Bush speaks boldly, and the world listens
The president's approach to war and terrorism carries weight.
By LINDA FELDMANN
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
WASHINGTON -- Washington types like to play a parlor game that might be called "What If?" Here's one round: What if Bill Clinton had still been president Sept. 11?
The former chief executive himself has almost complained that he led the nation in dull times, deprived of an opportunity for greatness. Indeed, said presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton University, there would be great similarity between Presidents Clinton and Bush -- or almost-President Al Gore and Bush -- in the immediate handling of a 9/11-magnitude event.
"There's a kind of DNA for presidents in crisis," Greenstein said. "You rally the nation; you don't sit down and let the nation be blasted."
But in the longer-term fallout of Sept. 11, Bush has carved out an approach to war and terrorism marked by discipline, simplicity and directness -- and none of Clinton's reluctance to put American troops in danger. The result, on one level, is an Arab and Muslim world that now takes American power seriously and, so far, is producing results in Iraq.
The president's response to North Korea's move toward resuming its nuclear-weapons program has also been typically bold. The administration has been forcing its allies in the region to pursue a diplomatic solution to the situation. The president has refused to negotiate with North Korea until it halts its nuclear program.
Bush's unequivocal style in foreign policy matters, to be sure, could also lead the United States into a war with Iraq that could have dire consequences. Already, his approach is contributing to growing anti-Americanism in Arab countries. But in erasing some of the post-Vietnam reluctance to use force, he has also created a less ambiguous, even if largely unsympathetic, view of the United States in Arab capitals.
"While Bill Clinton was not taken seriously by leaders in the world of Islam, George W. Bush is taken very seriously, and his words -- unequivocally -- are seen as quite decisive," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East scholar at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., who travels frequently to the region.
View of Clinton
During Clinton's presidency, the military saw him as a draft dodger who harmed morale with his effort to allow gays to serve. Retaliation by cruise missile -- not "boots on the ground," as Bush likes to refer to deployment -- was a typical response to anti-American actions, such as the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the alleged Iraqi plot to kill the first President Bush. (Middle East leaders now see that second episode as giving the current President Bush all the more reason to go after Saddam Hussein. And Bush the younger's avoidance of active duty during Vietnam appears to be a nonfactor in his relations with the military today.)
The war in Afghanistan has altered the image of "America as wimp." Even though Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar remain at large, "the U.S. unleashed a devastating war in Afghanistan, toppled the regime, decimated the military infrastructure of Al-Qaida and installed a friendly government," noted Gerges. "People are saying, 'Iraq is the second phase.' This is why President Bush is taken seriously. They believe he'll do the same in Iraq."
Beyond actions, Bush's persona and verbal style also seem to translate to his advantage in the Middle East. By all accounts, including reporter Bob Woodward's new book "Bush at War," the president does not appear prone to indecision. He does not preside over endless meetings, like some past presidents. Rather, he listens to his options, then decides -- more on gut instinct than on any pretension of expertise.
Good vs. evil
To Bush's critics, his good-vs.-evil rhetoric oversimplifies the situation. Even his wife reportedly objected to the swaggering tone of his "wanted, dead or alive" edicts on bin Laden. But by speaking boldly, Bush is sure to be heard.
Even when Bush aims for nuance -- such as when he reaches out to Muslims by visiting mosques and refutes statements by U.S. religious-right leaders who disparage Islam -- the message can be drowned out by his dominant mantra of force, said Gerges and other Middle East experts.
In the United States, there's no doubt that Bush's simple message plays well, even if polls show that most Americans don't want the United States to go it alone in a war with Iraq, and want U.N. approval of an invasion.
"His Manichaean, black-and-white view of the world is very serviceable for a politician, because by putting himself on the side of moral good, that's where most of the country will be," said presidential historian Robert Dallek.
So far in Iraq, Bush has won the return of weapons inspectors and a 12,000 page declaration that purports to lay out the Iraqi weapons programs. It's forced Saddam to launch a charm offensive to deter possible war.
Yet some observers say that the president's "good-vs.-evil" approach to the Iraq situation has probably contributed to a growing hatred of the United States in Muslim countries. The road from here, for Bush, is paved with potential pitfalls. How will Bush decide when and if to go to war with Iraq, especially if there's no obvious trigger? If a war with Iraq goes badly, his persona of competent decisiveness in foreign policy could evaporate.
But in war politics, Bill Clinton seems to know as well as anyone that salesmanship can matter more than policy. In a speech last month, he implored Democrats twice to remember that "when people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."
Clinton contradicted Bush's emphasis on Iraq, calling Al-Qaida a greater threat to U.S. security. But he didn't fault Bush for an ability to project strength.