Last week, President Bush remarked how horrified he was at a particular recent car bombing in Iraq. The driver had brought two children along in the back seat to make it easier for him to penetrate security. He then fled, leaving the children to die when the car exploded.
In view of this atrocity, Bush asserted his “resolve to help free Iraq from a society in which people can do that to children.” He then offered his military audience a new definition of the situation in Iraq: “It’s not a civil war, it is pure evil. And I believe that we have an obligation to protect ourselves from that evil."
In equating Iraqi society with pure evil, Bush has taken a critical step towards a classic Manichaean confrontation in the Middle East. He ardently wants both to "free Iraq" from its evil society, and to "protect ourselves" from it as well. In order to distract us from his irrational claim, Bush points to the future: "the hard work we’re doing today is laying the foundation of peace for generations to come," he told his listeners.
One must take these remarks seriously. They appear on the White House website, so they were not part of an ill-considered off-the-cuff remark; they represent the essence of the president’s sober analysis of the situation in Iraq. As such, they describe an approach so profoundly in error that it can only reap more disaster.
Pope Benedict XVI made a much more realistic (and less self-serving) observation on the situation in Iraq during Easter Sunday in his annual "Urbi et Orbi" Easter Address. ”How many wounds, how much suffering there is in the world,” he told the pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square. In his review of the perilous condition of the world, he observed, "nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."
Benedict is a charitable realist. He does not condemn Iraqi society, as Bush does — he actually believes that "all men (including Iraqis) are created equal." No society is "pure evil" — in fact, as Augustine patiently explained in the City of God, there is no such thing. The Pontiff condemns the concrete, specific evil of the "continual slaughter," wrought not by Iraqi society, but by the numerous armed military and militia factions that are at war there, including the United States forces under Bush’s command. For Pope Benedict, it is the continual slaughter in Iraq — contributed to and perhaps exacerbated by the American presence there — that is evil. In contrast, the majority of Iraqi society is, in fact, acting pretty sensibly, rather than maliciously, "as the civil population flees."
Benedict has put his finger on the crux of Bush’s flawed and simplistic gnosticism. Iraqi society is not pure evil. Nor is America — which Bush sees personified in himself as the "Decider" — pure good. The claim might serve a useful propaganda purpose, but it is dangerous if taken seriously.
And Bush evidently takes himself, and his flawed rhetoric, all too seriously. He cannot brook any criticism. According to his vice-president, the new Congress, reflecting the desire of the majority of Americans to get out of Iraq, is "validating the terrorists" and "undermining our troops." The message to Congress? "Be careful if you criticize the pure goodness of Bush: you will be slimed — major league, big time."
In the leftist dialectic of Bush, contradictions abound. For instance, if one takes him at his word, one could observe that his condemnation of "a society in which people can do that to children" could easily be applied with equal force to his adopted home state of Texas, where dozens of innocent children were killed at Waco by government forces. It is only Bush’s selective irrationality that allows him to condemn Iraq’s society as "pure evil," but not that of Texas. He is totally immersed in pompous self-delusion.
But wait, there’s more. Consider the Wilsonian millennialism in Bush’s address, regarding not only his own goodness, but the magnificent future consequences that he promises that will flow from what the Pope has called a slaughter: "the hard work we’re doing today is laying the foundation of peace for generations to come," Bush told the assembled soldiers.
There are admittedly a few million dispensationalist evangelicals in America who really do believe that Bush’s war is the harbinger of the Apocalypse, which will, they expect, bring about the return of the Prince of Peace, who will then reign with them in peace for a thousand years. In like manner, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad evidently clings to a similar apocalyptic vision, with the expectation of a worldwide conflagration from which the "Twelfth Imam" will emerge to bring about a peace that will last "for generations to come."
And these contemporary adversaries are not alone. After all, Karl Marx taught the modern world that "all hitherto existing society" was hurtling towards the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," after which Truly Socialist Man would emerge and universal peace would permanently replace the violence that had eternally accompanied the class struggle. The point is, all of these visions of the magical disappearance of tensions that will come about when "pure good" triumphs over "pure evil" are ideologically leftist, inescapably flawed, and profoundly dangerous when embraced by people in power.
Manichaeism — the self-anointing of "us" as good and "them" as evil — is an ancient and consistently disastrous error that has propounded the worst of modern ideological horrors — witness Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. The Western Christian tradition, embraced as strongly by our Founders as it is in spirit and in practice renounced and rejected by President Bush, will have none of it.
Thirty months ago, I explained the ideological ingredients of the Manichaean temptation, and how easy Bush has found it to succumb to its siren song. It comprises, I explained, "powerful intellectual, social, and even religious traditions that can compel the believing Christian to wander from the path of righteousness, all the while snug in the belief that it’s God, and not the devil, who is leading him there."
As Pope Benedict sadly observed, the slaughter in Iraq continues. But the Manichaean dialectic of Ahmadinejad and Marx requires that things must get even worse — much worse — so that "pure good" can triumph with finality over "pure evil," and bring "peace for generations to come." If Bush, or any other American president, continues to embrace the Manichaean ideology, one thing is certain: things will indeed get worse.