As the nation observed the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush faced growing public disapproval of the war in Iraq. So the Bush administration launched a new offensive to defend its disastrous war, turning unified national mourning into bitter partisan political debate.
First the president delivered a series of speeches in which he equated his war in Iraq with the war on terror, despite widespread public opinion that the Iraq war is both a failure and a distraction from the real battles against terrorism. Then he again became “theologian-in-chief,” using stark imagery of good and evil and language about the “clash of civilizations” to defend his apocalyptic mission. A classified National Intelligence Estimate done by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, which came to light in September, warned that the war on Iraq has increased, not lessened, the threat from terrorism and has spawned a “new generation of Islamic radicalism,” according to The New York Times. The administration’s response has been to attack its critics’ integrity, motives, and patriotism. The president has become even more self-confident, declaring, “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions.”
Vice President Dick Cheney took his usual low-road approach of attacking critics of the war as appeasers, accusing them of giving aid and comfort to terrorists. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld invoked the precedent of Hitler and suggested that critics of the war would have been soft on Nazism and fascism too. Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner showed just how low politicians can go by saying, “I listen to my Democrat friends, and I wonder if they’re more interested in protecting the terrorists than in protecting the American people.” Whatever happened to honest and civil debate?
Even prominent Republicans are challenging Bush’s approach. Colin Powell, Bush’s first-term Secretary of State, wrote to Sen. John McCain, “The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” McCain and a few other courageous Republican senators opposed Bush’s proposal that the United States no longer abide by the Geneva Conventions prohibition against “outrages upon personal dignity”—including “humiliating and degrading treatment”—to allow his secret CIA interrogators a free hand to ignore international law in dealing with terror suspects. The GOP senators, who were criticized by Religious Right activists for opposing Bush on the torture question, argued that America should operate on higher ground, even if the terrorists don’t, and worried that Bush’s actions could put American servicemen and women in grave jeopardy.
It’s absolutely shocking that the president of the United States now advocates, as an operational American policy, what most of the world would regard as “torture.” What has happened at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo prison camp, and at secret CIA interrogation chambers around the world has put a deep moral stain on America. The Bush administration’s war in Iraq and its conduct of its “war on terror” have generated massive anti-American sentiment around the world—to the absolute glee of terrorists who are anxious to recruit a new generation of angry murderers. Bush has made the world more dangerous, not less, and he has made our children less safe, not more.
The most dangerous thing of all is how confident Bush is about his policies and direction, how little the world’s realities intrude upon his self-reflection, and how his sense of religion and God make the president not only supremely self-confident but also alarmingly self-righteous.
This fall, Bush met in the Oval Office with a group of conservative journalists and linked the war in Iraq to his faith and to what he saw as the possibility of a “Third Great Awakening” tied to the war against terrorism. He invoked Abraham Lincoln, the fight over slavery, and the Second Great Awakening. Bush commented how impressed he was that so many people he meets at presidential rope lines say they are praying for him and said, “A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me.” But, as in many things, Bush got the facts wrong. The Second Great Awakening came quite a few years before Lincoln, and Abraham Lincoln stands out among presidents as one who called for national humility and repentance, not self-righteousness and triumphalism. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln drew no easy lines of good and evil, but said that both sides in the Civil War stood under the judgment of God. Bush’s rhetoric of “the evildoers” arrayed against the absolute goodness of America, with no hint of self-reflection on how U.S. policies have contributed to global resentments and conflicts, is hardly Lincolnesque.
Bush sees his war on terrorism as “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation.” According to him, the war in Iraq is not a mistake but a “war that will set the course for this new century—and determine the destiny of millions across the world.” It is clear now that no course changes are being contemplated, because the president believes that “the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.” While I think the threat of terrorism is very real, I don’t believe the war on Iraq is the answer. Bush’s complete self-confidence is tied to his theology—“we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free.” Rich Lowry, editor of the arch-conservative National Review, reported, “Bush’s faith in the rightness of his strategy in the broader war is deep-seated—it is, indeed, a product of faith.”
A God who warns us not to trust in military might and who judges the rich and powerful most of all, and a Savior who challenges his disciples not just to see the log in their adversary’s eye but also the one in their own—all this seems quite foreign to the faith of George W. Bush. I don’t doubt his personal faith, but Bush’s bad theology (they are evil and we are good) is the foundation for his bad foreign policy and reveals an alarming lack of capacity for self-examination. The fact that he is president and (unlike Lincoln) believes that God is on his side poses a real threat to the safety of our children and the peace of the world.
The relationship between the Bush self-confidence and the Bush theology is a very dangerous one. But opposition to Bush’s policies is growing and is now bipartisan. Rejection of Bush’s worldview and agenda is now central to our national security. If, because of Bush’s self-confident religion, his policies can’t be changed, they must be blocked and thwarted in Congress.
George Bush unrelentingly proclaims that he is just trying to protect America. But who will protect us (and the rest of the world) from him?
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners and chief executive officer of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.