Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
When George W. Bush ran for President in 2000, he said the United States must be "humble" in the world. Now he has cast humility aside and replaced it with hubris. Supremely confident in his gut instincts, wrapped up in a fundamentalist belief system, endowed with the most powerful military of all time, and unchecked by Congress, Bush feels he can "rid the world of evil"--at the barrel of a gun.
A picture emerges from the President's public statements--and even from such adulatory accounts as Bob Woodward's Bush at War and David Frum's The Right Man--of a President on a divine mission.
Call it messianic militarism.
He may have discarded the word "crusade," but it's a crusade that he's on. As former Bush speechwriter Frum puts it, "War has made him . . . a crusader after all."
While there's nothing wrong with a President trying to make the world a better place, when the man in the Oval Office feels divinely inspired to reshape the world through violent means, that's a scary prospect.
The grandiosity of Bush's vision can no longer be denied.
"Most Presidents have high hopes. Some have grandiose visions of what they will achieve, and he was firmly in that camp," Woodward writes. Bush told him, "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals," adding, "There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace."
And the way to achieve that, he believes, is often through war. "As we think through Iraq, we may or may not attack. I have no idea, yet. But it will be for the objective of making the world more peaceful," he told Woodward. Bush seemed to understand that this missionary policy might get him into trouble ("Condi didn't want me to talk about it"), but he persisted, invoking it again in the context of Afghanistan ("I wanted us to be viewed as the liberator") and North Korea.
Bush's now famous comment, "I loathe Kim Jong Il," which he uttered to Woodward, was in the context of the North Korean leader starving his people and torturing prisoners. "It appalls me," Bush said, adding that his reaction "is visceral. Maybe it's my religion, maybe it's my--but I feel passionate about this."
Though his Administration seems to be taking the diplomatic route toward the Korean nuclear crisis, Bush's eagerness to confront Pyongyang should not be underestimated. "I'm not foolish," he said, acknowledging North Korea's ability to inflict massive casualties on the South. But he downplayed the problems that an overthrow might cause. "They tell me, we don't need to move too fast, because the financial burdens on people will be so immense if we try to--if this guy were to topple. Who would take care of--I just don't buy that."
When Bush calls Kim Jong Il a "pygmy" and insists on North Korea's "axis of evil" status, such language reverberates all the way to Pyongyang. And it is not reassuring to hear Bush loosely suggest the possibility of war with North Korea. At a January press conference on Iraq and North Korea, a reporter started to ask, "If we do have to go to war . . . " and Bush interjected, "With which country?" This is a flippancy about war not seen since the early Reagan years.
What we know about Bush is that he's a man who places an inordinate amount of trust in the seat of his pants. "I'm not a textbook player. I'm a gut player," he told Woodward, who added that Bush used similar phrases a dozen times in the course of the interview he had with the President.
In medieval times, the measurement of a foot depended on the size of the king's own foot. It was called the regal foot, and now we have the regal gut.
"Bush has an uncanny instinct for when to fight, when to concede, when to run, when to wait out, when to start a venture," writes Carolyn B. Thompson and James W. Ware in The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush. While his business failings don't seem to justify such praise, the authors keep pouring it on: "Much of Bush's success as a leader is explained by his willingness to trust his gut."
But what if Bush gets indigestion? What if his gut gives him bad advice?
Bush carries around two vast war writs, one from September 2001 and the other from October 2002. Combined, they give him unprecedented, unilateral power to throw around whenever his gut tells him to. To trust one man's instinct to be infallible is too much to ask of a democracy.
Writes Woodward: "It's pretty clear that Bush's role as politician, President, and commander in chief is driven by a secular faith in his instincts--his natural and spontaneous conclusions and judgments. His instincts are almost his second religion."
His first religion also comes into play here. Certainly, the President is entitled to practice whatever religion he believes in, and George W. Bush is not the first President to bandy about the name of God or to claim the United States is under the wing of providence. But when his religious fundamentalist beliefs spill over into his job, and when he uses religious rhetoric in inflammatory ways, we ought to take heed.
Since September 11, Bush has barely gone a day without using the word "evil" or "evildoers." His "axis of evil" speech may have so threatened North Korea that it decided to accelerate its nuclear plans. The phrase "axis of evil" did not happen accidentally, either, nor was it the original speechwriter's exact term. Frum came up with the term "axis of hatred" in the draft he sent on to chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. Says Frum: "Gerson wanted to use the theological language that Bush had made his own since September 11--so 'axis of hatred' became 'axis of evil.' "
Frum is quite open about the importance of fundamentalism in the Bush Administration. The first words he says he ever heard in the White House from George Bush were: "Missed you at Bible study." Frum writes, "Bush came from and spoke for a very different culture from that of the individualistic Ronald Reagan: the culture of modern Evangelicalism. To understand the Bush White House, you must understand its predominant creed."
