Don't know why I bother. The man is leaving office in eight months; his presidency noticeably marked by the uneven tread of the lame duck. But so long as George W. Bush is commander in chief, there remains something mesmerizing about the way he seems to experience his momentous tenure virtually unscratched, even ungrazed, by his many brushes (collisions) with history.
I'm not suggesting callousness on his part regarding American casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; or regarding American civilian casualties due to Islamic terrorism. I think he feels such losses very deeply. In fact, I think he feels everything very deeply. Whether the subject is his feelings about Mexican illegal aliens, the war in Iraq or on-off Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, I think Bush's presidency, at its base, has been an emotional presidency, more gut-driven and temporal than attuned to anything like that sweep of history you hear about.
I point this out on reading the president's remarks in Israel to mark the 60th anniversary of the nation's statehood.
"I suspect," Bush said, "if you looked back 60 years ago and tried to guess where Israel would be at that time, it would be hard to be able to project such a prosperous, hopeful land. No question people would have said, well, we'd be surrounded by hostile forces -- but I doubt people would have been able to see the modern Israel, which is one reason I bring such optimism to the Middle East, because what happened here is possible everywhere."
Let's run that last bit by again. The president says the singular experience of "modern Israel" is one reason for optimism in the Middle East "because what happened here (Israel) is possible everywhere."
The jaw drops. On recovery, I suppose the most direct response to this statement, better suited to a beauty-pageant Pollyanna than a war-scarred president, is: No, Mr. President. What happened in Israel is not possible everywhere. Just for starters, what happened in Israel happened to a people whose monotheism and ethics, as Martin Gilbert writes in "Churchill and the Jews," was, in Churchill's view, "a central factor in the evolution and maintenance of modern civilization" -- a central factor in liberty and democracy as the West still knows it.
This is not, to understate the case, something that may be said about the Islamic rest of the Middle East. Besides, what happened in Israel -- the modern incarnation of the ancient Jewish nation that today enshrines freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, rule of law, women's rights, etc. -- is also anathema (anti-Islamic) to the Islamic Middle East, which to this day seeks or plots Israel's annihilation, not in a what has become a sham territorial dispute, but rather to deny infidels (former dhimmis, to boot) a foothold in what Muslims regard as once-Muslim land.
To President Bush, though, the un-Islamic conditions culminating in an anti-Islamic event -- 60 years of infidel liberty -- constitute a pre-fab democracy franchise that might just as easily have opened up in Riyadh or Baghdad as in Tel Aviv. I think he sees it this way because, emotionally, he wants to see it this way.
So, why aren't we now celebrating 60 years of infidel-style liberty in Saudi Arabia or Iraq?
This must be an enduring puzzle to Bush, for just as he seems blind to the singular qualities of Judaism that root Israel within the Western tradition, he seems blind to the equally singular (but not overlapping) qualities of Islam that leave it outside. Distinguishing between the two traditions is the height of political incorrectness, let alone shattering to the multicultural vision of the Middle East that the Bush administration has made the basis of its democratization policy. All we need, the president will say just as he told Politico this week, is "the advance of freedom throughout the Middle East ... it's the best way to keep us secure."
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, that "advance of freedom" has mainly empowered Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood -- not my idea of "secure." Of course, not my idea of "freedom," either. But we're supposed to forget the fact that Western-style freedom is actually antithetical to Islamic law. In fact, we're supposed to forget about Islamic law. Given the administration's new lexicon that quashes most official references to Islam, we're supposed to forget about Islam, too.
The president sure has. What happened here is possible everywhere. What happened everywhere is possible here. What's the difference when seeing what you want to see is believing?