Karl Rove spends his last day in the White Houses West Wing today. He departs at the close of business, off to pursue new adventures . . . or perhaps clearing out of the White House just in time before some major scandal which will blacken his name still further is uncovered. (We’ll know in the next few months.)
Rove has, in the words of James Moore, been a “co-president” with George W. Bush. Few political advisors in American history have wielded greater power and influence. . . indeed the only arguable competitors would be Wilson’s Colonel House or McKinley’s Mark Hanna.
But for me what defines Rove is the fraudulence of his claims to be a conservative. He is not and he never was.
Rove has taken time on his last day at work to pay tribute to his boss in a post at National Review Online which merits reading. As usual for Rove, it is very well crafted and calculated to play well to “the base.” He starts with a series of historical reminders–other presidents who fell out of favor with the public, but as to whom history has passed a more favorable judgment. Truman and Eisenhower are prime examples of this phenomenon. President Bush will, he promises, be viewed as a visionary by future generations.
At the core of his case for Bush, Rove observes:
And this president saw the wisdom of removing terrorisms cause by advocating the spread of democracy, especially in the Muslim world, where authoritarianism and repression have provided a potent growth medium for despair and anger aimed at the West. He recognized that democracy there makes us safer here. President Bush will be seen as a compassionate leader who used Americas power for good.
Bush’s public approval now ranges between the lower thirties and upper twenties in public opinion polls. And its been in this worst-days-of-Watergate range for roughly two years. No president since the dawn of polling has had such bad numbers for such a sustained period. But Rove is correct that historical judgment may be different; indeed, there are presidents who were popular in their time but who have subsequently been judged harshly.
It seems clear to me that Bush will be judged, as Rove suspects, on his handling of what he defined as a war on terror–and in particular on his decision to invade and occupy Iraq. With Rove’s advice and the skill of a team of lawyers (who went on to send the nation’s administration of justice into its bleakest period in the Republic’s history), Bush entered the White House in January 2001. He promised a “humble” foreign policy. But this was a fraud. In fact his team was intent on invading Iraq well before 9/11, as many witnesses have now attested, starting with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. 9/11 was seized upon as a pretext for this war. Why was this war waged?
It was a war of choice. It was not in pursuit of Al Qaeda. That lie has now been fully exposed. It was not for nuclear weapons, nor biological warfare–those lies have also been laid bare. It was not to bring democracy to Iraq. Indeed, Washington is now united in dismay over the product of the democratic experiment, and many close to Rove now want to install an American Quisling in Baghdad. Was it for oil? Was it for vanity, prestige, dreams of empire? The desire to silence political opposition and install a “permanent Republican majority?” Only Dick Cheney and Karl Rove can answer this question. In the end, Bush was the figurehead, and they were the brains that drove a war.
In reaching to war in Iraq, Bush and Rove, the co-presidents, betrayed one of the most fundamental rules of Anglo-American conservatism. Edmund Burke wrote that a leader must never sacrifice a present benefit for a doubtful advantage in the future. “It is not wise to look too far ahead; our powers of prediction are slight, our command over results infinitesimal. It is therefore the happiness of our own contemporaries that is our main concern; we should be very weary of sacrificing large numbers of people for the sake of a contingent end, however advantageous that may appear. We can never know enough to make the chance worth taking.” Or as he put it elsewhere, “There is this further consideration that is often in need of emphasis: it is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition.”
Rove tells us that a great leader takes chances–likes to “lean into the wind.” That is true of a tiny handful of truly great leaders in history; on the other hand, it is true of a great many tyrants, oppressors, and dictators. A true conservative contemplates carefully the costs of war and acts in military anger when attacked or when the circumstances compel military action. Burke was no pacificist. He spent much of his life with the war party in parliament; he abhorred those who counseled reconciliation or partnership with the French revolutionaries. He insisted that Britain stand by her rights and that the British army and navy be prepared for an existential conflict. But he had a firm enough an understanding of war to always approach it with caution and concern for the unforeseen consequences. This is perhaps the most fundamental rule of conservative governance, and it is the rule that Rove/Bush violated most extravagantly. Rove and Bush arrogantly cast themselves as transformers of the world, as bringers of democracy, peace and prosperity. In truth they have brought tyranny, war, and laid the foundations for an economic collapse. Their claims and conduct evidence a dangerous radicalism that marked this presidency, and that puts a lie forever to its claims to be “conservative.”
Normally the thought of a global leader without his brain is frightening. But a brainless Bush can only be an improvement over what has passed before.