Frum also cites the speech that Bush gave at his alma mater, Yale, on May 21, 2001. It was one Bush personally worked very hard on, and Frum said it was among the President's most self-revealing. Said Bush: "Life takes its own turns, makes its own demands, writes its own story. And along the way, we start to realize we are not the author."
Bush expressed the same feeling when he was governor of Texas. "I could not be governor if I did not believe in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans," he said.
When he was considering running for President, Bush attended church with his mother. The preacher talked about a reluctant Moses unsure of his leadership qualities. Barbara told George that he was that Moses figure. While running for President, he himself invoked the divine plan. "Together, we have a charge to keep," he wrote in his campaign book, which was not too subtly entitled A Charge to Keep.
That Bush believes he was assigned the Presidency from on high comes through in another passage of Frum's book. After Bush's September 20, 2001, speech to Congress, Gerson called up the President to compliment him: "Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought--God wanted you there," Gerson said, according to Frum.
"He wants us all here, Gerson," the President responded, according to Frum.
Bush seems to believe that he is carrying out God's will by waging war. In Woodward's book, he says, "There is a human condition that we must worry about in times of war. There is a value system that cannot be compromised--God-given values. These aren't United States-created values." To be fair, the values Bush was referring to were "freedom and the human condition and mothers loving their children." But still, the idea that the President believes he is doing God's bidding at war time is unsettling.
"There's this odd, personal religiosity about Bush," says Lou Dubose, co-author (with Molly Ivins) of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. "And the religious people he was connected with in Texas aren't anything like the mainstream--even the mainstream in Texas."
Dubose cites James Robison, a Fort Worth televangelist. "Bush appeared on Robison's Life Today television ministry and invited Robison to be the main speaker at the prayer breakfast in Austin on the day of Bush's second inauguration as governor," according to Shrub. During that prayer breakfast, Robison related a back-and-forth conversation he had with God while driving on the freeway between Arlington and Dallas. Bush is also an admirer of James Dobson of the rightwing religious group Focus on the Family.
"He's the most recklessly religious President we've seen," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today, the publication of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, in Madison, Wisconsin. "He's on a religious mission, and you can't divorce religion from his militarism. He believes in fighting righteous war."
Chip Berlet, senior analyst for Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts, is an expert on rightwing religious groups. "Bush is very much into the apocalyptic and messianic thinking of militant Christian evangelicals," he says. "He seems to buy into the worldview that there is a giant struggle between good and evil culminating in a final confrontation. People with that kind of a worldview often take risks that are inappropriate and scary because they see it as carrying out God's will."
Others, like Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, doubt the depth of Bush's religious beliefs and see him invoking this rhetoric for political purposes. "Bush is playing to a base activist constituency," says Clarkson. "Many of these people believe that they're living in biblically inspired End Times."
Given that the United States is at war with Islamic fundamentalists in Al Qaeda, this may not be the most propitious time to be dragging God into the conflict. But that is what Bush has done, as when he said, "God is not neutral" in the war on terrorism. The mere use of such rhetoric is inflammatory, Clarkson believes. "At a time when fundamentalist Islam is on the march, the potential for flare-up is a dangerous thing," he says.
Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, believes what motivates Bush is "a combination of the empire and the messianic. He grasps the practical need to control oil, for which the Administration is willing to go to any lengths, and he fuses it with messianic fervor."
Like other Presidents before him, Bush believes the United States is the greatest country in the world, and he is not afraid to use theological language to justify the empire, says Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. "The ideology is there to cover the militarism," says Johnson.
"What I hear is a holy trinity of militarism, masculinism, and messianic zeal," says Lee Quinby, professor of American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. "It does follow the logic of apocalyptic thought, which has a religious base but is now secularized in the militaristic mode. Apocalyptic thought always has an element of instilling helplessness and promising victory in the face of that powerlessness. In this instance, Bush plays up the vulnerability we feel because of terrorism or Saddam Hussein and then accentuates the military as the assurance that our helplessness will be transformed." This kind of thinking, says Quinby, is "dangerous because it prepares a nation for war without thinking about the impact on civilians and on the U.S. soldiers."
There's also the risk that Bush is so convinced that God's on our side that he may commit a blunder of horrifying proportions.
In a democracy, the fateful decisions of war and peace are not supposed to rest in the hands of one man. Today, they do. And what a man to entrust them with. Lacking intellectual curiosity, he boasts of an infallible gut. Desperate not to be trapped by "the vision thing" that ensnared his father, Bush embraces a huge global mission and couches it in fundamentalist language. And he has assigned the Pentagon the primary role in carrying out this mission.
This is way too much power to give to anyone, and George W. Bush has the arrogance that comes with such power. "I do not need to explain why I say things," he told Woodward. "That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
When his crusade goes terribly wrong, as it is likely to do, Bush will owe a lot of people an explanation. Meanwhile, we must do whatever we can, nonviolently, to oppose this military messianism.