As the presidential campaign enters its final two weeks, one of the nagging questions is whether President Bush has learned anything from America's reversals in Iraq. The United States has made serious and costly mistakes there, but does Bush see them? On that issue turns an evaluation of his fitness to lead the country for another four years.
The British historian Christopher Andrew has argued that one of the decisive strengths of Winston Churchill, generally reckoned the greatest modern war leader, was that he learned from his mistakes. He bungled badly during World War I, championing the disastrous assault on Gallipoli in 1915 that was made with too few troops and too little strategic planning. He made other errors in his early career, from economic policy to diplomacy, but he learned from them and became a better leader. He never stopped growing.
This reflective side of Churchill is captured in one of his epigrams: "The further backward you look, the further forward you can see." What made him such a great commander wasn't simply his pose of cocksure certainty but the thoughtful and self-critical intellect that underlay it.
A good leader, almost by definition, is someone who learns from mistakes. Yet when Bush was asked during the debates what mistakes he had made, he treated it almost as a trick question, intended to lure him into introspection and self-doubt that would be a show of weakness. In reality, this sort of iterative learning is an essential part of leadership. The philosopher George Santayana famously observed in "The Life of Reason," published in 1905: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Less well known is his admonition in that same volume: "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim."
Bush's lack of introspection was the theme of a powerful essay by journalist Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt," that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday. Suskind argued that the essence of Bush's presidency is that it is "faith-based," rather than reason-based. He quoted Republican policy adviser Bruce Bartlett, who contended that Bush "truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis."
Certainly, Bush's own answer to a question in the third debate about prayer supports this view of a faith-based presidency. After explaining, movingly, the importance of prayer in his life, Bush said: "I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That's what I believe. And that's one part of my foreign policy."
When Bush talks in this way, critics worry that he truly is on a mission in Iraq, and that he resists learning from experience there because he feels that the struggle is beyond a pragmatic calculation of national interests, that it is something closer to a crusade. That's why Arabs have been so attentive to Bush's use of the word "crusade" to describe the war against terrorism. It evokes events of nearly a millennium ago that, for many Arabs, remain part of an eternal present.
It's instructive in this regard to examine a newly published book by the British historian Thomas Asbridge, "The First Crusade." He explains that Pope Urban II summoned the knights of Europe to this Christian jihad based on erroneous reports about Muslim atrocities in the East. And he notes that the First Crusade, although victorious in liberating Jerusalem, began a process that destroyed the Christian hegemony of Byzantium and paved the way for the later explosion of Islamic power by the Ottomans.
The paradox of Bush is that when you examine his actual policies in Iraq over the past six months, they appear to reflect precisely the sort of learning from experience that the president refuses publicly to acknowledge. The key architect of Iraq policy today is probably Robert Blackwill, a thoughtful former diplomat who serves on the staff of the National Security Council -- not the neoconservatives in the Pentagon such as Paul Wolfowitz, who urged the president to war. Wolfowitz's idealism has been replaced by Blackwill's calculating pragmatism, at least for the moment. Whether this ascendancy would continue in a second Bush administration is Washington's most interesting conundrum. The fact that we can only guess at the answer illustrates the problem.
Has Bush learned anything from Iraq? Does he understand how badly things have gone wrong there, and can he avoid making similar errors in the future? In his determination to avoid any appearance of weakness, Bush often acts like a man who is impervious to such questions. Refusing to admit mistakes and thereby learn from them is a dangerous quality for a leader.