Lately, some Republicans have been saying with a smirk that pretty soon people are going to start missing George W. Bush. They mean that will happen because of the socialist nightmare Barack Obama has turned America into, of course. But we may start missing Bush for quite the opposite reason: because today's Republicans are making him look better and better.
Goodness knows, I figured I'd be the last person to be throwing compliments at W. But as this letter to Talking Points Memo reminds us, Bush actually went out of his way to repeat that America was not at war with Islam as a whole, only with certain radical elements engaged in terrorism. It seemed like the most obvious thing in the world -- first, because it's plainly true, and second, because the idea that America is at war with Islam is exactly what al-Qaeda wants people to believe. It's central to their recruiting efforts.
Right after September 11, Bush got criticized for calling the fight against terrorism a "crusade." It was an off-the-cuff remark, and it didn't demonstrate ill will so much as ignorance. Al-Qaeda seized on it, of course, saying it showed America's true intentions. But once someone explained to Bush what the implications of the word were, he didn't use it again. And though a lot of people were unsettled by Bush's open religiosity, he was actually fairly careful to be ecumenical in his statements about religion, making clear that all religions were welcome in America. And of course, there was his profound statement in December 2001, "I can't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah." Still the greatest Bush quote of all time.
But today, the question of whether an Islamic cultural center will be built in Lower Manhattan has brought out a whole bunch of ugliness from the right. Some of it isn't surprising -- of course there are conservative bloggers who are stone-cold bigots. But you might think that prominent politicians, some of whom would like to be president, would demonstrate at least the barest bit of sense on this issue.
Alas, you'd be wrong. We get Newt Gingrich saying, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." Of course, America's standards of religious freedom and diversity should mirror those of a fundamentalist theocracy! We get Sarah Palin taking up this, ahem, crusade as well. Current 2012 GOP front-runner Mitt Romney has a rather long history of this sort of thing, defining America's enemy as "radical jihad" and saying that he wouldn't appoint Muslims to his Cabinet.
Back in 2004, I argued that al-Qaeda's fortunes would be much enhanced by having George Bush re-elected, not only for the policies he pursued but for the symbolism he offered them. Who would have thought Bush would start looking moderate and reasonable?
-- Paul Waldman