Thursday, September 09, 2004

George Bush and war leadership 

Andrew Sullivan irritates a lot of people on the right, including many readers of this blog, with his unusual mixture of strident anti-Bush and anti-Republican but pro-war on terror views. I continue to find him interesting to read, even as I argue with him, since it's more productive to debate somebody who shares the basic assumptions (the Western way of life is under attack, we are at war, etc.) - that way, at least, all the preliminaries having been settled, we can get down to business of talking about the ways and means and strategies.

Recently, Sullivan had these thoughts about
Bush, leadership and politicisation of war:
"Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the Republican convention and the Bush campaign is to present the president as a war-leader in the abstract... What I think the Republicans have realized is that the war on terror is far more popular and winning an issue for Bush if it is stripped of its actual events, and setbacks and triumphs and difficulties. That's why the convention rhetoric approached propaganda - focusing not on what has happened, but on the virtues of a strong war-leader. The dynamics of both wars - of instant military success, followed by damaging and difficult follow-through - were deliberately obscured. This is good politics; but it strikes me as risky war-management. People need leaders who level with them about failures and difficulties in wartime - not gauzy North Korean-style biopics about the invincibility of the Great Leader."
In reality, far from having a dig at George W, Sullivan has described all war leaders of note. War leadership is in many ways an abstract quality and great war leaders are not managerialists who dwell on the detail but those who can give a clear and inspiring big picture to the people they lead into conflict. The public face of war leadership is, opposite to what Sullivan argues, exactly about stripping the war of its detail, because detail distracts and confuses (also, let's not forget that nowadays we have the media to keep on reminding us - ad nauseam - about problems, failures, setbacks and defeats). What really matters is the grand narrative of the struggle. But sticking to it has nothing do to with projecting "the invincibility of the Great Leader" - I lost count how many times Bush and those close to him have made the point that we are at war, which will be a long and difficult one. I think people are increasingly accepting of this fact, even if the media isn't quite yet.

Sullivan goes on to bemoan the Republican-induced lack of bi-partisanship and inclusiveness:
"But then this war, vital as it is, has been exploited by the Bushies for political purposes since it began. How else to explain the 'Mission Accomplished' photo-op or the bare-knuckled 2002 Congressional campaign? Some on the left would have politicized this war under any circumstances. But others might have rallied to a war that was conducted with less hardball domestic politics. In this, Bush is, of course, the opposite of Churchill, who brought in opposition leaders to play key roles in his war-cabinet. I know that's not the American tradition, but a little less politics might have gone a long way. And made the middle-ground voter a little more sympathetic to the narrative that the Republicans are now so effectively deploying."
The crucial difference, of course, is that the war on terror is more akin to the Cold War than World War Two. If America were to be involved in another total conventional world conflict, I'm sure there would be a place at the table for the Liebermans - and maybe even the Kerrys - of the Democratic Party.

It's all to easy to romanticise the past. The war on terror is hardly the first conflict to have fractured the American body politic, and I'm not just talking about Vietnam. Sullivan seems to forget how much "hardball domestic politics" were involved throughout the Cold War. The Democrats, to their credit, started off with a succession of strong leaders, people like Truman, JFK, or Johnson, who today would be described as liberal hawks. But even during the age of the Democratic Cold Warrior we witnessed incessant debates about containment and roll-back, the missile gap and the bomber gap, not to mention who lost China or the space race. And these were the good times, because after 1968 the Democratic Party gave us Humphreys, McGovern, Carter, Mondale and the Congressional establishment that went to war with the Republicans on just about every issue of the conduct of the Cold War.

History repeats itself, not necessarily as Marx had said the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, but deja-vu is, nevertheless, one of the most common realities of politics. History repeats itself, because while politicians would like to think they are addressing the better angles of our nature, we remain stubbornly all too human. And that's unlikely to change.


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