March 11, 2003

Jackson Lears on Bush's Crusade

Jackson Lears on Bush's Crusade

Well, it appears Jimmy Carter's Sunday op-ed was just a warm-up. Howell is pulling out more heavy artillery via Jackson Lears. I've long been intrigued by the influence of religion on Dubya and have discussed it extensively in this blog. For example, here and here. The main point I've repeatedly made is that, while religion is an important part of Bush's make-up, he is not marching into Mesopotamia in the name of any God--whether some eschatological conception or because he otherwise believes he is the messenger of God's will on Earth (the President of God on Earth as Le Monde puts it).

But let's take a look at what Lears has to say in detail, as it's worth a lengthy examination:

"President Bush's war plans are risky, but Mr. Bush is no gambler. In fact he denies the very existence of chance. "Events aren't moved by blind change and chance" he has said, but by "the hand of a just and faithful God." From the outset he has been convinced that his presidency is part of a divine plan, even telling a friend while he was governor of Texas, "I believe God wants me to run for president."

Well this is a rather thin reed, isn't it? Dubya mentions to an (unnamed) friend that he believes God wants him to run for President so immediately we have a President who thinks his entire Presidency is part and parcel of a divine plan? And how about the breathtaking comment that Dubya "denies the very existence of chance." From where this contention? Surely not Dubya's press conference of a few days back where he stated "If we were to commit our troops -- if we were to commit our troops -- I would pray for their safety, and I would pray for the safety of innocent Iraqi lives, as well." Well, if chance doesn't exist for Dubya, surely no prayers are needed for the Holy Warriors rushing off to battle? They are divinely protected, after all!

This conviction that he is doing God's will has surfaced more openly since 9/11. In his State of the Union addresses and other public forums, he has presented himself as the leader of a global war against evil. As for a war in Iraq, "we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them." God is at work in world affairs, he says, calling for the United States to lead a liberating crusade in the Middle East, and "this call of history has come to the right country."

Patchy quotes from Mr. Lears. Here's what Dubya said verbatim during the SOTU: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity. We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not know -- we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history." Notice the critical first sentence that Lears omits. America per the President's language is not imposing its version of liberty on all and sundry--but, quite unobjectionably by the traditions of religious imagery in American political rhetoric, Dubya simply links God to notions of love and liberty.

Mr. Bush's speeches are not the only place one finds this providentialist spirit everyone from Christian fundamentalists to interventionist liberals is serving up missionary formulas: bogus analogies to the war against Hitler; contrasts between American virtue and European vice; denials that sordid material interests could have anything to do with the exalted project of exporting American democracy. To those who worry about the frequent use of religious language, Mr. Bush's supporters insist that the rhetoric of Providence is as American as cherry pie. This is true, but it is crucial to understand that Providence can acquire various meanings depending on the circumstances. The belief that one is carrying out divine purpose can serve legitimate needs and sustain opposition to injustice, but it can also promote dangerous simplifications especially if the believer has virtually unlimited power, as Mr. Bush does. The slide into self-righteousness is a constant threat. The great rhetoricians of Providence have resisted the temptation of self-righteousness. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail that "we will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands," he was seeking common ground with white Southerners, not predicting perdition for satanic segregationists. Likewise, when Abraham Lincoln invoked Providence in his second inaugural address, his message to the victorious North and the defeated South was one of reconciliation. By characterizing the Civil War as a national expiation for the sin of slavery, he wanted "to bind up the nation's wounds" and make some moral sense of the appalling losses on both sides. At its best, providentialist thinking can offer a powerful antidote to self-righteousness.

O.K, so Lears admits that religious rhetoric is as "American as cherry pie." But he goes on to advance a more subtle argument--that while a belief in divine purpose can serve legitimate needs by opposing gross injustice, it can lead to dangerous oversimplifications and self-righteousness. But of what oversimplications or self-righteousness does Mr. Lears speak? As so many of us tiresomely remind anyone who will listen, Bush is going into Iraq because of a threat born of WMD possession by a dangerous dictator. A strategic paradigm has shifted post 9/11 so that we cannot accept the enhanced risks inherent in having a leader who has used WMD and has links to terror groups continue to defy the (ostensible) will of the international community that he disarm. Dubya went the U.N. route and got unanimous appoval from the UNSC to disarm Iraq. Sadly, this supposed support at the UNSC was merely a delaying tactic by powers like France and Russia--who don't have and won't develop in the future a firm intention of actually disarming Iraq. So where is this damning self-righteousness in all this? Are we self-righteous because we are calling the bluff of powers that will allow Saddam to manifestly be in material breach of 1441? To me, that's judicious legalistic enforcement, not some self-righteous crusade.

"Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840's, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but "manifest" in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: "`These people must die out there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree." By the end of the century, Senator Albert Beveridge and other imperialists had made Manifest Destiny a global project, insisting that God had "marked" the American people to lead in "the redemption of the world." In the wake of World War I, Woodrow Wilson showed that it was possible to use redemptive rhetoric for aims that went beyond nationalism, and yet to still fall victim to hubris. By intervening in the war and ensuring a just peace, said Wilson, "America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world." The failure of Wilson's postwar dream helped make most Americans skeptical of world-saving fantasies during World War II. Thus our most necessary war was also the most resistant to providentialist interpretation. It was a dirty job, and somebody had to do it: that was the dominant view, among policymakers and the public. Only in retrospect has World War II acquired an aura of sanctity."

