Back in 2002, before he soured on George W. Bush and the Iraq war, uberblogger Andrew Sullivan coined the term “eagles” to describe “a new group of people out there who are socially liberal but also foreign policy realists, especially among those who have been awakened to political engagement by September 11.”
For some reason I thought of that now-forgotten political taxonomy when my brother Mark sent me this photo he took this morning of the president.
Mark is on the board of the National Newspaper Association, who Bush addressed today. I looked up the transcript and found in this exchange a revealing stream-of-consciousness look at how 9/11 and everything after has affected Bush’s mind:
Q I’m from Aurora, Colorado. In our town a teacher was suspended for remarks critical of your State of the Union message, made the talk shows, et cetera — compared you to Hitler and — actually, I’ve heard the tape and he didn’t, he said, “Hitler-esque,” but it’s not —
THE PRESIDENT: He’s not the only one. (Laughter.)
Q And it’s not the content that my question is about. My question is about your sense of the free speech right in the classroom or in public to criticize you without being considered unpatriotic.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think people should be allowed to criticize me all they want, and they do. (Laughter.) Now what are you all laughing at over there? (Laughter.) Don’t cheer him on. (Laughter.)
Look, there are some certain basic freedoms that we’ve got to protect. The freedom of people to express themselves must be protected. The freedom of people to be able to worship freely. That freedom is valuable. I tell people all the time, you’re equally American if you’re a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. You’re equally American if you believe in an Almighty or don’t believe in an Almighty. That’s a sacred freedom.
The right for people to express themselves in the public square is a freedom. Obviously, there’s limitations. If, for example, someone is inciting violence, or the destruction of property, or public — causing somebody harm. But the idea of being able to express yourself is a sacred part of our society. And that’s what distinguishes us from the Taliban. And that’s important for Americans to understand.
We’re in an ideological struggle. And one way for people to connect the ideological struggle with reality is to think about what life was like for people under the rule of the Taliban. If you didn’t agree with their view of religion, you were punished. If you tried to send your little girl to school, you were punished. These people have a backward view. I don’t believe — I believe religion is peaceful. I believe people who have religion in their heart are peaceful people. And I believe these people have subverted a great religion to accomplish a political end.
So thank you for bringing that up; I appreciate it. People say to me, my buddies in Texas, how do you handle all this stuff? After a while, you get used to it. (Laughter.) But you have to believe in what you’re doing, see. You have to believe in certain principles and beliefs. And you can’t let the public opinion polls and focus groups, one, cause you to abandon what you believe and become the reason for making decisions.
People who talk in public all day for a living are prey to dumb sentences like “you have to believe in certain principles and beliefs,” so no fair picking on him for that. But I do think it’s curious that he feels that we’re in an “ideological struggle” with the Taliban. The notion of ideological struggle is a Cold War construct that I don’t think fits the current situation.
To be sure, fanatical beliefs drive the Taliban, Al Queda and the other jihadist forces. But unlike the Communists, I don’t think the Islamists are about offering anyone a choice. Ideology is what it sounds like — a system based on ideas, ideas sprung from the heads of people with a vision of a better society, here on earth. That’s not for the Islamists. If it could be proven that a Koran-based global system would lead to mass poverty and death, they would not flinch from it. It’s God’s way. The Islamists don’t expect to win any elections or any PR battles. What they seek is not consent but the power to impose their beliefs on the world. They don’t promise fairness, justice or prosperity. Those are wordly concerns, irrelevant to the jealous God they conceive as calling all of us to heaven.
The Islamists will always be a minority of extremists; and I don’t think they expect things to be different until they gain the power they seek. The issue we face is whether the Islamists’ extreme tactics of intimidation and terror, and their willingness to die for their cause, can lead them to victory.
The Soviet Union and its proxies wanted power, but they wanted to enjoy the fruits of power, and weren’t interested in dying to achieve their ends. Far from it. Their ideology had no heaven. The Islamist movement’s members are willing to die, to kill innocents, to kidnap women and children and use them to barter for concessions, and they are willing to threaten these extreme tactics against what we would consider minor provocations.
When that’s the nature of your enemy, it is inevitable that some will want to compromise with or concede to them. Cartoons that mock the Prophet might symbolize expression of free speech, but if you thought your family might be killed by a lunatic if you published them in your paper, you probably wouldn’t do it. The Islamists are counting on being able to trigger a million little decisions like this so they can incrementally capture power they couldn’t have earned any other way.
Some of the Bush Administration’s responses to this threat can be problematic and off-the-mark. In search of greater security, they’ve clearly overshot in many areas. I’m looking forward to the election of 2008, quite frankly, because that will be the first real post-9/11 election, where the different candidates and parties can be judged on the soundness of their strategies to deal with a mestastisizing global crisis. Bush and his crew clearly have been improvising for the past five years, while the Democrats have displayed a petulance and political opportunism that seems far beneath what a great party should display at a time like this. I’ll be glad when this period in our politics is finally over.
Mark told me that after the speech, there was a rope line where he was able to stop the president and ask about his Administration’s mania for secrecy. Mark told the president that the problem with throwing a blanket of secrecy over government decisions removes accountability. Bush seemed taken aback by this thoughts. “Why, I’m all for accountability,” he protested. “Okay, but how can we be sure, if you keep everything a secret?” Mark replied.
Meanwhile, I’m sure these two were taking careful notes….
Here’s one more picture Mark took that I liked: