You can be certain that the Friday Wall Street Journal’s op-ed entitled “Jonah’s Dilemma” by Michael Oren and Mark Gerson made it onto Bush’s reading desk or nightstand some time in the last 72 hours. While the article appeared to be directed at the Journal’s general readership on the eve of the Yom Kippur holiday, it looked to me like yet another example of the neo-conservatives’ continuous courtship and flattery of the president, one that recalls Natan Sharansky’s description (also in the Journal) of Bush last year as “the dissident president,” a moniker that Bush heartily, if bizarrely, endorsed for himself at the heavily Likudnik “Democracy and Security Conference convened by Sharansky in Prague in early June. At the time, Bush reportedly complained about the constraints imposed on his “Freedom Agenda,” a complaint quickly blamed by neo-con pundits on the usual suspects in the State Department (which had opposed his appearance at the Prague conference) and other realist outposts in the government.
Of course, the notion that a president – especially a president who refers to himself “The Decider” and whose claims on the constitutional powers of commander-in-chief are without precedent – would consider himself a “dissident” is difficult to comprehend, but it undoubtedly feeds Bush’s own self-image as a man of solid convictions willing to fight for them and suffer solitude, ridicule and even popular rejection to see them through. (Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’ comes to mind, but then a U.S. marshal couldn’t exactly be considered a “dissident” either.)
But now come Oren – like Sharansky, an associate of the Jerusalem-based, Netanyahu-oriented Shalem Center – and Gerson, a project director of the all-but-defunct Project for the New American Century (whose 10-year-old ‘The Neo-Conservative Vision,” remains the best book-length exposition of neo-conservatism by one of their own that I’ve read), to compare Bush to an Old Testament prophet — specifically Jonah — whose story is traditionally recited during Yom Kippur services.
According to their account, Jonah was in a no-win position when God bade him warn the people of Nineveh of imminent destruction if they did not change their ways:
“If Nineveh heeds his warnings and is spared, its citizens will later question whether the city was really ever in danger and assail Jonah for forcing them to make needless sacrifices. But if Nineveh ignores his exhortations and is destroyed, then Jonah has failed as a prophet. Either way he loses – that’s the paradox of prophecy.”
So how is George W. Bush the president like Jonah the prophet?
“Jonah’s quandary is routinely encountered by national leaders, especially during crises,” they go on, immediately invoking the two national leaders to whom Bush yearns to be compared (and to whom neo-conservatives never fail to compare the president. Remember his “literary luncheon” with a dozen of them and the thoroughly reactionary Andrew Roberts, author of ‘A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900’, in late February).
“Winston Churchill, for example, prophetically warned of the Nazi threat in the 1930s, but if he had convinced his countrymen to strike Germany pre-emptively, would he have been hailed for preventing World War II or condemned for initiating an unnecessary conflict? As president in 1945, Harry Truman predicted that Japan would never surrender and that a quarter of a million GIs would be killed invading it. And so he obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only to be vilified by many future historians. But what if the atomic bombs were never dropped and the Battle for Japan claimed countless casualties — would history have judged Truman more leniently?”
If those are the good models to whom Bush aspires to be compared one day, Oren and Gerson follow up with the bad ones, reciting the standard neo-conservative version – chapter and verse, as it were — of recent history.
“Jimmy Carter failed to retaliate for the takeover (sic) the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Ronald Reagan pulled the U.S. Marines out of Beirut in 1983 after Islamist bombers destroyed their headquarters, and Bill Clinton remained passive in the face of successive al Qaeda attacks. And yet, had these presidents gone to war, would Americans today credit them with averting a 9/11-type attack or would they have been denounced for overreacting? If American leaders had stood firmly earlier in Iran, Lebanon or Afghanistan, would U.S. troops today be battling in Iraq?” [Editor’s note: Curious they didn’t bring up in that connection George H. W. Bush’s failure to take Baghdad in 1991.]
So now, the authors come to the younger Bush, who, according to them, “presents a striking example” of Jonah’s dilemma.
“After 9/11, he cautioned that the United States would again be attacked unless it acted pre-emptively in Iraq. But while there is no way of knowing whether terrorists would have struck America if President Bush had refrained from invading Iraq, many Americans now denounce the president for initiating an avoidable, unwinnable war. This is the tragedy of leadership. Policy makers must decide between costly actions and inaction, the price of which, though potentially higher, will ultimately remain unknown — a truly Jonah-like dilemma.”
And, cards well and truly stacked, Oren and Gerson make their final argument directed, it would appear, straight at Bush himself in the stark, binary choices so beloved by the president:
“(America’s leaders) must decide whether to keep troops in Iraq, incurring untold losses of American lives and resources, or whether to withdraw and project an image of weakness to those who still seek to harm the U.S. If diplomatic efforts fail to deter Iran from enriching uranium, American policy makers will have to determine whether to stop the Islamic Republic by force or coexist with a highly unstable, nuclear-armed Middle East. They will be reproved for the actions they take to forestall catastrophe, but may receive no credit for averting cataclysms that never occur. For Mr. Bush and his successors, this will remain the tragic dilemma of leadership.”
So, there you have it. The message from Jonah (and Churchill and Truman) is Sustain the Surge and Bomb Iran.
Now, personally, I love the story of Jonah (and indeed my first-born is named after him), which, like many Old Testament tales, invites a number of interpretations and lessons, such as the importance of compassion, even for people who are enemies of Israel (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the reigning regional power and no friend of Israel’s at the time); the inescapability of God’s will; and, yes, the importance of subordinating one’s own pride and reputation to a greater good (the salvation of Nineveh) and to God. But the interpretation offered by Oren and Gerson is simply beyond me. How can one compare – except in the most superficial of ways — the dilemma faced by a powerless prophet who is compelled by an immortal, infallible, and all-powerful God to warn Nineveh to avoid destruction with the very mortal and very fallible commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military machine whose decisions have already caused so much death and destruction? While I am no theologian, the comparison seems inappropriate, at best.
But the comparison, however, tortured, apparently does offer neo-conservatives another pretext for rehashing their arguments for war and yet more war, for reaffirming Bush’s historic role as modern-day heir to Churchill and Truman, and for yet again appealing to his vanity and self-image as a lonely, heroic figure faced with the “tragic dilemma of leadership.” Just like Sharansky’s “Dissident President” — not to mention his book, ‘The Case for Democracy’ — or Bill Kristol’s over-the-top “Why Bush Will Be a Winner” in the Post’s Outlook section two months ago, this op-ed had an intended audience of one.