Ira Chernus  



"Publicís Doubts vs. Bush Vows: As Casualties in Iraq Mount, Will Resolve Falter?" The headline appeared on the front page of the New York Times (Nov. 3). But it could have been written by Karl Rove, the presidentís political guru. It is exactly the way Bushís image handlers want the issue framed as we head into the presidential election.

They probably wonít have much trouble getting what they want. For years, U.S. leaders have responded to anti-U.S. moves with the same words Bush offered when a helicopter was downed in Iraq, killing 16 Americans: "Our will and our resolve are unshakable." Four decades of cold war trained most of us to see every international conflict as a test of our nationís "will and resolve."

New York Times analyst Richard Stevenson, like so many cold war journalists before him, gives this almost mythic imagery the appearance of objective fact. He quotes a Georgetown University "expert" explaining that "American will is the center of gravity in this campaign." Stevenson adds: "Anti-U.S. forces in Iraq seem to have a common purpose: undermining American resolve and sowing doubt in Iraq and elsewhere."

"And elsewhere." Those are the crucial words. All the talk about "will and resolve" is not merely a PR gimmick. The foreign policy elite really mean it. Hegemony is all about making other governments do what we want. We promise them rewards if they go along with us and threaten punishments if they donít. But they have to believe we will make good on our threats and promises. Every time the U.S. government speaks, the whole world is watching to see whether our actions match our words. In every difficult situation, our credibility is at stake. If we lose it, the big powers have no reason to toe the American line any more.

Not many Americans understand all this, however. Certainly not enough to swing an election. For most voters, "will and resolve" is the crucial issue for a far different reason.

To understand it, imagine the voice of your favorite news anchor saying: "Faced with mounting pressure from an opposing nation, leader X (the president or prime minister of wherever) stood firm, saying he will not back down." Doesnít it always seem to imply approval, even admiration? No matter how stupid Xís policy, we never hear: "X was willfully obstinate" or "X foolishly refused to reconsider" (unless X is on the official list of "evil-doers"). If X does back down, itís always reported in neutral terms: "He signaled his willingness to negotiate." Itís never: "X courageously, heroically showed flexibility and agreed to change his policy."

In foreign affairs, flexibility and compromise rarely gain mainstream media or public praise In Doonesbury terms, the public would far rather have a Stetson and spurs than a waffle.

Why this bias in favor of firmness? There is a simple Freudian answer (which might explain why the "waffle" Clintonís approval stayed so high through the Monica scandal; no question about his firmness).

But I am an historian of religions, not a psychoanalyst. So I look to Christianity for a most important clue. The Christian cultural tradition sees life revolving around one question: In a world that throws up ever-new opportunities to sin, can you withstand temptation? Is your will tough enough, firm and resolved enough, to choose the Lordís will every time? Can you make a commitment to do the right thing and then follow through on it, no matter what? If you can, you are a winner in the Lordís eyes.

If you are running for president, you stand a good chance of being a winner in the votersí eyes too. The United States is so saturated with Christian tradition, it can often tip an election. Thatís what happened in 2000, when well over half the voters supported Al Goreís stand on every major issue. Bush managed to get a virtual tie because so many people voted not on the issues, but on the morals. They voted for the man they saw as more virtuous, more firmly committed to resisting sin.

Bush spoke directly to them in his inaugural address, when he said: "We find the fullness of life, not only in options, but in commitments." In their shared code, that was an attack on Clinton, Gore, and the "Ď60s generation," who (according to conservatives) just wonít make a commitment to restrain their sinful impulses. Without religion and resolve, they have only the inconstancy of constantly shifting "options" (and, presumably, sexual partners).

To get re-elected, Bush needs those voters who disagree with him on the issues but see him as more firmly virtuous. So far, it still looks good for him. In the latest Washington Post Ė ABC poll, Bush gets a 56% approval rating. But when people are asked about specific issues, less than half approve his performance on every single issue but one: the war on terrorism. Bush has not captured Osama, destroyed Al Qaida, or achieved any demonstrable victories in that war. All he has done is talk tough.

That is enough to give him numbers that make Karl Rove sleep easy at night. He may sleep even easier when he reads in the New York Times: "The pressure increases on Mr. Bush to show that he has not just a program but the determination to carry it out." Thatís just how Rove wants the next election framed. Determination is his manís strongest suit.

Of course, Rove clearly remembers another president who sent U.S. troops to a distant land for credibility, to prove his nationís and his own resolve. Thatís why the Republican game plan will come not from Lyndon Johnson but from Richard Nixon. For the next year, we can expect to see "Iraqification" and Bushís coded attacks on the "60s generation" grow in equal measure. And we can expect to see more deaths every day in Iraq.

The question of American credibility distracts us from the truly important questions that should guide U.S. policy: How can we stop the killing? How can human suffering be eased most rapidly? How can life be made more humane and fulfilling for the people of Iraq, the U.S., and the world? It would be a real sin if the Bush administration and the media successfully frame the Iraq war in terms of "will and resolve." The test for us now is whether we have the firm resolve to resist that most deadly sin.