David Brooks: Ends Without Means

I am, despite angry emails and comments, discontinuing the pasting of newspaper columns, as it’s become more trouble than it’s worth and it’s not what I want this site to be about. Exceptions will be Frank Rich and, when I think they’re super-relevant must-reads, Krugman and Friedman and the occasional MoDo. Usually I would skip Brooks and Tierney, but when Brooks writes a column like today’s, where you can feel his disillusionment with Bush and his despair over the war in Iraq, I’ll offer it. It isn’t immediately clear where Brooks is going with all this, and suddenly, when getting down to the specifics of Iraq, he lets it out. Be sure to read to the end.

Ends Without Means

Published: September 14, 2006

A leade’s first job is to project authority, and George Bush certainly does that. In a 90-minute interview with a few columnists in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas – always projecting confidence and intensity.

He opened the session by declaring, ‘Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions,’ and he grew more self-assured from there. I interview politicians for a living, and every time I brush against Bush I’m reminded that this guy is different. There’s none of that hunger for approval that is common to the breed. This is the most inner-directed man on the globe.

The other striking feature of his conversation is that he possesses an unusual perception of time. Washington, and modern life in general, encourages people to think in the short term. But Bush, who stands aloof, thinks in long durations.

‘I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture,’ he says, referring to his campaign against the instant gratifications of the 1960s counterculture. And he sees his efforts today as a series of long, gradual cultural transformations. Like many executives, he believes that the higher you go, the further into the future you should see, and so his conversation is filled with speculations about the long-term effects of deep social trends – the current religious awakening or the politics of volunteer armies.

All of which prepares him to think about the war on terror as a generations-long struggle. He asked us to think about what the world could look like 50 years from now, with Islamic radicals either controlling the world’s oil supply or not. “I firmly believe that some day American presidents will be looking back at this period in time, saying, ‘Thank goodness they saw the vision,’ ” he said.

Sitting between busts of Lincoln and Churchill, he continued, ‘My hope is to leave behind something – foundations and institutions that will enable future presidents to be able to more likely make the tough decisions that they’re going to have to make.’

‘Ideological struggles take time,’ he said, explaining the turmoil in Iraq and elsewhere. He said the events of weeks or months were just a nanosecond compared with the long course of this conflict. He was passionate on the need for patience and steadfastness. He talked about ‘inviolate’ principles written upon his heart: ‘People want you to change. It’s tactics that shift, but the strategic vision has not, and will not, shift.’

He was less personal and less assertive when talking about those tactical decisions made day to day.

We are now at a moment when many of the people who support his long-term goals, and who have stuck with him as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, fear the war is irreparably lost. The general view among many Republicans is that Bush set out grand goals, but never committed resources commensurate with the task.

Bush was pressed about Iraqi troop levels repeatedly during our interview. His general response was that during Vietnam, tactical decisions were made in the White House. ‘I thought it was a mistake then, and I think it’s a mistake now.’

So on troop levels and other tactical issues, Bush defers to Gen. George Casey, who is in Iraq. He asks questions but does not contradict the experts. If Casey asked for two more divisions tomorrow, Bush would deliver, regardless of the political consequences. But Casey does not ask (and maybe none are available).

What if Casey is wrong?

‘Then I picked the wrong general,’ Bush says bluntly. ‘If he’s wrong, I’m wrong.’

When asked if he should have expanded the military back in 2003, to give the current commanders more manpower, Bush used words that were uncharacteristically jargon-ridden: ‘The notion of warfare has changed, and therefore, we’re modulizing the army so that it becomes more operational and easier to move.’ That sounds more like a transformation briefing paper than the president.

In other words, when Bush is strategizing goals, he is assertiveness on stilts. When he is contemplating means, he defers to authority.

And the sad truth is, there has been a gap between Bush’s visions and the means his administration has devoted to realize them. And when tactics do not adjust to fit the strategy, then the strategy eventually gets diminished to fit the tactics.

Or worse.

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