Hearing former president George W. Bush speak on Saturday night at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas sent me into a nostalgic reverie. The president was in top form, speaking lucidly and compellingly about the threat from Iran and Islamic State. So this is what it’s like to hear a world leader speak about evil with moral conviction. Oh yes, I remember this.
And yes, I know, I know: president Bush made plenty of mistakes. In his speech he fessed up to a few. But he also gave the world moral direction and served as the scourge of tyrants. What a change from the double- speak of the current White House where evil is an entity to make deals with.
But given that our world is in such bad shape, why doesn’t the former president ever speak up? He addressed this question directly. “The office of the Presidency is more important than any particular occupant,” he said, explaining that he wanted to preserve respect for the office by not second-guessing his successor. He wanted to give him the latitude to operate without a predecessor second-guessing him.
I only partially agreed. That all works if your successor doesn’t trash you constantly. But given that President Obama has blamed president Bush for every global mishap, why would Bush just turn the other cheek and take it? Does he not realize that it’s not only him who is being attacked but also his principles? President Obama has used president Bush’s legacy to excuse doing nothing as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. “Don’t do stupid stuff,” is the essential foreign policy creed President Obama articulated at last year’s West Point commencement, by which he meant, don’t do the kinds of things president Bush did. Don’t attack other countries, even if, as in Syria, 200,000 people have been murdered by a dictator.
Don’t promote democracy, even if exporting freedom is a core American value.
Through all this president Bush has been silent. But his silence has come at a price, namely his reputation and the ideals he believes in, many of which I, too, believe in.
President Bush said at the RJC that it does not much matter, seeing as history, rather than political spin, determine a president’s true legacy. That’s probably true – but only in the long term. Right now, when the world needs a far more engaged America to keep it from becoming a jungle, it’s inaccurate. Rather, president Bush should be defending an activist foreign- policy agenda that does not allow Iran to remain nuclear and does not allow Islamist terror to run roughshod over the Middle East.
Such defense need not be articulated as a criticism of President Obama. President Bush need not trash his successor. I agree that that would be inappropriate.
But would it really be so intrusive if president Bush condemned the wholesale slaughter of innocent Arabs at the hands of Bashar Assad? Would it be seen as criticism of 44 if 43 spoke of the need to utterly destroy Islamic State (IS)? Would it be a betrayal of his successor if Bush praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to rally the world against Iran obtaining nuclear weapons? I can only speak for myself.
I thoroughly enjoyed hearing president Bush, and also realized that I missed him. He was funny, direct, candid and utterly relaxed. He spoke with eloquence about the need for America to assert itself in world affairs lest really bad people fill the void.
Perhaps he was so relaxed because he knew he was speaking at a closed-door event, although he acknowledged that these days there is no such thing. And indeed, his comments appeared the very next day in The New York Times. Or perhaps he spoke so convincingly because he knew he was among friends. People who admired him, especially his unshakable attachment to Israel, which was another point he discussed.
Asked by his former press secretary Ari Fleischer why he was so attached to Israel, he said people were mistaken if they surmised the reason was only religious.
Yes, he was a born-again Christian. Yes, he read the Hebrew Bible daily and therefore felt knowledgeable about, and attached to, ancient Jewish history. All that of course accounted in part for his closeness to Israel. But it only a small part. The larger part, he said, was American values. Israel is a democracy. The world cannot be made safe for peace unless it becomes democratic.
Israel and the United States share core values.
Israel’s neighbors do not.
Perhaps most interesting was president Bush’s comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yes, he acknowledged, he had once said that he had peered into Putin’s eyes and had seen his soul. He explained that he had made the comment directly after speaking to Putin about his mother and her religious faith.
He said that Putin had touched him deeply with the affectionate way he described his mother.
But all that was undone, he said, by an incident that displayed Putin’s deep insecurity and his I-win-youlose mentality. After Putin met the president’s dog Barney, he commented on how small and weak the dog appeared. Later, when president Bush visited the Russian president at his dacha in Russia, Putin showed off an enormous, powerful dog. “He’s much bigger and more powerful than Barney,” Putin said.
Any man who had to show off his bigger, better dog, said Bush, had serious insecurity issues. Good thing, he continued, we were talking about dogs and not something else.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.