Conquering By Dividing

Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, addresses an audience of Republican supporters in Lake Geneva, Wis., in this April 9, 2005, file photo.
This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
When a country is locked in a protracted struggle with a vicious foe, its political leaders normally seek to emphasize the depth of their nation's commitment to the cause. Winston Churchill set the gold standard for this brand of rhetoric with his famous proclamation, "[w]e shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle."

The point was, in part, to galvanize the British people. Perhaps more importantly, it was designed to send a message to the world that England's commitment to fighting was credible and not just one of those policy choices that democracies make and unmake as the polls twist around or personnel is shuffled this way or that. It wasn't Churchill who was committed to fighting, but the British Empire and its inhabitants.

Karl Rove, top adviser to the president of the United States, chose in his recent remarks to the New York Conservative Party to take the opposite tack of minimizing America's commitment to fighting the forces of global jihad. As he tells it, support for the cause is inextricably bound up with support for his boss. Perhaps the 51 percent or so of the population that voted for George W. Bush last November wants to fight terrorism. Perhaps it's only the 40-something percent that approves of him at the moment. Either way, the broad picture painted is clear: Support for combating al Qaeda is narrow and weak, the country is deeply divided on the issue, and the continuation of the struggle continually in doubt, hanging in the balance.

Many on the left see this as a gaffe, an opportunity for liberals to express outrage at Rove's rhetorical excess and maybe even take a scalp in return for the humiliating and unwarranted climb-down recently forced on Senator Dick Durbin for his utterly unobjectionable observation that torture and abuse of detainees is the sort of thing we associate with totalitarian dictatorships rather than the United States of America.

Rove is smarter than that. His remarks, deliberately designed to provoke, paint liberals into an awkward corner. We must not protest loudly that, no, we, too, supported the president when he took the country to war in Afghanistan. The ball is thus tossed back into the right wing's corner to pass judgment on where are the bounds of acceptable dissent from the political program governing the country.