Lears has to bring in Wilson to show that is is possible to use rhetoric for purposes beyond nationalism because even he must acknowledge that Dubya is not marching into Iraq in a Horace Greely--like project to subdue the natives, grab oil supplies, and plant the American flag for decades in Iraq. Without saying it, he likely realizes that the reason for war is Saddam's refusal to give up his WMD. But he employs Bush's later arguments that go beyond the disarmament rationale to how a post-conflict-in-Iraq scenario could lead to wider democratization in the Middle East and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, again, the prime objective is not some naive neo-Wilsonian project that will have Jeffersonian Democrats bouncing about parliaments from Tripoli and Riyadh to Manama and Rabat. It's about the WMD--at the end of the day. It is indeed a "dirty job" that "somebody has to do"--namely the U.S. and a coalition of leaders who realize from where the greatest threats in the 21st Century will emerge.

"To be sure, the cold war fitfully revived the nationalist uses of Providence, at least among true believers like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles not to mention Ronald Reagan, whose rhetoric arrayed the "city on a hill" against the Soviet "evil empire." But for most Americans, the failed crusade in Vietnam eviscerated the delusion that we had a sacred duty to export American ways by force if necessary to a recalcitrant world. Until now. The proposed war against and rebuilding of Iraq has brought the sentimental, self-satisfied sense of Providence back into fashion. One might have supposed that an attack on our country would have rendered utopian agendas unnecessary as it did for most Americans during World War II. But while a war on terrorism may not need Providence to justify it, a war to transform the Middle East requires a rhetoric as grandiose as its aims. The providentialist outlook fills the bill: it promotes tunnel vision, discourages debate and reduces diplomacy to arm-twisting."

Again, let's not read too much into Bush's speech at AEI. Helping Iraq become more democratic and attempting to then resuscitate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not the same as "a war to transform the Middle East." Lears is being hyperbolic, but that increasingly passes for sober commentary these days in the NYT.

"Worst of all, it sanitizes the messy actualities of war and its aftermath. Like the strategists' faith in smart bombs, faith in Providence frees one from having to consider the role of chance in armed conflict, the least predictable of human affairs. Between divine will and American know-how, we have everything under control. So the White House and its backers can safely predict that the unpleasantness will be over in a few weeks, with low casualties on both sides. Combat veterans, from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf down, reject these scenarios. We can be sure that the soldiers in the Persian Gulf region do, too. This should come as no surprise: there has always been a chasm between the war planners and the soldiers on the ground. The planners are convinced that they can control outcomes; the soldiers know the arbitrary cruelties of fate at first hand maiming this one, leaving that one alone. They know the power of luck."

Now we get nastier. Bush's alleged divine inspiration (and Yankee techno know-how) make him cavalier about casualties among his troops. "Combat veterans", of course, know better. But then, I ask again, why did Bush say at his recent press conference that he prays for the lives of our troops and Iraqi civilians? He must have some concerns, no? Lears is also skirting near the chicken hawk slur--Dubya, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle--what the hell do they care about our soliders, they've never even been in combat!

"There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are not many believers in Providence in them either. Combat soldiers have always been less confident than politicians that God is on the premises. They have paid homage to an older deity, Fortuna. From the Civil War through the Persian Gulf war, American soldiers have festooned themselves with amulets and lucky charms everything from St. Christopher medals and smooth stones to their girlfriends' locks of hair. And why not? Ritual efforts to conjure luck speak directly to their own experience. But the power of providentialist thinking persists, drawing strength from the fervent beliefs of Christian, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists. The more humane interpreters of those traditions are increasingly ignored, and the ideologues take command, convinced that they are doing God's will. Certainly those of us who doubt the divinity (not to mention the efficacy) of the president's plan must continue to challenge it. But as we watch Mr. Bush prepare for righteous battle, ignoring the protests of "old Europe" and many in his own country, even the most rational among us might be pardoned for fingering a rabbit's foot from time to time."

I've bolded this last as it's particularly important. Lears likely wanted to say this right away, but he controlled himself and saved it for the end. As I've been arguing for months, the kernel of attempts to depict Dubya as a religious nut is that, yes, he's just as bad as the "Islamic fundamentalists." In other words, Dubya is just as bad as Osama! This is the noxious relativism that has been percolating in Europe for many months (Javier Solana inaugurated the "polite" version in the pages of the FT by denouncing American policy as overly "religious.")

Now Howell, after a Carter warm up hinting at Bush being in thrall to the "final days" Baptist radicals, again turns over the pages of America's premier paper to this thesis. I'm sorry Mr. Raines, but we just aren't going to buy it. I know theocratic barbarism when I see it--like I did the morning of September 11th in NYC. I don't see it emanating from the White House today. What I see is an American President determined to bring twelve years of long deception by a vicious regime to an end--via a legal framework emanating from Saddam's material breach of 1441--whether or not a second resolution comes to pass or not.

Posted by Gregory at March 11, 2003 09:54 AM
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