George W. Bush wants to be remembered as the president who rose to the challenge of Islamic terrorism, and he’ll no doubt get his wish. But he might not be regarded as quite the Teddy Roosevelt of his century.
The challenge in Iraq grows ever more unfathomable to the civilized world. Only yesterday the bodies of 20 Iraqi civilians were discovered with nooses around their necks, hands tied behind them, grisly work done in the name of Allah. This was a day after 40 others were found beheaded and the Iraqi interior minister blames American soldiers. But beheading is an Islamic taste; Christians and Jews have no beheading tradition.
All presidents, Republican or Democrat, have to say things sometimes they don’t really mean, sometimes delivered with a wink and a nudge, sometimes not. When George W. talks about “the religion of peace” as if the Islamists are just a little confused, like a congregation of wayward Episcopalians, we have to think he doesn’t really mean it. Presidents, like governors and even mayors, have to keep in mind that in a country as big as ours there’s always the criminal element to consider. We don’t want our crazies to get any ideas, like Shi’ite imams in pursuit of Sunni holy men.
But this president and his men (and women) should keep in mind, as certain presidents before them didn’t, that Americans think for themselves, and they’re always skeptical of what their government tells them. Americans keep Ronald Reagan’s famous caution in mind at all times: “Trust, but verify.”
President Bush has discarded the mantra of “weapons of mass destruction” as the reason he went to war in Iraq, replacing it with “promoting democracy,” and a lot of Americans look at the neighborhood where the promotion and nation-building is taking place and reward the idea with a Bronx cheer. The Bronx cheer is getting louder. Most of us know better than to imagine that men fiercely dedicated to a religion that hasn’t changed much in a thousand years will embrace a philosophy of government based on liberty, equality, tolerance and brotherhood (and treating women with humanity and respect). The Golden Rule — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — is usually translated in the Middle East as “do it unto others before they do it unto you.” How can anyone build a nation with clay like this?
“The better idea,” Francis Fukuyama and Adam Garfinkle, two Bush-friendly intellectual observers, write in the Wall Street Journal, “consists of separating the struggle against radical Islamism from promoting democracy in the Middle East, focusing on the first struggle, and dramatically changing our tone and tactics on the democracy promotion front, at least for now.”
The problem the Bush administration has created for itself, they argue, is that has tried to cure one disease — radical Islam — by prescribing for another, the absence of a coherent political system in Arabia. This problem is complicated by the insistence of millions of Muslims that their religion is also a political ideology, that the state cannot be separated from the religion. It’s a hostile ideology.
George W. is never more eloquent, or as persuasive, as when he describes American aims in the Middle East in terms of American security. Joe Sixpack — and even Mike Merlot and Cherie Chablis — will always rally to the ramparts to defend American security once it’s clearly explained to them, hang the cost. But nothing provokes a good ol’ boy like somebody blowing smoke at him. A lot of us have reluctantly concluded that neither the power of American arms nor the grandeur of American ideals is likely to cool the passion of madness; the Islamists are at war with the 21st century (as well as the 12th through the 20th). The Islamists for their part recognize the fragility of a religious ideology that can be threatened by a Danish newspaper cartoon or the conversion of a single Muslim to another faith, and fight all the more irrationally.
Dealing with the grave Islamist threat to American security won’t be easy. The West — actually, the United States — must find a way to kill the guilty while encouraging and supporting moderate and peaceful Muslims. Americans will rise with the president to the challenge if the president will just tell it like it is. That won’t be easy, either.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times.