Two weeks ago at a Republican luncheon, President Bush accused the Democratic Party of a 70-year drift from anti-communism to defeatism. “The philosophy of that party began to shift,” he lamented. “Fortunately, in the 1980s, America had a Republican President who saw things differently. Ronald Reagan declared, ‘My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose.’ “
Bush told the crowd, “history will remember Ronald Reagan as the man who brought down the Soviet Union and won the Cold War. And now we’re involved in what I have called the great ideological struggle of the 21st century.” In the war on terror, Bush argued, Iraq remains central. He pledged that he, like Reagan, would prevail.
But anti-communism abroad was only one of Reagan’s theories. Another was anti-socialism at home. A government that spends tens of billions of dollars to prop up able-bodied people, year after year with no deadline for self-sufficiency, breeds dependency. That’s what Bush has done in Iraq: He has made it the largest, most counterproductive welfare program in American history. Talk about leading your party astray.
Reagan’s critique of welfare made five points. First, the government overestimates its ability to manage faraway problems. Reagan faulted previous attempts to “parachute” Washington-devised solutions into disparate regions and cities. “The federal government doesn’t really know how to apply these and other lessons to the day-to-day problems” of diverse communities, he said. “Successful reforms have been, virtually without exception, those that were homegrown in state capitals, cities, and neighborhoods.”
Second, politicians who have invested their reputations in costly programs measure these programs the wrong way. They boast that the programs are covering more people, when in fact they should cover fewer people by getting rid of the underlying problems. “Shouldn’t they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help?” Reagan asked. “But the reverse is true. Each year the need grows greater, the program grows greater.”
Third, the reason welfare programs backfire is that they cultivate dependency. “Perhaps the most insidious effect of welfare is its usurpation of the role of provider,” Reagan warned. “Programs that were intended to help poor citizens have instead made them dependent.” When he signed a welfare reform bill in 1988, he summarized its message this way: “We expect of you what we expect of ourselves and our own loved ones: that you will do your share in taking responsibility for your life and for the lives of the children you bring into this world.”
Fourth, in the absence of positive results, politicians measure a program’s success by the resources spent on it. If you vote against increasing welfare spending, you’re accused of hurting kids. “Today the federal government has 59 major welfare programs and spends more than $100 billion a year on them. What has all this money done?” Reagan asked in one State of the Union address. In another, he observed, “After hundreds of billions of dollars in poverty programs, the plight of the poor grows more painful.”
Finally, when critics question whether the program is serving its stated goals, they are vilified as opposing those goals. Throughout his career, Reagan scorned the “war on poverty” for using good intentions to cover up bad results. Poverty, he observed, was winning the war. The real purpose of the “war on poverty” rhetoric, he charged, was to make critics look unpatriotic: “Anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we are denounced as being against their humanitarian goals. They say we are always ‘against’ things, never ‘for’ anything.”
This critique nails the occupation of Iraq in every respect. Not necessarily the invasion, but the occupation. According to an article by a former Reagan defense official in the U.S. Army journal Military Affairs, Bush’s disbanding of the Iraqi army in May 2003 “changed the mission of the American soldiers from liberators to occupiers.” Bush, having failed to find weapons of mass destruction, shifted his rationale to nation building. He bragged about funding infrastructure and vowed not to withdraw until the country was exemplary.
All the errors outlined by Reagan followed. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other overconfident officials parachuted Washington ideas into the provinces of Iraq, starting with the dissolution of the armed forces. They bragged about how many terrorists we were luring to Iraq and fighting there, brushing aside their own National Intelligence Estimate, which suggested that the correct index of the war’s success or failure—”cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement”—was going the wrong way.
They assumed “provisional” responsibility for governing Iraq and delayed handing some of those responsibilities back to Iraqis, arguing that the beneficiaries weren’t yet ready to run their affairs. Unlike the Republicans of the 1990s, who insisted on firm deadlines for getting people off welfare so that the recipients would be forced to take responsibility, Bush continues to reject a “fixed timetable of withdrawal.” The result is that Iraqi leaders aren’t making the difficult decisions they’d have to make if the alternative were immediate collapse. At his Oct. 25 press conference, Bush was asked what he would do if Iraqi leaders failed to take steps toward responsible self-rule. “One should not expect our government to impose these benchmarks on a sovereign government,” Bush pleaded. “You’d expect us to work closely with that government to come up with a way forward that the government feels comfortable with.”
Feels comfortable with?
Worst of all, lacking positive results, Bush has cowed critics of the occupation into silence by accusing them of undermining the “war on terror.” He ignores the fact that civil war, not anti-American terrorism, has become the chief cause of violence in Iraq. If you vote against an appropriations bill, you’re betraying our troops. If you call for a withdrawal timetable, you’re trying to “cut and run.” In his campaign speeches against Democrats this week, Bush has charged that withdrawal would “dishonor the sacrifice of the men and women who have worn our uniform.”
The most cynical welfare-state political strategist would be proud. Never mind whether the program is working or backfiring. Never mind whether it comports with the human tendency to take responsibility only when you have to. Bush will continue to spend blood and money on his program, and to portray its critics as cowards, until somebody has the courage to stop him.