Thiswar, we keep hearing, is a showcase for George Bush's flinty WASP integrity. His mother raised him to be decent, brave, modest, stoic and straightforward. Henry Stimson addressed his class at Andover, and ever since he's been helping little old ladies to cross the street and poor defenseless countries to repel tyrants.
WASP values are swell. But if Bush has moved his persona back from Texas to Connecticut for the duration, he needs to get his act together on a few fronts.
For example: Various Republicans have been sniping at Democrats in Congress who voted to give sanctions more time. Having lost the debate, antiwar Democrats have rallied behind the war effort. But William Bennett, for one, sees through all that. It is not gracious and patriotic, but rather "one of the smallest, meanest political acts that I have ever seen" because of an alleged failure to express support for the president as well. "They separated the commander in chief from his troops," Bennett accuses.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater says, "We don't believe that the Gulf conflict is a partisan issue. On the other hand ... there was a certain partisanship about the way the votes were cast." In fact, the Democratic leadership leaned over backward not to invoke party loyalty. Members were free to vote their own consciences or selfish political calculations -- and selfish calculation surely did not dictate a vote against the president.
With WASP-worthy stoicism of their own, antiwar Democrats have silenced their doubts for now. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Vietnam hero, may understand the costs of war better than Bill Bennett, but he can't make his case. What does President WASP think about rhetorical Scud attacks at such a moment? Would Dink Stover hit a fellow who can't hit back? Gosh, no. And he would curb his Irish wolfhounds, too, rather than pretending to be above it all.
Bush is said to dislike Saddam with a righteous Protestant fervor. If anything, he is accused of over-personalizing the war because of his moral outrage at Saddam's bullying. This WASP mythology also grates.
As Peter Galbraith of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff puts it: "George Bush did a very convincing Neville Chamberlain before he became Winston Churchill." The facts are well known: how Bush ignored Saddam's nuclear ambitions and gassing to death of thousands of Kurds and how he opposed Democratic proposals for sanctions.
These earlier mistakes don't make Bush's subsequent actions wrong. But they undermine any pretense that the war we're now engaged in results from the president's admirably simple Sunday School morality. And if points are being awarded for honesty and stoicism, Bush would win a few by admitting that his previous Iraq policy was a dreadful mistake. This would also enhance the moral credibility of his current bellicose approach. Didn't his mother teach him to apologize when you're wrong?
I thought WASP morality also included elements of thrift and self-sacrifice. Yet the Iraq war has been sold to American citizens like every other policy of the Reagan-Bush years: as, for most, a free lunch. Bush's State of the Union address contained all the right words: "the hard work of freedom ... leadership brings burdens and sacrifice," etc. But the war has demanded nothing of the average American except to watch CNN. In his speech, Bush kept doling out party favors like "tax-free family savings accounts."
The midst of a recession may well be the wrong time for a tax increase, but surely WASP morality dictates the principle that the war ought to be paid for by this generation and not the next. And not just the war. This was Bush's chance for true heroic fiscal leadership. At 82 percent in the polls, he could have called for a gas tax to promote conservation. Or, if any tax is anathema, he could have taken on middle-class entitlements. If ever there was a moment to call on citizens to sacrifice for their country's long-range good, this was it. But President WASP funked it.
The atmosphere in Washington is stiflingly triumphal. Not only are we going to win the war. We're going to win the peace, creating a "New World Order," and we're going to re-establish our country as No. 1 during the "Next American Century."
The "new world order" depends on the belief that we'll go through all this again if necessary. And that, in turn, seems to require that there be no serious cost in blood or money. Perhaps the combination of high-tech air power and hitting up "the allies" for cash can achieve this imperial alchemy. If not, Bush's "new world order" will go the way of Wilson's "war to end all wars."
The "next American century" too depends on a willingness to sacrifice that is, to say the least, unproved. Is producing Patriot missiles or producing VCRs a better test of national greatness? That popular question misses the point. If George Bush were to announce that America will take on the "burden of leadership" by defending the world from evil while other nations concentrate on becoming more prosperous, that would indeed be greatness almost beyond WASP virtue. It would also be unsalable. But if the next century is to find America No. 1 economically as well as militarily, it will require a degree of discipline George Bush won't summon. These days, even war isn't the moral equivalent of war.