George W. Bush is a failed president. Most historians, political observers, and the public agree on this point. Only an extraordinary turn of events – a successful military venture against Iran, which somehow undoes the damage the invasion of Iraq has wrought, for instance – will lessen the harsh verdict that awaits the Bush when the dust settles on the remains of his presidency. How did it all go so wrong? Bush’s deluded sense of grandeur -- a messianic complex that imprudently blended the president’s faith with statecraft – is at the heart if his (and alas America’s) undoing.
A 19th century philosopher by the name of William Clifford designed an ethical thought experiment that captured the fatal flaw that has sunk the Bush Administration. Clifford asks his readers to imagine a shipowner who decides to forgo a costly inspection because he has faith that Providence will see his ship through a difficult journey. Here Clifford argues, the shipowner acquired his belief not through patient examination, but by stifling his doubts. The sincerity of the owner’s beliefs in no way absolves him if the craft sinks. Indeed, Clifford concludes, substituting blind faith for practical measures is an abdication of responsibility.
Clifford’s thought experiment neatly encapsulates the Bush Administration’s tragic venture in Iraq. Patient inquiry, rational deliberation, and empirical evidence were cast aside in favor of Bush’s ideology and his intuition. Senator Joseph Biden once asked Bush how he could be so certain invading Iraq was the right course. “My instincts,” the president replied, “my instincts.”
Bush is – or at least was – the de facto leader of the religious right. He has intimated to his followers that he believed God wanted him to be president. He also expressed the hope that he would be a good messenger as he brought democracy to the Arab world beginning with Iraq. But like Abner Hale, the insufferably obtuse preacher in James Michner’s novel Hawaii, who sought to bring the heathen natives around to Christianity, but instead brought only pestilence and grief, Bush’s missionary efforts in Iraq have only succeeded in alienating the Arab world.
The notion that the United States has a messianic mission to spread American values across the globe is not something Bush invented. American exceptionalism a part of who we are (we are the last best hope of mankind, the indispensable nation, the shining city upon the hill). But America’s wisest leaders – especially America’s Founders – have consistently rejected the idea that any political leader exercises his earthly authority on behalf of God. Sovereignty, as the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison intended, is derived entirely from “We the People.”
The United States was founded by children of the Enlightenment, a movement that explicitly rejected the idea of the divine right of kings. Put simply, men who believed they were acting as “Fate’s Lieutenant,” in Melville’s memorable phrase, were anathema to the Founding Fathers. However, this is precisely the role Bush cast himself in so far as he has claimed virtually unlimited authority to rid the world of evil. Like captain Ahab, however, Bush’s quest to end evil is spawning the very wickedness, malevolence, and chaos he decries. Melville’s verdict on Ahab, for instance, was that he succeeded only in creating more orphans, a judgment that seems eerily appropriate for Bush considering the way the invasion of Iraq is playing out.
The problem, of course, is not Bush’s goals -- an end to terror and a more hopeful and peaceful Middle East -- but rather his tragic failure to match means and ends. The available evidence indicates that Bush earnestly believes that history is a conflict between the forces of freedom and the forces of tyranny and that God is not neutral in this eternal struggle. In one of his Biblical allusions, for instance, Bush invoked the image of an angel in the whirlwind that directs the storm.
There is nothing more painful than false belief. I expect many of Bush’s followers, who found Bush’s biblically inspired language and outlook so inspiring (at least during the early stages of the invasion) will grow increasingly demoralized as the self-defeating futility of the Iraq war becomes more apparent. Put simply, the notion that the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq (or any other conflict for that matter) are part of some providential plan is superstitious nonsense.
Those who are well versed in history, literature, and political philosophy were more apt to recognize Bush’s religious hubris as a disaster in the making. Shortly after the Supreme Court installed Bush as president over the wishes of the majority, for instance, I wrote that the political gods often elevate fools and rogues because they love watching tragedy and farce.
The Bush Administration has provided plenty of tragedy and farce, but those waiting for a deus ex machina when it comes to Iraq are almost certain to be disappointed. Iraq was a manmade fiasco and it is the height of irresponsibility to believe a deity or fate will sort things out. It is important to recognize, however, how religious zealotry mucked up Iraq. For instance, it is now clear that the administration applied an anti-abortion litmus test that screened out competent diplomats in favor of political stoolies that would be responsible for reconstructing Iraq. It is also obvious that impressionable young soldiers believed they were part of a holy crusade. And it is also clear that a large percentage of the American public believed that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy involving the fall of Babylon.
The widespread corruption that permeated the reconstruction efforts, the torture and sexual abuse scandals, and the general incompetence of the Bush Administration belie the notion that Bush is governing as God’s representative on earth. The Founders established a contrary principle for understanding the intersection of religion and state. They didn’t believe that God ordained particular leaders, but they believed that all men are endowed by their creator with inalienable natural rights.
Dick Cheney once implied that America’s preeminence was part of God’s plan.
A Christmas card sent to supporters in 2003, for instance, read: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
The invasion of Iraq, however, has precipitated a broad American decline; America’s moral standing, credibility, military readiness, and soft power have all plummeted under Bush/Cheney. Worse still, the defining act of the act of the Bush Administration – the invasion of Iraq – has inadvertently backfired to the advantage of America’s enemies, al-Qaeda and the mullahs in Iran. If this isn’t a reductio ad absurdum to the idea that God wanted Bush to be president I don’t know what is. It seems clear that so long as Bush and Cheney believe they are on a mission from God the United States doesn’t have a prayer.