If the definition of political courage is making big calls crisply and effectively, despite obvious risks and unknowable consequences, then it seems to me that President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson qualify right now. They’ve made calls recently that go beyond the usual mush of compromise and calculation and might even merit being called bold.
Biden braved the Blob and got out of Afghanistan. We will debate how he did so, and with what consequences, for quite some time. But he still did it. Obama tried and failed. Trump made a big song and dance and signed a surrender deal. But Biden actually got us out.
This wasn’t inevitable. The defense and foreign policy establishments had plenty of their usual arguments — threats of terror attacks, pabulum about recent “progress,” the avoidance of humiliation — to slow-walk presidents into inaction, but they didn’t succeed this time. Biden had sufficient experience to see through their bluff, and the fortitude to fight back when they raged against the withdrawal. Yes, it was horribly messy; tragic in the ways wars always are. But it had that mystical quality of an actual decision: doneness.
American presidencies do not run on policy — they run on magic.
They run on the superstitious (and, indeed, idolatrous) belief that there is something magical about the person of the president, that he enjoys the powers of at least a demigod, and that the nation’s prosperity and security are mystically connected with his person and his ritual performances in the democratic agon. That is how the 9/11 attacks came to be, in a very strange but true sense, about George W. Bush. They became something more than an event.
When the nation is insulted or attacked, then the president must respond in some symbolically satisfying way or risk losing the Mandate of Heaven.
…After the airport attack — the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a decade — President Biden was politically compelled to do something, lest his Big Man Mojo be seen to wane and the Mandate of Heaven slip from his quavering grasp. That compulsion surely was felt all the way down the chain of command. And it resulted in taking the first opportunity to make a theatrical show of force — in this case, against a car with seven children in it.
…The prevalence of symbolism over all else means that presidents are compelled to act — even when the action is pointless or destructive. Sometimes, that is an ill-considered tariff or a ridiculous promise about Mexico paying us to build a border wall. Sometimes, it is showing up at a disaster scene as though the presidential presence brought with it mystical healing powers rather than resource-consuming distraction. Sometimes, it is the mystical laying of presidential hands upon a Skutnik during the State of the Union address.
Sometimes, it’s a carload of kids being burnt on the altar of muscular executive action.
As I’ve said, Sullivan is excellent sometimes, but at other times, like here, he makes me gasp in disbelief that anyone could proudly hit “publish” on something so eye-wateringly stupid. “Boldness” divorced from skill and practical results is nothing to be proud of, certainly not a freestanding virtue. Like a typical intellectual, Sullivan has once again allowed himself to be awed by empty symbolism. This isn’t surprising. Symbolism requires critics and interpreters to make the counterintuitive seem plausible, a job perfectly suited for those like him. The plain truth of a halfway-senile executive and a humiliated superpower lashing out in weakness to disastrous effect is evident to anyone who isn’t lost in clouds of abstraction. Williamson is working on a new book about the very theme he addresses here, our idolatrous worship of the presidency. One can only hope that the ostensibly-conservative Sullivan reads it and learns something. But who am I kidding? He’ll probably just find himself fascinated by the next book by some idiot Marxist who wants to abolish the whole idea of meritocracy and higher learning.