The Centrality of War in the Presidency of George W. Bush

“Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the minds of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances[But] Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.”

Jean Kirkpatrick, Dictatorships and Double Standards, 1979

September 11, 2006 marks the fifth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s successful attack against the U.S. in which 2,973 individuals from 690 countries perished in New York City, Washington, DC, and in Pennsylvania.

Outwardly, that event marks the public start of what might be regarded as the first perpetual war presidency of the United States. The irony of this characterization is that this war presidency comes at the start of a new millennium, a period during which many in the Christianized West believe that significant changes–and very possibly apocalyptic ones–will occur.

Struggle as the Meaning of Life

In fact, the real inaugural point of the perpetual war presidency goes back well beyond 2001 and is found, not in Washington, DC, but in Chicago where political philosopher Leo Strauss held forth at the University of Chicago. For Strauss, effective (and therefore good) governance is a function of discerning and then applying the natural order to the affairs of state. The catch is that those doing the discerning and the implementing are the philosopher-kings of Plato’s The Republic or Nietzsche’s super-men who, by virtue of their superior intellect and great discipline, are the only ones able to decipher reality and respond dispassionately in the interests of the state.

According to Shadia Drury, a Canadian professor of political theory who has critically studied Strauss and his intellectual associates, Strauss admired Plato, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche, among others, because they were willing to express unpopular political opinions, albeit with some circumspection–e.g., the best form of government is a benevolent tyranny administered by the selfless philosopher-king. The concentration of power in one person–a form of the unitary executive favored by Bush–is the most efficient way to allocate resources for the preservation of the state.

Unfortunately, the “philosopher-kings” so admired by Strauss and the coterie of students who absorbed his philosophical stance are rare. Such persons are distinguished by their love for and ability to confront and combat head-on the harsh realities that constitute political life. At the same time, this acute awareness of the true and the good imposes on them the obligation to live by higher standards than others, imperatives that derive from their superior knowledge of the truth. Their “reward,” as might be surmised, lies not in the accumulation of wealth or ease of living that are by-products of the decadent “liberal” economy of the West but in the continual discovery of “truth” through the exploration of ideas with peers and disciples.

Although Plato’s philosopher-king or Nietzsche’s “super-man” would make the best ruler, his blunt style and pursuit of the best interests of the collective (as opposed to the individual) would alienate the vulgar masses who, because their chief interests are the pursuit of wealth and personal pleasure, are unfit to rule themselves. Strauss’ solution is the now classic “third way” embodied by the type known as “gentlemen.” These revel in a self-image, encouraged by the “wise men,” of the courageous, self-sacrificing protagonist-hero whose love of God and the “right path” impels them to place duty, honor, and country above all else. Moreover, they are honor-bound to accept any challenge to their sense of moral purpose–God’s purpose–that is, in any case, predestined to vanquish evil. But for the “wise men” who are the natural rulers, the gentlemen possess two more valuable characteristics. They are gullible enough not to comprehend that what they are told is “reality” is in fact largely (but not completely) an interpretation–e.g., the shadows in Plato’s cave–created by the true rulers (the “wise.”) Second, they have the ability to appeal to and inspire the masses to rise above their normal dissolute pursuits, to reclaim their collective identity–even their humanity–in the service of and for the glory of God and of the “nation.”

In this schematic, war and sacrifice, even immediate death, become the surest path to redemption, for through war the masses participate in the eternal struggle against evil. Never mind that the discourse on conflict and the justifications of conflict are dominated by lies. Only the wise know and need know the truth, for truth’s harsh reality would be more than the vulgar masses could absorb (or more than the wise ones would want them to know to avoid blowback).

