Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Road Better Not Taken (Februay 5, 2003)
A war against Iraq could be the most catastrophic blunder in U.S. history. By Jack Beatty.

The Track to Modernity (January 2, 2003)
In a century of riotous change, the railroad's standardization of time stood out as a challenge to both nature and democracy. By Jack Beatty.

The War for Nonvoters (November 27, 2002)
The "party of nonvoters" is 120 million strong. Whoever corrals them will hold the key to future elections. By Jack Beatty.

The Temptation of War (October 23, 2002)
A new memoir by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, warns that Presidents will do anything to avoid losing wars. By Jack Beatty.

Pearl Harbor in Reverse (September 25, 2002)
Iraq, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the question of a pre-emptive strike. By Jack Beatty.

Feckless in Washington (August 21, 2002)
Bush's economic team inspires little confidence at a time when confidence is badly needed. By Jack Beatty.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Atlantic Unbound | March 5, 2003
Politics & Prose | by Jack Beatty
In the Name of God

Bush's rhetoric suggests that he feels God has chosen him to lead the U.S. against "Evil." Is that why Bush is dragging us into an unprovoked war?


"[T]he United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal about the outbreak of the Mexican War.

"Missed you at Bible study."
—The first words speechwriter David Frum heard in the Bush White House.

nless a coup topples Saddam Hussein or he goes into exile, the U.S. will soon mount the first unprovoked war in its history, the first fought in pursuance of a doctrine under which we claim the right to attack nations that have not attacked us but who might, who could, who would if we do not strike first—a war fought in the subjunctive, based on a string of "ifs." If Saddam possesses usable weapons of mass destruction and if, to take a scenario George W. Bush takes seriously, he builds a fleet of pilotless drones and if he somehow gets them out of Iraq and if he builds or hires ships and launches his drones from them and if he has found a way to make the drones spread weapons of mass destruction and if it is not a windy day and if our Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, CIA, and DIA are as asleep as they were on September 11, then Saddam will attack us. Alternatively, Mr. Bush warned in the State of the Union address, "Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own." Italics mine.

Had preventive war been U.S. policy in 1941, Dick Cheney told a veteran's group, we could have pulled a Pearl Harbor on the Japanese. When a Democratic congressman asked Condoleezza Rice whether the U.S. should have preemptively attacked the Soviet Union in 1946, before they had atomic weapons, she reportedly said yes, of course, think of the suffering that would have spared the peoples of Eastern Europe. Cheney would have made us the Japanese in World War II. Rice would have killed scores of thousands of Russians to prevent dangers that had not yet materialized, making us the perpetrator of the first nuclear Pearl Harbor. Ignorant and inhumane, these statements also manifest the same disregard of the political costs of aggressive war, the same willingness to trash the reputation of the United States, and the same contempt for the decent opinion of mankind that have marked the Administration's drive for war against Iraq.

How much is George W. Bush willing to give up for this war? He appears ready to compromise any competing U.S. interest. NATO is unlikely to retain its former cohesion after the breach caused by this war, which has weakened the commonality of purpose and values that have sustained collective security since World War II. Relations with France and Germany, countries likened to Libya and Cuba by the incontinent Donald Rumsfeld—harmed, possibly beyond repair. Tony Blair—put at risk of losing office, should the war go badly. Blair wants Saddam disarmed. But he has another motive in backing Bush, according to government sources cited by The Financial Times. That is to contain Bush—to stop him from destroying the international order by proceeding on the unilateral path to war advocated by Cheney and Rumsfeld, whose speeches last summer galvanized Blair (and Colin Powell) to pressure Bush to seek UN backing. Bush got that backing, but on false grounds, using a Security Council resolution to disarm Iraq as cover for sending an army to the Middle East to remove Saddam Hussein and occupy his country. Asked last Friday to define the objectives of U.S. policy, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dropped all pretense of disarmament OR regime change, the choice implicit in Resolution 1441; now "it's disarmament and regime change." To win votes for a second resolution triggering war with Iraq, the United States is turning the Security Council into a hock shop, dangling bribes before the nonpermanent members. The U.S. bribed and, according to one report, threatened to punish Turkey as part of its campaign to use Turkish territory to attack Iraq from the north. But pressure from a public 95 percent opposed to the war has, at this writing, persuaded the Turkish parliament to reject the multi-billion-dollar deal. "The relationship is spoiled," a member of the governing party told The New York Times. "The Americans dictated to us." The Kurds—betrayed as part of our bribe of the Turks. The U.S. not only agreed to allow up to 80,000 Turkish troops to advance as far as 250 kilometers inside Iraqi Kurdistan, ostensibly to fend off an inrush of Kurdish refugees harried by the war, but also to allow these troops to disarm the Kurd militias after the war. The Arab nations—ignored; their fears of internal instability dismissed. The war on terror—rendered problematic. Terrorism grows by provoking state violence; a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is Osama bin Laden's dream. Homeland security, fiscal sobriety, economic recovery, spending on education, health care, scientific research—all casualties of war.

Why? The surface explanations—Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, has used them on his neighbors, on his own people, and "could" use them against us—fall short, don't balance the heaping price Mr. Bush is prepared to pay. To judge by his rhetoric, the President believes God has chosen him to lead the U.S. in a war against "Evil"; beside that eschatological assignment, NATO, the UN, our allies, Arab opinion, world opinion, the war on terror, the budget, are as nothing. God has played a salvific role in Bush's life. "You know I had a drinking problem," Bush told a group of clergy who met with him last September. "Right now I should be in a bar in Texas, not the Oval Office. There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God." Speaking at the Yale Commencement in 2001, Bush suggested that God found him. "When I left here, I didn't have much in the way of a life plan," he said. "I knew some people who thought they did. But it turned out that we were all in for ups and downs.... Life takes its own turns, makes its own demands, writes its own story. And along the way, we start to realize we are not the author." In the State of the Union address, Bush applied the lesson of his life to the country: "We Americans have faith in ourselves—but not in ourselves alone. 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." History, though, is a theatre of evil—and any God of history would be fiend, answerable for millennia of slaughtered children. But what if God has been holding his piece, waiting for the right man and the right nation and the right moment to act for Him and cleanse history of Evil? If this is what Bush believes, if his talk of Armageddon is not just catnip for the religious right, then he is in a fair way to becoming the American Ayatollah.

"Power," the moral realist John Adams warned the idealist Thomas Jefferson, in words he could have addressed to George W. Bush, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions ... possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Abraham Lincoln, who called Americans the almost chosen people, also speaks to the hubristic illusion of power when he reminds us, "The Almighty has his own purposes."

The "moral clarity" Bush's publicists salute him for gives fearful permissions. Against evil, all means are sanctified. Attacking a nation half of whose inhabitants are children could coat our noble ends so thick in blameless blood as to make us recoil before the wages of our idealism. "Contain" evil? Intolerable to Bush. Never mind that the empirically evil Saddam has been contained for a decade and could be contained with even greater surety by a permanent inspection regime backed by the threat of force from troops stationed on his doorstep. Bush's coercive diplomacy has tightened Saddam's containment. But "moral clarity" prevents Bush from recognizing his equivocal but evolving success, which looks like a compromise with evil rather than with reality, from which he gives signs of having cut loose.

To D. H. Lawrence, Ahab and the officers of the Pequod, harrowing the seas to find and destroy all evil summed in Moby Dick, stood for the American soul— "A maniac captain ... and three eminently practical mates." Bush is no maniac and neither are the ideologically besotted Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld practical, but he's got the God-wind in his sails as he steers the ship of state into uncharted waters.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.