Orneriness and Its Discontents

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.

In the end, there was nothing but sheer orneriness driving President Bush’s decision to go behind the Senate’s back and send John Bolton to the United Nations by recess appointment. He embarrassed America and did Bolton no favor, but he got his way.

If Bush had a point in the first place in nominating Bolton, the abrasive, undiplomatic foe of the world organization, it was to show American resolve. The U.N., Bush meant to say, has lost its way. It’s become a playpen for bullies and thieves, disconnected from its founding values of peace and freedom. It must reform itself, make itself a genuine forum for deliberation and principled action. America insists on it. That’s why we’re sending a tough guy.

But the nomination failed to win confirmation in the Senate, America’s essential forum of deliberation. Bolton couldn’t even convince a majority of senators on the Foreign Relations Committee to send his name to the Senate floor for a vote. After a four-and-a-half month standoff in which the Senate would not approve Bolton and the White House refused to name another candidate, Bush chose the backdoor route, intended by the Constitution as an emergency tactic, and sent Bolton to New York without confirmation. Bolton arrived a weakened, humbled envoy, lacking the full mandate of the nation that sent him. Instead of representing American resolve, he became a symbol of our divisions. But Bush got his way.

This orneriness is emerging as the defining characteristic of the Bush presidency in its second half. The president’s goal, it seems, is to get whatever it is that he’s set out to get, regardless of what happens along the way and whether or not it turns out to be worth having. He does not admit mistakes, much less correct them. He does not reach out to opponents except to cajole or bully them. His vocabulary does not appear to include words like “reconsideration,” “midcourse correction” or “I’m sorry.”

In the Bush presidency, politics and policy are played as a perpetual football game: Get the ball, move it down the field. Block the other team at every turn. Keep your side pumped and your opponents off-balance. Keep the ball moving. It’s a fine strategy for an afternoon at Longhorns stadium, but not for governing a great nation at war.

In the real world, with all its complexity and uncertainty, single-minded resolve, untempered by reflection and dialogue, leads to mistakes that are forever compounding themselves — the ballooning national debt, the deepening quagmire of Iraq, the metastasizing terrorist threat of Al Qaeda, the unchecked warming of the atmosphere. On each of these fronts, the president’s critics have warned for years of the folly of his approach, only to watch helplessly from the sidelines as he bulled his way forward, undeterred.

What is new is the growing chorus of alarm from the president’s own allies in recent weeks over mistakes that can no longer be ignored. The defection of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from the president’s untenable stance on stem-cell research could be the most dramatic case. The stalling of his misbegotten Social Security privatization scheme is, so far, the most decisive.

More far-reaching, at least potentially, are the public dissents being sounded over the Iraq quagmire by leading neoconservative hawks — outgoing Pentagon aide Douglas Feith, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and, most significantly, military historian and ideological lodestar Eliot Cohen. Each of them has come forward in recent weeks to insist, in one way or another, that things are going badly and taht it’s time for the administration to begin admitting it and rethinking its strategy.

None of them has questioned the premises that led them to propose invading Iraq in the first place. “But what I did not know then that I do know now,” Cohen wrote in a much-discussed Washington Post essay last month, “is just how incompetent we would be at carrying out that task.” Now that his own son is going off to Iraq as a soldier, Cohen wrote, “What the father in me expects from our leaders is, simply, the truth — an end to happy talk and denials of error, and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.”

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