Bush Country: How Dubya became a Great President while Driving Liberals Insane
by John Podhoretz
St. Martin’s. 266 pp. $24.95
If you ever have an urge to be stared at in confusion, condescension, and contempt, try sitting in a coffee shop in Oxford, England, reading a book entitled Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane. But then, John Podhoretz—a New York Post columnist and commentator on Fox News—undoubtedly expected to provoke precisely this sort of reaction in certain quarters. To complicate matters, he admits that he, too, was once far from enamored of George W. Bush. But he changed his mind, and in laying out the case for Bush’s greatness, he also explains the reasons why.
The nine main chapters of Bush Country are devoted to narrating the evolution of Bush’s policies and defending the President’s governing style, all in an effort to show that the current administration has “constructed one of the most consequential presidencies in the nation’s history.” Interspersed with these chapters are others in which Podhoretz responds to eight “Crazy Liberal Ideas” about the President—the ideas, that is, that he is a moron, a puppet, a liar, a Hitler, and so forth. Throughout, Podhoretz’s tone is measured and equable, and he takes his intellectual opponents with due seriousness, quoting from and responding patiently to critiques of the President’s record from the New Republic, the Nation, and elsewhere.
Podhoretz’s book will be immensely useful to Bush supporters in search of detailed answers to liberal criticisms. If, for example, someone (some Democratic presidential hopeful, perhaps?) should claim that Bush is out to slash funding for domestic programs, here is Podhoretz with a chapter-and-verse recitation of how overall domestic spending has risen 21 percent during Bush’s time in office, an amount that includes significant increases in spending on education, energy, health and human services, and labor—and that is even before the new prescription-drug plan has been factored in. The President’s September 2003 statement—“when somebody hurts, government has got to move”—is hardly the stuff of an implacable foe of the New Deal.
Similarly, if someone should complain about Bush’s defects as a global citizen, here comes Podhoretz pointing to the President’s $15-billion plan to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, a program inaugurated in April 2003 with the announcement that, “When we see the wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not, America will not, pass to the other side of the road.” By using such biblically charged language, Podhoretz comments, Bush “was explicitly framing his new AIDS initiative as an act of Christian charity,” thereby warning some on the Christian Right not to oppose the plan simply because they found some elements of it distasteful.
Podhoretz sees the AIDS initiative, indeed, as one more proof of the distance that separates Bush from your garden-variety “orthodox conservative.” “For the past forty years,” he writes, “conservatives have made the argument that, yes, America is indeed a ‘great nation,’ but that its government could not really do great things.” By contrast, the President’s vision is of an America projecting its greatness and magnanimity throughout the world.
That vision applies not only to malignant threats like AIDS but also, most obviously and most strikingly, to malevolent ones like terrorism. (I owe the useful distinction between malignant and malevolent threats to R. James Woolsey and Rachel Kleinfeld Belton.) That is why Podhoretz spends the lion’s share of his book not on domestic matters but on explicating and defending Bush’s decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Following 9/11, Bush was faced with two pathways: in Podhoretz’s words, either “the United States goes into a state of lockdown” or “[w]e change the conditions outside.” Bush chose the latter course by announcing the Bush Doctrine: those who harbored terrorists would be treated as terrorists. More than that, 9/11 made clear that despotic regimes likely to ally themselves with terrorist groups could not be permitted to acquire weapons of mass destruction. As Bush put it in the 2002 State of the Union Address, “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. . . . The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” This was the basis of the much-maligned but absolutely necessary doctrine of preemption, which the administration laid out in detail in the National Security Strategy released in September 2002.
Bush also had a theory about the causes of terrorism—namely, despotism and oppression—and what to do about them. His solution, in Podhoretz’s telling, was the most radical aspect of his presidency, and entailed perhaps the most radical foreign-policy vision of any American President in history: liberal democracy should be made to take root around the world, including in the Middle East. In brief, providing for American national security and promoting liberal, tolerant, democratic ideas around the world are two sides of the same coin.
Finally, malignant threats and malevolent threats are themselves related. After 9/11, Podhoretz writes, it “began to be understood that if political instability in Africa led to a corresponding rise in Islamic fundamentalism and militancy—especially in oil-rich Nigeria—the consequences could be dire.” If despotism and oppression feed terrorism, so do famine and plague. In this sense, fighting AIDS in Africa and fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan can be seen as, essentially, the same fight.
It is no slight to Podhoretz’s extremely well-argued book to say that it will have its greatest effect on those already inclined to favor the President’s policies. The disturbingly large number of people who freely admit to hating him are unlikely to be convinced, and the same can be safely assumed of those who believe that the President really is the puppet of a neoconservative cabal, or that he lied to the nation in order to take us to war. (To this last point, Podhoretz rejoins emphatically that Bush may have spun the intelligence, but he did not lie about it.)
Even admirers of Bush may feel that, at times, Podhoretz allows himself to get carried away, as when he asserts (invoking his authority as a former presidential speechwriter) that “Bush is the best presidential speaker since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” And there are also a few curious omissions. As the New Republic‘s Gregg Easterbrook—hardly a Bush partisan—has repeatedly observed, the President’s environmental record is actually a good one, and has been unfairly derided by his political opponents. Yet aside from noting that the Kyoto Protocol was dead long before Bush delivered its eulogy in 2001, Podhoretz avoids discussing the subject. Similarly apart from a single, unfortunately worded allusion to a Democratic “jihad against several Bush judicial nominees,” he has nothing to say about judicial politics, which proved so important in the 2002 midterm elections and is a subject of substantial conservative ire.
But domestic policy is also finally beside the point. Bush is a President defined by war, and, as Podhoretz writes, “at a time when every sensible person in this country understands that we are in the crosshairs of mass murderers, only the blind and the desperate and the parochial” could continue to think of disputes over Medicare and oil-drilling in Alaska as having “world-altering significance.” And it is in its discussion of the war that Podhoretz’s book truly shines.
He does a superb job—a much better job than the administration itself has done—explaining how Iraq fits into the broader war on terror. He sees clearly that we are faced with an enemy whose “intent is to kill on an unimaginable scale, to tear at the heart of this country, to cripple us emotionally and scar us psychically in ways from which we could never recover.” And he understands that defeating this kind of enemy requires a new strategic doctrine and a new way of understanding our relationship with other nations.
Bush understands these things, too, or, if you like, he instinctively recognizes and has acted upon them. If he is to go down in history as the great President that John Podhoretz thinks he is, he will need a second term to finish the job he has embarked upon. To do that, he and his team will have to become better at explaining the significance of his policies; to do that, he and they would be well advised to absorb the lessons of this brief, engaging, and very impressive book.