This is the origin of the cult of secrecy that, in turn, gives rise to three inter-related claims: the ruler is above the rule of law; “natural law’ (or Nature’s law) operates to select those who will govern and those who will be governed; and the existence and use of the “noble lie” in the service of the state. (An example might be a domestic propaganda blitz attributing nefarious intentions–which may be true–and capabilities–not true–of an unfriendly state, combined with ever-broadening restrictions on individual liberties in the name of “security.”)
Translating Theory to Practice: Snapshots in the 1970s and 1990s

Leo Strauss died in 1973, but by that date his protégés were already in government or getting ready to enter government. The rest of the 1970s seemed particularly tumultuous with the fall of South Vietnam and the U.S. evacuation of Saigon, Nixon’s resignation, intelligence failures in Korea (Pueblo) off Cambodia (Mayaguez), and in Iran (Desert 1), and the extent of illegal domestic spying revealed by the 1978 Senate Church Committee. At the same time, personalities who would reappear in the George H.W. Bush and/or the George W. Bush administrations became prominent “inside the beltway”–e.g., Donald Rumsfeld (Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Defense), Dick Cheney (Ford’s Chief of Staff and later Member of Congress), and Paul Wolfowitz (Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense).

Out of this ferment emerged three themes that were to carry over into the two Bush presidencies: a re-appraisal of the main Soviet threat to the West that replaced Soviet-Warsaw Pact armies racing through the Fulda Gap in Germany with Soviet domination of the oil-rich Persian Gulf; an increasingly definitive tilt toward Israeli interests and away from the “honest broker” role in Middle East disputes; and the rejection of the policy of détente as a morally insupportable position that acquiesces in the continuation of tyrannical governments around the world.

By the summer of 1990, the international landscape had changed dramatically. The Warsaw Pac was gone, the Soviet Union was teetering, Iran and Iraq had exhausted each other in an eight-year war (1980-1988), and the U.S. seemed unchallenged around the world. Then in August, a dispute about the ownership of an oil field straddling the Iraq-Kuwait border (together with other “grievances”) boiled over as Saddam Hussein sent his army into Kuwait. Because Saddam’s action threatened to upset the orderly functioning of the petroleum market (one of the dangers highlighted in the 1970s but with the Soviets as the culprits) and was a blatant violation of international behavior, the U.S. organized a U.N.-endorsed “coalition of the willing” to force Saddam from Kuwait if he did not withdraw voluntarily. Some seven months later, Kuwait was free, much of Saddam’s army was in ruins, Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Israel had not provoked retaliation by Tel Aviv (and thus a wider war), and Saddam’s program for developing nuclear weapons lay exposed, prompting the imposition of sanctions and the creation of an intrusive and continuous weapons inspection regime.

At a February 27, 1991 meeting on the progress of the ground war, President George H. W. Bush, with the presumed concurrence of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, decided not to “go to Baghdad” and depose Saddam Hussein. In so doing, he unwittingly set the stage for the war presidency of George W. Bush.

Over the intervening years (1993-2000), Saddam resisted sanctions and manipulated UN programs designed to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Iraqi people. In December 1998, Bill Clinton used Saddam’s refusal to allow unrestricted movement by UN arms inspectors throughout Iraq, as require by UN resolutions, to launch Operation Desert Fox, the intensified four-day cruise missile and manned aircraft attack by U.S. and British forces. When the operation ended, Saddam was still in power–brutally so–a bit of still-unfinished business.

The elevation of George Bush and Millenarianism

Having been re-elected as Texas governor, George W. Bush began his bid for the Republican Party’s 2000 presidential nomination in crowded field. By August and the Iowa straw poll, he was considered the favorite but not a sure bet. On November 19, 1999 at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California, Bush outlined his worldview and the way he would approach international issues if elected president.

U.S. foreign policy, he declared, required a “great and guiding goal” capable of projecting U.S. influence into future “generations of democratic peace.” To achieve this state of affairs, he listed five priorities:

* work with our strong democratic allies in Europe and Asia to extend the peace;

* promote a fully democratic Western Hemisphere, bound together by free trade;

* defend America’s interests in the Persian Gulf and advance peace in the Middle East, based upon a secure Israel;

* check the contagious spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the means to deliver

* lead toward a world that trades in freedom.

A president who was focused, patient, and strong in his pursuit of “enduring national interests” could reach these goals.

