after-school programs and AmeriCorps to (ahem) homeland security. Few would say these are worth striving for, or that pushing for them is a symptom of any sort of idealism. The White House's desire to cut taxes despite those costs is evidently based not on idealism, but on ideology — the fixed belief that a certain thing is desirable no matter what its cost.

And Bush's vision for the Iraq problem has been much the same. The president doesn't care what he has to do or say to get his guy in Iraq, or to maintain America's right to act however it sees fit. He's said so any number of ways (and the world has heard him — it's why, for instance, the French are having such a grand time exacting such a price). At any time that Iraq appeared to be moving toward compliance with U.N. inspections, Bush has announced beforehand that it wouldn't be enough. He's insisted from the start that America would act with or without the United Nations. And the full extent of his diplomatic efforts has been to give other nations the opportunity to agree with his existing position, never to affect it in any way. It was news when Bush said he hadn't made up his mind on going to war in Iraq because no one really believed it.

That's no mere political miscalculation, as Friedman would have us believe. That's deeper; it's part of Bush's vision itself. In the end, Bush's vision for America's role in Iraq isn't about helping Iraqis, stabilizing the region, or protecting the world from Saddam Hussein; like his vision for the tax cut, it's ultimately a vision of America. And, worse, it's just as ideological: America will do Good (as determined by our president), but be beholden to no one, no matter the cost. The problem — the tragedy — isn't that America "won't be able to do it right," as Friedman put it, but that we're trying to effect the wrong thing.

March 3, 2003 2:35 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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