Casualties of Faith

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

October 22, 2004

WASHINGTON

When I was little, I was very good at leaps of faith.

A nun would tape up a picture of a snow-covered mountain peak on the blackboard and say that the first child to discern the face of Christ in the melting snow was the holiest. I was soon smugly showing the rest of the class the "miraculous" outline of that soulful, bearded face.

But I never thought I'd see the day when leaps of faith would be national policy, when the fortunes of America hung on the possibility of a miracle.

What does it tell you about a president that his grounds for war are so weak that the only way he can justify it is by believing God wants it? Or that his only Iraq policy now - as our troops fight a vicious insurgency and the dream of a stable democracy falls apart - is a belief in miracles?

Miracles make the incurious even more incurious. People who live by religious certainties don't have to waste time with recalcitrant facts or moral doubts. They do not need to torture themselves, for example, about dispatching American kids into a sand trap with ghostly enemies and without the proper backup, armor, expectations or cultural training.

Any president relying more on facts than faith could have seen that his troops would be sitting ducks: Donald Rumsfeld's experiment - sending in a light, agile force (more a Vin Diesel vehicle than a smart plan for Iraq) - was in direct conflict with the overwhelming force needed to attempt the neocons' grandiose scheme to turn Iraq into a model democracy.

J.F.K. had to fight the anti-papist expectation that his Oval Office would take orders from heaven. For W., it's a selling point. Some right-wing Catholics want John Kerry excommunicated, while evangelicals call the president a messenger of God. "God's blessing is on him," the TV evangelist Pat Robertson says, adding, "It's the blessing of heaven on the emperor."

Mr. Bush has shown all the evangelical voters who didn't like his daddy that he gets, as Mr. Robertson puts it, "his direction from the Lord."

When Paula Zahn asked the televangelist Tuesday whether Mr. Bush, as a Christian, should admit his mistakes, Mr. Robertson said he'd warned a self-satisfied Bush about Iraq: "The Lord told me it was going to be (a) a disaster, and (b) messy."

Mr. Robertson said, "He was the most self-assured man I ever met." Paraphrasing Mark Twain, he said Mr. Bush was "like a contented Christian with four aces. He was just sitting there, like, I'm on top of the world, and I warned him about this war. ... And I was trying to say, Mr. President, you better prepare the American people for casualties. 'Oh, no, we're not going to have any casualties.' "

W., it seems, really believes he's the one. President Neo. (And his advisers are disciples. That's why Condi Rice so willingly puts aside her national security duties to spread the Bush gospel in swing states, and why Karen Hughes raced to impugn Mr. Robertson's veracity after he described his chilling encounter with W.)

W.'s willful blindness comes from mistakenly assuming that his desires are God's, as if he knows where God stands on everything from democracy in Iraq to capital-gains tax cuts.

As Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural Address about the Civil War, one can't speak for God: "The Almighty has His own purposes."

Mr. Bush didn't just ignore Mr. Robertson's warning - he ignored his own intelligence experts, who warned before the war that an invasion of Iraq would spur more support for political Islam and trigger violent conflict, including an insurgency that would drive Baathists and terrorists together in a toxic combination.

As Michael Gordon wrote in his Times series this week on blind spots in the strategy to secure Iraq, the Bush crew engaged in an astonishing series of delusions: assuming they could begin a withdrawal of troops 60 days after taking Baghdad; enabling the insurgency to flourish; abolishing the Iraqi military and putting American lives at risk; misreading the obvious reaction to an American occupation of a Muslim country.

C.I.A. officials were so clueless they wanted to sneak hundreds of small American flags into Iraq before the war started so grateful Iraqis could wave them at their liberators. The agency planned to film that and triumphantly beam it to the Arab world.

The president has this strange notion that his belief in God means detailed and perfect knowledge of everything that God wants. He may wish to keep his head stuck in the Iraqi sand, but he may discover that the Almighty has His own purposes.