Curiously, Bush mentions democracy in conjunction with Europe, Asia and the Western hemisphere, but not with the oil-rich Persian Gulf or Middle East. Nor does he make any reference to terrorism. The pro-Israeli tilt is re-affirmed as is the need to control the diffusion of weapons of mass destruction, but the latter is in the context of nation-states, not terror groups. All these goals are couched in the traditional language of realpolitik and “national interests” that, at the same time, is overlaid by an untraditional “religious” tonality suggesting a moral imperative to bring the blessings of freedom to the world.

By the time of the second debate–eleven months later–between the presidential nominees, held on October 11, 2000, Bush has gone from general references to weapons of mass destruction to advocating strongly that Saddam Hussein had to be removed:

MODERATOR: “Saddam Hussein, you mean, get him out of there?”

BUSH: “I would like to, of course, and I presume this administration would as well….He is a danger. We don’t want him fishing in troubled waters in the Middle East.”

Moments later, Bush said: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win wars. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it’s in our best interests.”

Conversely, when it came to atrocities such as Rwanda, Bush said U.S. responsibility should be limited only to ensuring “we have an early warning system in place in places where there could be ethnic cleansing and genocide.” Again, Saddam Hussein is singled out for regime change, but terrorism is not mentioned.

A little more than three months later, on January 20, 2001, George Bush became president. His inaugural speech dwelt on domestic issues of compassion, civility, and the ideals on which the U.S. was founded and on which he pledges to lead the nation. Foreign problems are noted in two sentences in which he promises to “build our defenses beyond challenge” and to “confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors.”

The public comments concealed what Bush and his closest advisors are planning behind the scenes. Following the abrupt end of his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury after two years, Paul O’Neill recounted that from the very first National Security Council meeting ten days after the inauguration, Bush was focused on Saddam Hussein. “It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.'” According to O’Neill, “Why nowWhy Saddam?” were questions that were never asked.

Three weeks after the inauguration, on the occasion of submitting to Congress his first budget, Bush still addresses security challenges in one short paragraph: ” Our nation also needs a clear strategy to confront the threats of the 21st century–threats that are more widespread and less certain. They range from terrorists who threaten with bombs to tyrants in rogue nations intent upon developing weapons of mass destruction.”

But the conclusion of this speech goes beyond the near-religious tone of the inaugural address in that Bush casts the future not in the more traditional “America as a beacon” of hope to the rest of the world but America–with George Bush at the helm–as the messianic instrument of God “in re-making the nations of the world.”

“America’s purpose always stands before us. Our generation must show courage. And our courage, issue by issue, can gather to greatness and serve our country. This is the privilege and responsibility we share. And if we work together, we can prove that public service is noble.Together we can share in the credit of making our country more prosperous and generous and just, and earn from our conscience and from our fellow citizens the highest possible praise: Well done, good and faithful servants.”

But before a pretext could be fully developed that would “justify” going after Saddam, Osama bin Laden struck. Bush had his pretext for war–a physical attack on the U.S. that called for revengeful retribution. But it was the wrong country and the wrong leaders. Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban, not Saddam, were in the crosshairs.

Not that an attempt wasn’t made from the very beginning to tie Saddam to September 11. Richard Clarke, whose tenure as chief advisor to the president on terrorism went all the way back to the Reagan administration, recounted publicly in 2004 that after the attack there was pressure from Bush to find a connection between the attacks on New York and Washington and Saddam Hussein. Clarke, who had been trying to get presidential attention focused on al-Qaeda since the early days of the administration, prepared a new report–with which the CIA and FBI concurred–that found (again) no operational connection between Baghdad and al-Qaeda.

Whether Bush ever saw the report is unclear. But in a speech to the American Legion on February 24, 2006, Bush continued the administration’s long-standing efforts to rewrite history by asserting he had no intent to remove Saddam until after al-Qaeda struck: “After September the 11th I looked at the world and saw a clear threat in Saddam Hussein.”

