Basketball and the True Believer, by C. E. Chaffin

Tracy McGrady, a seven-time NBA All Star, just experienced his fifth first-round loss in the NBA playoffs, although the Rockets took it to seven games. Before the series he said, "This is on me. It’s on me to lead my team to victory."

Overall he played well, but Utah had a better team, especially as their big men were more mobile than that Great Wall of China, Yao Ming. When the series was over, wiping a tear from his eye, McGrady admitted his failure and responsibility, though he was his team’s most effective player. But in his view he could have done better, thus he accepted blame for the loss. There’s a manly approach to responsibility and failure, even if it a bit harsh.

Now imagine George Bush, "The Decider," saying something like Tracy McGrady: “I decided to go to war with Iraq. It was one of my early policy aims and 9/11 only steeled my resolve to do it. Yes, I had advisers who favored it, but I didn't have to take their advice. I take responsibility for our failure there, and I'm going to do everything I can to get our troops back home. We’ve lost and it’s on me." Yes, imagine.

One of the great things about sports, for all the criticism of salaries and steroids, is that athletes can tell the simple truth about success and failure. They can sometimes even speak about it in the first person, like McGrady. For Bush it’s mainly “we” when he speaks about the war, and not the magisterial “we” of the Queen, but the “we” that implies a country united. Spin, spin, spin.

Bush rails against violence of fanatics, but what is he? His invasion of Iraq has resulted in more violence than if we had not invaded. (Here I say “we” because Congress and the American people initially supported the war, though we now know, recently confirmed by the former head of the CIA, that intelligence was manipulated for political purposes.)

Although it is painfully obvious that the Iraqis are worse off now than under Saddam, Bush remains a true believer in his cause. I don't think he's mad; I don't think he's evil; I don't think he's merely misguided; I think he actually believes in what he's doing and expects history to justify his course. This qualifies him as a fanatic, since one definition of a fanatic is someone who continues to believe in and act upon an ideal when all facts point to the contrary. How have suicide bombers advanced the Palestinian cause? How has the invasion of Iraq made the world safer? Facts don’t matter to fanatics.

Bush believes that democracy is the best defense against terrorism, and in this he may be right. But history teaches us that you can't impose democracy on a backwards society. Such a society must first go through a period of dictatorship, to guarantee order so material progress can be made for its citizens, what Ataturk did for Turkey and Deng Xiaoping did for China.

David Halberstam’s recent death reminds us of the irony of his book, The Best and the Brightest, which exposed a cadre of intelligent, accomplished men whose hubris—a failure to grasp both history and the limits of American power— steered us into the (as yet) still greater quagmire of Viet Nam.

Unlike Tracy McGrady, Bush doesn’t believe he’s lost the playoffs. As president all he has to do is use his executive power to extend the series. Convinced his principles are right, reality doesn’t concern him. “Right makes might” is a laughable approach to foreign policy—unless the leader of the free world tries to make a Sunday School lesson out of it. 36,000 more troops are scheduled to be sent to Iraq. Does this mean the first troop “surge” failed? No, the series has just been extended. And comedy has become tragedy.


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