"In a time of crisis, it is important to remember the President who, while waging our bloodiest, most divisive war, was able to do what recent Presidents have failed to do: he inspired `the better angels of our nature'." (Emphasis added)
-- "Lincoln", by Gary Wills, Life Magazine, Feb. 1991
"The American people know ... the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right. When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish, it hurts their morale". (Emphasis added)
-- George W. Bush, Speech to the VFW, 1/10/06
"Mr. Rove lacerated Democrats for what he described as their "cut and run" policy on Iraq ..." (Emphasis added)
-- "In Preview of G.O.P. Campaign, Rove Tears Into Democrats", N.Y. Times, 1/20/06
George W. Bush's inability to keep America united at home is a key dimension of his failure as Commander-in-Chief. It is not simply that his failures in Iraq have reduced public support. It is that Mr. Bush himself has actively divided the nation, appealing to the worse devils not better angels of our nature, in pursuit of short-term political advantage at the cost of long-term national security.
Rather than having the maturity and character to admit his many mistakes in the Mideast, or to admit that his critics were right and he wrong, Mr. Bush has turned to cynical "stab in the back" attacks upon them. When he contrasts a "loyal" opposition with "defeatists" who are by implication disloyal, even as he unleashes Mr. Rove to urge Republicans to sound the same "cut and run" theme, he is engaging in the kind of demagogery that has long been the mark of history's most degraded leaders.
If Mr. Bush continues on this track during the next three years, he will harm his nation even more than he has already. It is likely that both the U.S. position in Iraq and the Middle East will worsen and pressures will build for him to withdraw U.S. ground troops - both because the U.S. military is stretched to the breaking point and because his claims of victory are no longer believable.
If he responds by cynically blaming his opponents rather than his own mistakes for failure in Iraq - as did Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Indochina - it could poison American politics for a generation. Every nation has its emotionally disturbed haters like Ann Coulter, ready to scream "treason" at the drop of a hat. But it is when political leaders descend to their level that societies fall apart. Nothing stirs up elemental passions more, and serves national security less, than charges of disloyalty and betrayal.
As we have learned from Lincoln and FDR, a successful wartime leader displays six key traits: credibility, patience, bipartisanship, communication with opponents, appeals to reason and a focus on the overall mission. Such traits are particularly needed for the long and complex effort to combat terror upon which the U.S. has embarked. We are not talking about a few months of bombing in the Balkans. Protecting the U.S. against attacks on civilians is a long-term task, and national security requires a continuation of policy no matter which party holds office. This requires bipartisan cooperation, marked by genuine information-sharing, consultation, communication and mutual respect.
The President has shown none of these traits. In fact, he is well on his way to becoming the most divisive wartime President in American history, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon. Since September 11, 2001:
Mr. Bush has lost his credibility:The American people, by a margin of 54-46, say they no longer trust Mr. Bush. 60% say he has not fulfilled his promise to restore integrity to the White House. ("Bush Support Weak as Americans Favor New Direction, Poll Finds," Bloomberg, 1/27/06). He not only misled the public about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and lack of involvement with Al Qaeda when he invaded. He continues to mislead today. His 1/10/06 VFW speech claimed, for example, that "the number of attacks during the elections declined dramatically compared with last January's vote," but did not note that insurgent attacks rose 29% in 2005 over 2004, and that their numbers have grown from a Brookings-estimated 5,000 in November 2003 to 15-20,000 today. A leader who is not believed by his own people cannot effectively lead a war.
Mr. Bush has acted recklessly: FDR patiently waited before entering WWII until he was sure the American people supported a clearly articulated strategy. Mr. Bush plunged recklessly into Iraq with neither a strategy nor the informed support of his people. Even had he believed Saddam a threat, he has not yet explained why he did not wait until he had developed a strategy, since there was clearly no imminent threat: the CIA told him Saddam would not use weapons of mass destruction unless attacked, and that there was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq.
Mr. Bush has destroyed bipartisanship: Mr. Bush has not only refused to engage in meaningful consultation with Congress and the "loyal opposition". He has systematically withheld information from it. Former Senator Bob Graham, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time of 9/11, has said that the Bush Administration failed to share vital information even with his committee. Democratic military hawk and war hero Rep. John Murtha says no President has consulted Congress less in the post-war era.
Mr. Bush "lacerates" his critics, despite the fact that they have been proven more correct than he: Even now, when a majority of Americans agree with the millions of citizens who demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq before the war, Mr. Bush refuses to communicate with, listen to, or learn from his critics. On the contrary. He is actually expanding his irresponsible attacks upon them. When White House Counselor Karl Rove instructs Republican National Commitee members to make attacking "cut and run" Democrats their main theme this election year, the Bush Administration is deliberately sowing dissension and disunity for years to come.
Mr. Bush has appealed to fear not reason: The WP recently reported that "in the latest poll, Bush received negative marks for his handling of Iraq, the federal budget deficit, ethics in government, prescription drugs for the elderly, the economy, immigration, health care and taxes. Only on terrorism did the poll find that more than 50 percent of Americans approved of his performance." (1/29/06) Mr. Bush's post-9/11 tenure has featured his irresponsibly raising fears of "terrorism" at every opportunity, the one issue a majority of Americans still support him on. The 2004 election featured a steady stream of homeland security "alerts", and Bush-watchers expect similar tactics in election-year 2006. Fear-mongering harms national security: crying wolf leads to public complacency, and opponents attacked as "defeatists" are less inclined to genuinely cooperate with the President.
Mr. Bush's push for added Executive Power has sown needless division: Mr. Bush's single greatest failure as a domestic leader has been his attempt to seize additional Executive power to unilaterally imprison people without evidence, trial or legal representation; to torture anyone he chooses; and to spy on Americans. Not only are such illegal policies harming not helping our war effort, as Senator McCain has said describing Mr. Bush's torture. They needlessly provoke a constitutional crisis which diverts us from the national consensus needed to genuinely protect ourselves.
No single claim by Mr. Bush is more fantastic than his present push for more Executive power to "protect the American people". He has massively endangered the American people by mismanaging his already excessive Executive power. Our top national security priority at this point is to REDUCE Mr. Bush's Executive power as much, and as quickly, as possible.
Mr. Bush is hardly the nation's first Chief Executive to mismanage his Executive power and then seek to irresponsibly blame his critics for his failures. But no American leader's misuse of Executive power, including Richard Nixon's, has so threatened so many American and foreign lives, so far into the future.