From his September 20th, 2001 speech to the nation to his current “speech offensive” begun in late August 2006 (the third in the last twelve months), Bush has relentlessly worked to justify the militarized campaign he unleashed against what came to be called “global terrorism.” Phase one required overturning the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to deny bin Laden and his lieutenants their sanctuary and force them to further de-centralize. Afghanistan fell in under three months, well before the White House was prepared to take on Saddam. As it was, there were a number of insurgencies around the world employing terror tactics that the administration could and did sweep up into the “global war” even though the grievances and the terror employed by these groups tended to focus internally on one government or region–e.g., the Abu Sayyaf insurgents in the Philippines and Hezbollah and Hamas in the Middle East, respectively. And to ensure that other “friendly” regimes did not erect barriers rooted in sovereignty that would entail negotiations and inevitable constraints on U.S. military action, Bush declared in no uncertain terms that every country had to choose–either it stood with the U.S. or it would be considered to stand against the U.S. and be liable to the same treatment as those who engaged in terror.

Herein may lie part of the rationale for the administration’s choice of the war machine instead of the scales of justice. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Bush was able to gather more power into the White House–the “unitary presidency theory”–as he would have a stronger hand constitutionally than if he chose to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban through the justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court had always been deferential to the president in time of war, and congresses over the last 100 years mounted progressively less resistance to funding requests for “the troops” fighting overseas than to requests to fund international courts and law-enforcement agencies. The White House calculated that once the war machine was up and running, it would be more difficult to slow it down, let alone shut it down, until the real target was removed.

If Saddam, already a pariah to many, could be cast as the center of international terror, then under the emerging Bush doctrine of preventive war, what George H. W. Bush failed to do in 1991 because of UN restrictions on military action and the calculation that the coalition would fracture if Baghdad were attacked, George W. Bush would do in 2002 or 2003.

Although Afghanistan had unexpectedly become the first phase of the permanent war presidency, planning for phase two–Saddam’s removal–began before the bombs and bullets for phase one were launched on October 8, 2001. Administration officials alleged that Saddam was lying about programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and the existence of such weapons. In Bush’s January 20, 2002 State of the Union address, Iraq and Saddam became part of the “axis of evil” that defied the “civilized” (virtuous) nations of the world led by the United States, a defiance and an evil Bush was determined to end.

Also on that January 20 the White House released its “National Security Strategy of the United States” (NSS), the official plan for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Bush’s introductory letter to the NSS asserts that there is only one “sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” and avers that “the duty of protecting these values…is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.” The main document adds that “The aim of this strategy is to help make the world not just safer but better.”

Together, the speech and the document crystallized the ideological threads stretching back to Leo Strauss that the administration insists empowers them legally to initiate preventive war against any country that, at some future undefined time, might possibly pose a threat to U.S. national interests. Afghanistan does not fall under this rubric; it was a war of revenge and retribution. But the cold calculation driving the planning for the invasion of Iraq took as its starting point the ending of the last battle (1991) in the never-ending war between good (the U.S.) and evil (Saddam). Only this time, this Bush was determined to make the world safer and better.

According to aides to Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s ruler believed right up to the start of hostilities that Bush would not risk invasion, particularly without UN approval. Nonetheless, he could not ignore the troop build-up in Kuwait, even though it was significantly less than the forces assembled in 1991. Saddam had no intention of trying to confront U.S. military power head on. The battle for Iraq, if it came, would be led by his sons and his lieutenants and would be waged as an insurgency–the only kind of war the U.S. had lost in the 20th century.

In the six weeks between March 19 and May 1, 2003, Iraq was “cleansed.” With phase two ostensibly over, the rhetoric from the White House began to shift to Syria in an eerily familiar tone. Physically, with the exception of Lebanon, Syria was now surrounded by U.S. allies and might be more easily subdued–perhaps even without a major commitment of U.S. troops. And with Syria permanently docile, only Iran in the greater Middle East would still be a threat to Israel–and Tehran would be isolated both secularly and ethnically from the majority of the Islamic world.

On May 1, 2003, the way seemed clear to George W. Bush. The Taliban were out; Saddam was out though, like Osama bin Laden, still on the loose. “Terrorists with global reach” easily slipped into Iraq’s vacated spot in the axis of evil. For as he told the cadets at West Point in June 2002: “We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.”

