My proposed headline is above, but the editor didn't go for it. I did get one email complaint about this week's column; No Exit isn't a novel, but a play. I fixed the last line by removing "novel" and enjoyed the chance to respond to the critic by noting that he was (wait for it) literally correct.
BUSH ON BOOKS AND FOREIGN POLICY: ALL WRONG
East Valley Tribune, Aug. 20, 2006
You probably heard that President Bush read The Stranger by Albert Camus. Yes, the leader of the political party that brought us “freedom fries” perused one of the seminal works of French existentialism. You heard me -- a book written in French. What’s up with that?
(Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the GOP has restored french fries and french toast to the Capitol cafeteria menus. That publicity stunt aged about as well as two-day-old fries -- which actually originated in Belgium, but hey, what’s a fact to those guys?)
Bush’s literary disclosure spurred considerable puzzlement over why he would allow it to be known that he read this particular book. Sure, it’s a well-known part of many college curricula without any big words, but it’s about a dissolute young Frenchman who shoots an Algerian and is executed for murder, without remorse or regret. Yes, it makes absolutely perfect sense, while we’re battling over the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, for Bush to disclose he’s just read a novel about a soulless murderer of an Arab.
As one commenter noted, if Bush wanted to read Camus, he should have chosen The Plague, about a doctor who treats victims of an outbreak in Algeria, despite the immensity of the disease all about him, because he believes he must do whatever he can, however tiny in the face of the disaster, to relieve the suffering of others. And if Bush wanted to explore existentialism, he might have wanted to use it to examine his own all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil rhetoric, and how that may play well to his GOP base in this country, but it’s worse than counterproductive in accomplishing our goals, at home and abroad.
'WITH OR AGAINST ME'
Bush (and his enablers) continue to insist that we fight one big global conspiracy, all connected and coordinated. Whether it’s Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinians in Gaza, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shi’a and Sunni in Iraq, the Iranians, or the latest, the alleged conspiracy by Britons of Pakistani descent to blow up transatlantic aircraft, to Bush it’s all the same, part and parcel of one big gelatinous global conspiracy (the name of which keeps changing; now they’re trying out “Islamofascism.” We’ll see if that term has a longer shelf-life than “freedom fries.”)
There are two problems with Bush’s “with me or against us” worldview. The first is that it doesn’t make sense, even here at home. Let’s assume the worst about the British conspiracy, that subsequent events will justify the initial breathless reports and tossing out all those liquids and gels at the airport. Do you really think that our solution to aircraft security is keeping U.S. troops in Iraq?
As Josh Marshall put it, “Is there anyone in the country who can say honestly, in their heart of hearts, that when that moment of fear hit them after the recent reports out of London, they said to themselves, ‘Gosh, I’m glad we’re in Iraq?’ ”
And Bush’s black-or-white world view isn’t helping abroad, either. As noted by Sir Max Hastings -- he’s the token conservative among columnists at The Guardian (U.K.), so given my precarious perch here at The Tribune, I tend to pay attention to fellow contrarians -- his description of the West in battle with Islamic extremism perfectly mirrors the rhetoric and framing of those Muslim radicals who see everything as a Judeo-Christian plot against Islam:
The madness of Bush’s policy is that he has made a willful choice to amalgamate the grossly irrational, totalitarian, and homicidal objectives of al-Qaeda with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis. His remarks on Saturday invite Muslims who sympathize with Hamas or reject Iraq’s occupation or merely aspire to grow opium in Afghanistan to make common cause with Bin Laden. If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy, then that is what they become.
If Bush really wanted to read a French existentialist, he picked the wrong book and author. Based on our options in Iraq, he should have gone with Jean-Paul Sartre: No Exit.