TCS Daily


Blood and Iron

By Paul J. Cella - July 7, 2003 12:00 AM

It is a truth so large as to almost be a truism that democracies can hardly conduct a foreign policy; that the thing must be left to an oligarchy, to an elite class of soi-disant experts. The Demos is too vast, too fickle, too passionate or alert to narrow interest, and too indiscriminate. It nevertheless applies an immense pressure upon its representatives, and may well punish those who disregard it. Any elected leader who listens too carefully to the State Department and the foreign policy oligarchy will likely pay a price at the polls -- particularly when the democracy is "all ears," so to speak, which is admittedly rare.

Now a good many arguments have been made accusing George W. Bush of being a pale aristocrat; a complacent, ill-governed man whose success was inherited. I leave that dreary question aside and say here just this; that when President Bush recently responded to a question about attacks on American troops in Iraq with the defiant goad, "bring 'em on," he was uttering as profoundly democratic a sentiment as has been uttered by a high official in recent memory. "Bring 'em on" is the foreign policy of an infuriated democracy; it embodies the feelings of ten million firemen and electricians and miners, especially firemen and electricians and miners who knew men that died on September 11; and George W. Bush's popularity rests on this embodiment.

Naturally, the foreign policy oligarchy is appalled; because for it democracy is at best an annoyance, at worst a monster. The oligarchy likes to manage, cajole, maintain, occasionally adjust, but rarely disturb, the status quo; it is almost wholly dependent on the status quo, whereas democracy, once aroused, cares nothing for it. Likewise, the Democratic Party is genuinely horrified as well, for reasons which can be sufficiently suggested by asking how the Democrats can possibly secure the union vote when a Republican makes public statements of this nature. President Bush is popular with precisely the constituency that the Democrats claim to represent: the common man.

And thus the democracy is happy; indeed it is grimly amused and even heartened. It hears, "bring 'em on," followed by a predictable round of hand-wringing and fatuous commentary, and it thinks, "He's one of us"; or at least, and perhaps equally appealing, "He's not one of them." And I think it is this naturally democratic camaraderie (and it is important to note that it is quite natural) conveyed by President Bush, which immunizes him to charges of aristocratic irresponsibility by his opponents. The charges are too discordant with reality. To believe that Mr. Bush is a foolish aristocrat, men have to almost believe that they themselves are foolish aristocrats; and if Mr. Bush is indeed irresponsible, which he may well be, it is far nearer to the truth to say that he is a foolish democrat.

In any case, I confess that I feel some of this democratic sentiment myself: not because I want to see more American soldiers ambushed by barbarians, as the tone-deaf oligarchs seem to imagine Mr. Bush as saying, but because in some primeval recess of my male brain there is an idea of honor, and it includes smaller ideas about jeers and taunts and certainly about defiance. With greater sophistication, I also recognize that honor bulks very big on the human stage of the Arab world; and, casting my eye back toward that crematorium beneath the streets of New York of that dark autumn two years ago, I read "bring 'em on" to mean: "if the Arab street speaks only the language of blood and iron, then blood and iron it will have." I cannot simply switch off the primeval recess, no matter how many imbricated layers of "enlightenment" they have laid across my brain. Nor would I want to if I could, for Honor, like its relation Patriotism, unquestionably has its proper place.

The question, then, is this: Is Honor in its proper place on the lips of the President of the United States when he jeers a blood-minded enemy in public? Of that I am a touch ambivalent. I cannot say that my esteem for Mr. Bush is particularly high at the moment. His equivocations on the muddle of post-war questions; his acquiescence in the Imperial Judiciary; his embrace of dirigism in health-care policy; together these factors do not lead me to an instinctual defense of him. But I do suspect strongly that while the Arab street generally ignores the calculated banality of the foreign policy oligarchs, it is more attentive to blood and iron.
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