According to an article published in Capitol Hill Blue that is receiving a lot of attention, President Bush’s “erratic behavior” is worrying White House aides. According to its author Doug Thompson, “In meetings with top aides and administration officials, the President goes from quoting the Bible in one breath to obscene tantrums against the media, Democrats and others that he classifies as ‘enemies of the state.'”
The implication is that there is contradiction here, although I find none, necessarily, between religiosity and obscene language. (Martin Luther, for example, was prone to scatological expression.) But contradiction there surely is aplenty in the commander in chief’s recent comments concerning his global war. Those statements do suggest instability and delusions of messianic grandeur, and should worry not just his aides but the entire world.
Last week, during an interview with French journalists, Bush was asked whether he really considered all the Iraqis fighting the US occupation to be “terrorists.” In an apparent moment of clarity he said no. “The suicide bombers are,” he declared, “but the other fighters aren’t. They just don’t want to be occupied. Not even me, nobody, would want to be. That’s why we’re giving them their sovereignty. We are guaranteeing them complete sovereignty from June 30.” (But wait; hadn’t he proclaimed Maqtada al-Sadr a terrorist, depicted the resistance in general as the work of foreign and domestic terrorists, and dubbed the war in Iraq the “central battlefield in the War on Terrorism”? Whence this new empathy those who “just don’t want to be occupied”?)
Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue, occasioned by the atmosphere of moral disapproval that must hang about the president in Old Europe. But others in the administration also seem to be backing away from the simplistic division of the world into friends and “terrorists.” Thus Donald Rumsfeld, after boasting to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy that the U.S. has “overthrown two vicious regimes and liberated 50 million people, disrupted terrorist cells across the globe and thwarted many terrorist attacks,” added that. “despite our successes, we are closer to the beginning of this struggle with global insurgency than to its end.” (Note: global insurgency, rather than “terrorism.” Rebellion all over the planet but rebellion against whom? Against the U.S., of course—or against “U.S. interests,” however the Bushies might wish to define them.)
For insight on the evolving definition of the global problem, check out Bush’s comments to religious editors and writers published in Christianity Today (May 28). He mentions “a clash of ideologies,” and while his presentation is characteristically garbled, it’s clear he’s pitting “our belief in freedom” against “an enemy” who must be prevented “from attacking us again. Which I believe they want to do” (note the switch between singular and plural). Who is this “they”? Why, people whom Bush knows “want to do it because I know they want to sow discord, distrust, and fear at home so that we begin to withdraw from parts of the world where they would like to have enormous influence to spread their Taliban-like vision-the corruption of religion-to suit their purposes.” (So the global insurgents are “Taliban-like” extremist Muslims hell-bent on attacking “freedoms” as represented in Ashcroft’s America and elsewhere in the pro-American world.)
“I think that they want to drive us out of parts of the world,” continues Bush, “so they’re better able to have a base from which to operate. I think it’s very much more like an ‘ism’ than a group with territorial ambition.”
“More like a what?” asks a Christian interviewer, politely. “An ‘ism’ like Communism,” replies the president, warming to his topic in such receptive company, “that knows no boundaries, as opposed to a power that takes land for gold or land for oil or whatever it might be. I don’t see their ambition as territorial. I see their ambition as seeking safe haven. And I know they want to create power vacuums into which they are able to flow.”
(Comment: many have argued the obvious—that “terrorism” is not an ideology but a tactic, difficult to define, but however defined, used by all kinds of people, including U.S. forces. But here Bush comes close to honing in on “Taliban-like” Islamism, comparing it to Communism in its transnational appeal.)
“To what final end?” asks an interviewer. “The expansion of Islam?”
“No,” replies Bush, “I think the expansion of their view of Islam, which would be I guess a fanatical version that-you know, you’re trying to lure me down a road [where] I’m incapable of winning the debate. But I’m smart enough to understand when I’m about to get nuanced out.”
(This is so telling. Are the Christianity Today editors really trying to trip the president up? Surely not. In fact the interview is conducted with all sickening deference. What lurking road does the president fear? What “debate” occurs here, other than one perhaps in his own mind, occasioning his hesitation? “I’m about to get nuanced out.” By whom? Where? Who’s trying to nuance this president who told Mahmoud Abbas last year that “God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein]. And I smote him”? I suspect the president fears that, should he “go down a road” of trying to speak intelligently about Islam, of which he knows and cares so little, he may get into some trouble. Best to stick with what God has told him specifically.
“No, I think they [the enemies] have a perverted view of what religion should be, and it is not based upon peace and love and compassion-quite the opposite. These are people that will kill at the drop of a hat, and they will kill anybody, which means there are no rules. And that is not, at least, my view of religion. And I don’t think it’s the view of any other scholar’s view of religion either.”
(Other scholar’s view? Bush is now a religious scholar? And is he clueless about the drop-of-the-hat killings which daily occur, courtesy trigger-happy U.S. troops in Iraq?)
Much of the Christianity Today interview deals with Bush’s “faith-based initiative” and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. “At home,” he explains in his best religious-scholar mode, “the job of a president is to help cultures change.” But plainly he perceives this as his job abroad as well. Muslim culture in particular must be helped to change. What if such “help” is neither solicited nor desired, nor the insistent offer accepted as sincere? Enter that realm of debate and the president gets nuanced out. There’s nothing to do but fall back on simplest, least confusing concepts.
“My job is to speak clearly and when you say something, mean it. And when you’re trying to lead the world in a war that I view as really between the forces of good and the forces of evil, you got to speak clearly. There can’t be any doubt. And when you say you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it. Otherwise, particularly given the position of the United States in the world today, there will be confusion.”
In fact, the world obtains increasing clarity concerning the nature of the Bush administration, recognizing that the administration is both hopelessly confused (in among other respects, its religious fundamentalism) and a force of evil as great as any in recent memory. The “global insurgency” Rumsfeld posits as the enemy is really the global population, complex in ideology and religious affiliation, ridden by numerous divisions but never more inclined to rebel against Washington’s global agenda.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org