Just before the Gulf War -- the last Gulf War, that is -- I was in Baghdad, staying at the Al-Rashid Hotel, when a family moved in across the hall. I don't remember much about the mother or father, but I do remember their children, two boys who played boisterously in the hallway, kicking a ball around. I wondered what would happen to them when war came.
I suppose such thoughts would make me a bad president, a little wishy, a little washy. I know that such thoughts, expressed by Bill Clinton when he was president, were sometimes held against him. He actually knew the name of a civilian killed by a wayward cruise missile in a 1993 U.S. attack on Baghdad: Layla al-Attar. She was a painter. In the minds of some, this made Clinton a softy.
This is not the case with George W. Bush -- and that he seems so untroubled is in itself troubling. It's not that I don't think he is right about Saddam Hussein and, if need be, the necessity to deal with him through war. It's rather that I see America going to war; he sees us embarking on a crusade. His cause is right because he feels right about it.
The rest of the world, particularly Western Europe, recoils from that approach. It senses in Bush's body language, not to mention his oft-repeated references to God, a man who is tone deaf to subtleties and nuances -- "In Texas, we don't do nuance," he once told CNN's Candy Crowley -- and whose speech evinces not suppleness but a certain crudeness. Even in the high formality of the State of the Union address, he said of al Qaeda terrorists who had been killed, "Let's put it this way, they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies." It was a rhetorical smirk.
Recently, Bush has been telling us something in his walk. It is virtually a strut, the parade-walk of a man who has puffed himself up to show determination, leadership -- something like that. Whatever it is, it is not welcoming. It has a "no trespassing" sign all over it.
Bush's rigidity can come across as smugness. This has always been his least appealing quality, and it was on display, or so I was told, at a lunch he had for network anchors before the State of the Union message. He reportedly came across as cocky, not so much sure of himself as too sure of himself.
It has taken an iron sense of mission for Bush to confront the United Nations -- not just Saddam Hussein -- with its obligations. Another man might not have done as well. But this narrowness of focus is disquieting, because it suggests that Bush does not see the bigger picture. Is Iraq so pressing a menace that the imminence of a North Korean bomb can be put on the back burner? Is the Israeli-Arab conflict peripheral or, just maybe, central to what's happening in the Middle East? How does going to war with Iraq fit in with America's other challenges?
Maybe this single-mindedness of the president's is the product of his deep religious belief -- the conviction that he has been chosen for the task of decking Hussein. This, too, is unsettling, especially in Europe, which is much more secular than America. Destiny and providence are a siren's call that assures some, unnerves others. "I have been saved, destiny has chosen me, providence has preserved me," said Adolf Hitler after he survived an assassination attempt.
By no stretch of the imagination am I putting Bush in the same category as Hitler. If anything, Hussein belongs there. But this reliance on providence, this tendency to see things in black and white, this contempt for the lives of the contemptible no matter what else may be at stake (capital punishment in Texas, for instance, or collateral damage in Baghdad), is hardly reassuring to those who are looking for reasoned judgment, not quasi-religious conviction. Rarely does Bush explain. Usually he just declaims -- quick sound bites of the "game is over" variety.
This plays badly not only abroad but also at home, where Colin Powell has become the more trusted figure. More and more Bush is seen as inflexible -- rigid on the economy, on tax policy, on getting the judges he wants. What is increasingly missing is exactly the quality that once, especially in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, commended Bush to people like myself -- the absence of rigidity and shrillness, an open-faced easiness. He himself called it compassion, but no matter what it is called, it is a leader's greatest virtue. Recently it is nowhere to be seen.