West Wing Story: The President Gets 'Lofty'

Lofty. It's not the adjective that first comes to mind when describing George W. Bush. Fiesty, maybe, even goofy, but not lofty. Until today.c "President Bush," a Czech reporter said during a press conference here with outgoing President Vaclav Havel in Prague this morning, "you have said some lofty words here." Bush looked confused; he couldn't quite understand--or perhaps believe--the translation. "I said some what?" he asked. "Lofty words," the reporter said again. "No one has ever accused me of being a poet before, but thank you," Bush said amid chuckles.

Bush likes to play the bumbling yokel. Sometimes it's not an act. (See Bush on the "Grecians.") But he has spent much of his political career intentionally lowering expectations. That's why it may come as a surprise that many of the ideas he is presenting here at the NATO summit this week are indeed quite lofty. In fact, for a man not known for his worldly ways, Bush's entire foreign policy agenda has proven to be remarkably ambitious.

Bush sees regime change in Iraq, for example, as just the first step toward the eventual democratizing of the Arab world. Today, Bush went the furthest yet in threatening Saddam Hussein with war if he does not come clean. "Should he again deny that this arsenal exists, he will have entered his final stage with a lie. And deception this time will not be tolerated. Delay and defiance will invite the severest of consequences," Bush said at the Prague Atlantic Student Summit Wednesday afternoon. Even Havel, the eminent playwright and thinker, said, "If ... the need to use force does arise, I believe that NATO should give honest and speedy consideration to its engagement as an alliance."

What critics see as reckless warmongering, believers see as Bush II's New World Order. Just take a look at "The National Security Strategy," which, among other things, lays out a new policy of preemptive strikes (or "anticipatory self-defense" as the White House likes to call it.) "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed," Bush wrote in the foreward of the document released in September. In a stroke, he radically redefined U.S. geopolitics.

That same month, he challenged the United Nations to prove its relevance by acting on Iraq. Now, he is challenging NATO to do the same. "In order for NATO to be relevant as we go into the future, the military capacities of NATO must be altered to meet the true threats we face," Bush said today. "NATO must transition from an organization that was formed to meet the threats from a Warsaw Pact to a military organization ... structured to meet the threats from global terrorists."

Bush also called on a newly configured NATO to form a "coalition of the willing" against Iraq. Poetic though not entirely original. And he defined a role for NATO in the war on terrorism in general--if not a military one, than one according to each country's "niche." In the case of Bulgaria and Romania--two of the seven countries the alliance will add tomorrow--they are located near the strategic Black Sea. Bush visits Romania and Lithuania this weekend after a half-day stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday.

The United States is also pushing NATO to develop its own military capacity. The now 26 members will discuss forming a rapid-response force during the meeting tomorrow. But nothing will be ready any time soon. In reality, despite promises by many NATO countries, their defense spending has been paltry. The United States defense budget surpasses all our NATO allies military spending combined. Is it any wonder that the skies above Prague are being patrolled by American F-16s this week?

So if there is no real military role for NATO in the war on terror, what can the alliance contribute? "They can contribute their love for freedom," Bush said. Freedom has become the ultimate Bush buzzword. Lately, the White House has been casting war in Iraq in terms of "liberation" of the Iraqi people. Bush sees the war on terror in "lofty" terms. He believes he is fighting the next cold war and that many of the Eastern European nations he is so eager to see join NATO also understand the war on terror in cold war terms.

That's how he explained it to European print reporters in a recent roundtable interview. He recalled a visit with the prime minister of Estonia (one of the new NATO members) at the White House. As Bush started to explain his rationale on Iraq, the prime minister stopped him. Said Bush: "He said, you don't need to talk to me ... about Iraq. He said, our country has watched democracies go soft in the face of totalitarianism, and we lived in slavery for 50 years."

As Bush waxed poetic about notions of freedom and the obligations of his generation, one of the reporter's tape recorders clicked off. And then the feisty, goofy side of Bush was on display yet again. "We had a click here, in case anybody is interested," Bush told them. No one said anything, perhaps stunned that the leader of the free world would concern himself with something so trivial. "This one right here. Poor planning?" he teased them. Still, no one claimed it. "Nobody claims it? Shouldn't have said poor planning. This is nobody's?" he persisted. Finally a reporter fessed up but still seemed reluctant to flip the depleted tape over. "If you've got to, turn it over." And he was just starting to sound "lofty."