The trouble is that once unleashed, the forces of good cannot stop until evil is vanquished. (Indeed, the administration has often employed the term “long war” interchangeably with the “war on terror.”) This makes war, continuing war, necessary. Not content with war as necessary, the Bush Administration has gone one step further. It has harnessed Wilsonian utopianism (a world of free trade democratic nations) to the “war on terror” by threatening and actually employing military power C AS AMERICA’S DIVINE DUTY C to defeat totalitarian regimes and replace them with democratic structures. As God=s cleansing agent on earth, this redemptive violence is not merely necessary, it is essential. That is to say, WAR is essential, the very position of fundamentalists.

And at the moment, the extreme fundamentalists, the remnants of the old regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those seeking revenge against the occupation forces, are proving quite adept at waging war in these two countries–perhaps because most have little interest in George Bush’s “global war.”


After five years of the permanent war presidency, the U.S. and the world appear neither safer nor better. Administration promises to expand the number of people with health care and to increase wages and lift families out of poverty remain unfulfilled. In just the last year–with the White House talking of a widespread economic recovery in the U.S., an additional 1.3 million individuals lost health care insurance coverage. Men’s median wages dropped 1.8 percent and women’s median wages dropped 1.3 percent, while the numbers existing below the poverty line remained essentially unchanged over the same period.

By any of the normal standards–economics, social, political, environmental, moral–the nations of the globe are poorer. HIV/AIDS, poverty, and armed conflict continue to destroy the hopes, aspirations, and lives of more than one billion children around the globe. Approximately 121 million primary school-age children have no schools to attend or teachers to teach. The inroads against these statistics that had been made in Afghanistan and Iraq are being threatened by the increasing levels of violence in both countries.

In both countries, the increase in fatalities among the local population and the loss of life among coalition troops is finally turning public sentiment against continuing these adventures as well at the “global war on terror.” Bush claims that by fighting terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. will be spared the necessity to fight terror at home. Yet he or other members of the administration from time to time trumpet the break-up of another “al-Qaeda cell” and the arrest of others “planning” acts of terror.

What one is left with is a sense that the U.S. is fighting both abroad and at home against those who employ (or would employ) terror. But at home, the public is also being terrorized by elected officials who, over the past five years, have attacked traditional liberties in the name of “national security.” The recent Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld may mark the beginning of the end of the administration’s frontal assault on individual rights–and none too soon. As August drew to a close, both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush rolled out the latest hyperbolic rhetoric of the war on terror: equating–as the president did before a gathering of the American Legion–anyone who does not actively and whole-heartedly support the administration’s interpretation of what constitutes today’s “tyranny and extremism” to the sympathizers of the Fascists, Nazis, Communists, and other 20th century totalitarians.

Because these destructive “-isms” of the last century ultimately became part of the fabric of discreet nation-states, they could be and were confronted and defeated. But in dealing with these, a more insidious “-ism” slowly took hold in Washington: the unitary presidency that serves as the guidepost, the focus, for the Bush administration’s curtailment of fundamental liberties in the name of fighting terror and defending democracy–as they define it.

Democracy is prized precisely because it has no sustainable focus or centralized loci for concentrating power that would transform it into an “-ism.” This absence makes it possible to adapt the democratic spirit to changing circumstances and myriad forms of governance C and gives it its undeniable appeal, strength, and staying power. But should rulers see only the absence of focus and not the power that derives from democracy’s adaptability, they will attempt to find or define an “ism” that will produce and regulate systemic change. Down this path lies, in the short term, the continuance of the status quo. Over the longer term, the result will be a descent into failure of the democratic state and the emergence of the “ism” of the unified executive, the strong man system preferred by the Bush administration.

The Strausses of this world believe the people are too dumb and too disinterested to stand up and fight to keep their democracy from being subverted. Our nation’s founders counted on an informed and engaged electorate to preserve and build democracy. The people face a historic test, one without precedent, and what they do now will make all the difference to future generations here and abroad. These exceptional times demand an exceptional civil society–one that will serve as a pattern or an example–but never a poser or imposer.

Col. Daniel Smith, a retired colonel and Vietnam veteran, is a West Point graduate and a grad against the war. He can be reached at: