When George W. Bush stood with Tony Blair before the White House press corps last week, he took a mea culpa moment to announce his regret for having formerly talked tough to jihadis, and to call Abu Ghraib "the biggest mistake that's happened so far" in Iraq. And that's when my sinking feeling over the viability of American Superpowerdom hit bottom.
It's worth noting that this presidential statement created a confessional moment of sufficient magnitude to stifle "I told you so's" from the press. Long pained by Bush's spaghetti-Western diction, and long party to the Abu Ghraib Outrage Industry, media elites might have been expected to, well, rub it in. Then again, Bush took care of that himself. He referred to language that once irked his critics -- "bring it on," he offered as an example, along with "wanted, dead or alive." I'm guessing he would also include the line, "you're either with us or against us." Bush then informed the world that, yes, he had grown. Such "kind of tough talk," he said, "sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner. ... I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted, and so I learned from that."
I wonder if Bush has ever noticed the extravagantly malignant ravings against the United States (not to mention Jews and Christians) that are government-tolerated and even government-encouraged in some of those "certain parts of the world" I suspect he is referring to.
Anyway, Bush's recent comments are quite significant: He has renounced statements made at critical junctures of the so-called war on terror. And this is deeply depressing. I went back to the original statements to figure out why.
Less than a week after Sept. 11, Bush invoked the wanted posters of the Old West to describe his perfectly natural attitude toward and plans for Osama bin Laden -- "wanted, dead or alive." Quite mild, actually. Is he now saying he doesn't want the Islamic terror kingpin dead or alive?
I seriously doubt it.
In July 2003, several months after American-led coalition forces deposed Saddam Hussein, the president, in emphasizing U.S. resolve, declared that our forces wouldn't be thwarted by gathering terrorist foes. "Bring 'em on," he said (not "Bring it on," a phrase so often reported that Bush now misquotes himself) by way of praising U.S. troops. Is he now saying he doesn't believe in his fighting men? Of course not.
But something else has changed. In disavowing his so-called tough talk, Bush has dropped clues to a tactical shift. Once dedicated to a black-and-white fight for strategic victory in Iraq and elsewhere, Bush now seems more committed to an amorphous battle for the hearts and minds throughout Islam. Why else recant cowboy calls for capturing the utterly despicable Bin Laden -- a figure who remains popular in the Islamic world? And why else identify Abu Ghraib as the Iraq War's single worst mistake?
Abu Ghraib, after all, was not a military setback -- such as the failure to capture or kill Mahdi Militia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr. Nor was it a grievous security blunder -- such as the failure to put down post-invasion looting in Baghdad. Dissected from context and magnified beyond proportion in the kangaroo court of world opinion, Abu Ghraib was a public relations disaster. For Bush to call it Mistake Numero Uno after recanting his own colloquial war rhetoric is unwise, weak and, therefore, quite dangerous.
And it is here that American Superpowerdom becomes a risky enterprise. Fueling this policy shift is a profound misunderstanding of both Islam and its animating institution of jihad. Renouncing the tough talk and wallowing in Abu Ghraib become a tacit acceptance of some blame for the jihad terrorism now spilling blood around the globe. It also signals a flagging will to project power.
Maybe this is the Bush administration's idea of winning Muslim "hearts and minds." I can't help but think of what a National Guardsmen home from Iraq recently told The New York Times magazine: His officers, the guardsmen, said, "were always drumming into us: 'Hearts-and-minds, hearts-and-minds. We've got to win these people over.' He gave a laugh. 'These people just wanted us dead.'"
That is nothing for any American president to apologize for.