Entry from October 2, 2003

More and more, I have come to believe that what President Bush’s Democratic critics really hate about him — even if one or two of them may not actually hate him — is that cowboy style of his: what Dick Gephardt calls “this phony macho business.” It absolutely drives them crazy, just as it does the great and the good of “Old Europe” for whom Bush’s swagger is a constant reminder of their own insignificance, if not irrelevance. So much of the premiss on which American hegemony is based has to do with a general acceptance in the Chancelleries of Europe that American power is that of a headstrong child who has to be reined in by parental authority — as exercised by them.

When Tim Russert asked Gephardt what he meant by “phony macho” on “Meet the Press,” here is what the congressman answered:

Well, saying “Bring them on,” and you know, saying to our allies, “We’re going to do this with or without you,” and just — arrogance doesn’t get you anywhere, as a country, as a leader. And I think in some cases this president demonstrates arrogance. Look, I was in Germany a few years ago, the foreign minister said to me, “The reason we so respect America is that there’s never been a country in the history of the world that’s had this much military power and always used it so responsibly.” That’s what we’re in danger of losing with the way this president is leading. So if he’s right, I’m going to say it, and if he’s wrong, I’m going to say it, and that’s what I try to do. I try to say what’s in my heart.

There is, as they say, a disconnect here. On the one hand, you have Bush saying “Bring them on” or “Were’re going to do this with or without you” — i.e. “arrogance” — and on the other we have America losing the world’s respect. How do we get from a to b? What is the missing term here, the putative irresponsibility in America’s use of military power? Is it the same thing as saying “Bring them on”?

Very possibly, Congressman Gephardt thinks it is. To him, using American military power would seem to be the same thing as threatening to use it, and threatening to use it as if you enjoyed using it, as if you relished the opportunity to use it, is just as bad as, if not the same thing as, using it irresponsibly. Gephardt has lived for so long in a world of rhetoric that he has lost the ability to distinguish rhetoric from reality, just as he thinks that saying “I try to say what’s in my heart” is the same thing as saying what’s in his heart. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It is a reminder that, politician-like, he needs with some regularity to say things like that which he knows will excite popular approval — whatever may be in his heart. Any politician who really said what was in his heart would soon be an ex-politician.

At first sight, it looks as if Senator Kerry and General Clark are competing with each other to stake out the opposite position to Gephardt’s, namely that threatening to use military power is completely different from using it. They voted, or would have voted, to threaten to use, but not to use American armed force in Iraq. But really it’s the same position since, like Gephardt, Kerry and Clark take the word for the deed. Why did we need to go to war in Iraq when we could have got the same results, say they, by threatening to go to war in Iraq. The media are at the moment too busy swooning over Clark to ask the obvious question: What becomes of a threat of force that’s not backed up by any ability to use that force? And isn’t the issuing of empty threats a better definition of “phony macho” than “Bring them on”?

The truth is that “phony macho” is a redundancy, a pleonasm. Machismo is always to some degree phony by definition, which is what really gets up the noses of the intellectual class. In a recent “Doonesbury” comic strip, Garry Trudeau, who is rarely the first but often the most vicious of those in the media to pick up such Democratic talking points as that the war in Iraq made things worse by drawing terrorists to the new locus of American power, took up just this theme. He has his pompous TV newsman, Roland Hedley, chief content provider and portal correspondent for AOL-Time-Warner-CNN-Yap!com, interviewing a muffled al-Qaeda fighter in Iraq. “So where has your cell been operating, Commander?” he asks.

“Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kosovo — you name it. But then we heard about Bush’s challenge to the Jihad community to ‘Bring ‘em on’ in Iraq. What kind of Commander invites fire on his own troops? A few days later, we took Bush up on his dare.”

“Why the delay?” asks Hedley.

“No one believed it. I had to get it re-translated.”

Actually, if Trudeau had taken the trouble to read what actual al-Qaeda fighters and other Arab enemies of the United States say, he would have known the answer to his own question What kind of commander invites fire on his own troops? They do. Throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the enemy pretended to be full of elation at the chance afforded them by the American invasions to annihilate the Americans. Belonging as they do to an honor culture, they instinctively understood that this is part of the rhetoric of battle: you show that you are not afraid of your enemy, that you hold him in contempt, by inviting him to do his worst as if this were a matter of complete indifference to you. It will just give you a better opportunity to show your effortless superiority over him and, ultimately, to wipe him out. “Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”

Nowadays, judging by his new movie (of which see my review next Wednesday) Clint Eastwood himself would probably disavow the “phony macho” of such a remark, but this is because Eastwood has lately undergone a process of intellectual gentrification, and so has come to resemble such sensitive men as Garry Trudeau more than Dirty Harry. Dirty George, meanwhile, is answering the vaunting honor-talk of the self-styled warriors of the jihad in kind. They, we must suppose, understood it for what it was and took it in their stride. They certainly didn’t have any trouble believing it — unless perhaps you suppose that they really believe what they say in their own equivalent taunts, when they accuse America of being weak and effeminate. In other words, Bush permitted himself a bit of the old-fashioned warrior’s joy in battle.

In doing so, those he really infuriated were the progressive-minded intelligentsia in America, like Trudeau or Gephardt, who think that that kind of talk may be OK for desert primitives but not for the leader of a liberal-minded, post-honor society like ours. If we go to war, it must not only be with great reluctance and regret, it must also be ostentatiously dressed up as reluctance and regret, lest anyone anywhere should for a single moment suspect that we are not the sensitive and pacific souls we pride ourselves on being. Not that those we go forth to kill have the slightest interest in whether we kill them with reluctance or not. But we’ll feel better about ourselves. They’re just as dead, of course, but at least the world knows that we don’t feel good about it — and that we would never engage in that kind of primitive masculine vaunting that Gephardt calls “phony macho” and the British call “willie-waving.” War has become a matter of grim moral necessity and not a test of manhood to be greeted with a fierce enthusiasm, and the likes of Garry Trudeau need to make sure we know our liberal credentials — our liberal honor, you might almost say — are at stake in keeping it that way.


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