Ira Chernus  




The world’s news media are abuzz with the report of a Palestinian official who heard George W. Bush say: “God would tell me: ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’…and I did”  It’s too bad journalists reporting the story didn’t check out the invaluable archives of

“Did God tell George W. Bush to strike at Al-Qaeda and Iraq?  God only knows.  Did Bush say that God told him to strike?  We don’t know yet, for sure.  But we damn well better find out.”

That’s how I began my report on the story, published on Commondreams, TWO YEARS AGO. But then it was a different Palestinian official who reported hearing Bush say God gives him orders. So now we have the same testimony from two different people who heard it at the same meeting. It begins to look like it really happened.

Here are the facts:

In June, 2003, a journalist with Ha’aretz (Israel’s most reputable newspaper), obtained detailed minutes of a meeting among top-level Palestinian leaders. According to the minutes, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told the others present about his talks with Bush in Aqaba, Jordan on June 4, 2003. Abbas recalled that he heard Bush say: “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."

Back in ’03, the White House denied that Bush ever said it and the news media largely ignored it. The story just disappeared.

This week, the BBC announced that it will air a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the documentary, another well-respected Palestinian political leader, Nabil Shaath, says that he was at the same meeting in Aqaba: "President Bush said to all of us, 'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me: George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did, and then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq…and I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me - go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East. And by God I'm gonna do it."

Now, since the story was reported in a mainstream source, media around the world have reported it extensively. White House press briefer Scott McClellan dismissed it: “That's absurd. He's never made such comments.” But before McClellan issued his flat denial, the BBC called the White House to let them know the story would break. According to news reports, BBC did not get a denial. They got told that the White House wouldn’t comment on a private conversation. Unfortunately the U.S. media seem to accept McClellan’s denial at face value. They’ve still pretty much ignored the story.

Journalists in other countries followed up by asking Shaath if it’s really true. Yes, he confirmed. But he added that he, Abbas, and the others who heard it didn’t take it literally: “We felt he was saying that he had a mission, a commitment, his faith in God would inspire him ... rather than a metaphysical whisper in his ear." (In ’03 the Washington Post had an Arabic speaker translate the transcript, and he read it as Bush saying “God inspired me.”)

What about Abbas, who first reported the comment two years ago? Now he denies he ever heard it. In the BBC documentary he only recalls Bush saying, “I have a moral and religious obligation. So I will get you a Palestinian state." When the story about the documentary broke, Abbas’ office issued a press statement saying that Abbas never heard Bush talk about something like that; he never heard any statements that link what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan to a religious viewpoint.

This is curious. According to a written document, Abbas heard it, but now he says he didn’t. Of course, as the head of the Palestinian government that depends mightily on the favor of the Bush administration, Abbas has good reason to change his story. And Shaath, also an important leader in the Palestinian government, has good reason to downplay its importance. Certainly, it’s very unlikely that Abbas and Shaath conspired to create a purely fictional story, since they are trying to downplay or even (in Abbas’ case) deny it. The Ha’aretz version and Shaath’s version in the BBC film are close enough that it seems Bush must have said something of the sort.

But so what? There are lots of people who have recounted things they heard Bush say about how his religion affects his political decisions. There’s lots of documentary evidence along these lines. This is the only case where Bush says anything close to claiming a direct pipeline from the deity.  (And maybe he said it just because he thought his Muslim audience would want to hear it.)

To others, Bush has explicitly denied that he or any person could know for sure what God wants in any given situation. He’s said things like: “We do not know—we do not claim to know—all the ways of Providence.” “We find that the plan of the Creator is sometimes very different from our own.” Journalist Robert Scheer once wrote of “Bush's belief…that God has called him to wage war on Iraq,” citing the president's close friend, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, as his source. But what does it mean to say that “God has called him?” Bush himself has offered some clues. He told one interviewer: "I have a task to perform, and on bended knees I ask the good Lord to help me complete it with wisdom." He told another that after 9/11 he felt “chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment." Some of his aides told journalists that he felt he was “put on earth to help the nation respond to this crisis.”

Bob Woodward asked the president whether he consulted his father, the former president, before deciding to go to war. Many readers of his book, Plan of Attack, were shocked by Bush’s answer: “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” Read in full context, though, these words do not imply that the president thinks he takes orders from God. When the Iraq war began, Bush recalled, “I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will.…I’m surely not going to justify war based upon God.…I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness.” When Woodward posed the question about his father, he replied that a human father “is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”

This all amounts to a conventional, traditional Protestant view of political life. Secular rulers are “called” by God to serve the state. They rely on their faith to make them morally virtuous people. They pray to God to give them the strength to know and do the right thing. Yet they never claim to have a direct line to God to find out what the right thing is. They make their decisions based solely on human considerations. Then they hope and pray that it turns out to be in conformity with God’s inscrutable will.

Whatever Bush believes in private, this is the view he espouses quite consistently in public. It’s a view that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would probably have shared.

So even if Bush once said that God told him to go to war, let’s not get too excited. There are so many more horrendous things Bush has said and done that deserve our harsh criticism. There are so many more ways he has used religious  beliefs and religious  language to justify immoral policies. Let’s put our critical energy there, and not on one isolated statement that he’ll go on denying he ever said.