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Bush and Dostoevsky

What can a classic novel by Dostoevsky reveal about George W. Bush's motifs in attacking Iraq?

March 20, 2003

What can a classic novel by Dostoevsky reveal about George W. Bush's motifs in attacking Iraq?

Over the course of his political career, George W. Bush has learned that his gambling instinct has paid off handsomely. After all, this wayward scion of a brilliantly successful political family was never expected to become U.S. President.

The man who was groomed to go all the way by their father, George Bush, Sr., was his brother Jeb Bush, for now just the Governor of Florida.

Yet, George W. confounded his family’s best-laid plans. He unexpectedly went for it in the 2000 race — pitting his candidacy against Al Gore, a sitting Vice President — and won.

Once in the White House, he looked very much like a one-term president. Not only did he have fewer popular votes than Al Gore, but he also presided over the collapse of the stock market — as well as the rapid deterioration of the U.S. economy.

In this environment, Mr. Bush suddenly made a huge gamble. In January 2000 during his party’s presidential primaries, he proposed a massive package of tax cuts — which was, moreover, heavily skewed toward the rich.

It would seem that such a radical measure had no chance of getting through a Congress which, at that time, was controlled at least in part by the Democrats.

But incredibly, the measure passed soon after Mr. Bush took office. Even more mind-boggling, while the U.S. federal deficit is rocketing out of control, U.S. voters do not seem to blame the fiscal deterioration on the President's tax cuts.

Similarly, on the domestic political agenda — in areas such as environmental protection and energy policy — Mr. Bush has made several equally bold, yet less successful moves.

A lot of his moves were — and are — driven by ideological considerations. They promote his conservative political agenda. But time and again, the gambling maneuvers worked — and his opponents were spell-bound by his daring.

It should be recalled that in the novel “The Gambler” by the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, the protagonist, Alexei, also starts gambling for a higher reason. Alexei is a teacher employed by a Russian family in Switzerland. He is in love with his employer's stepdaughter, Polina.

The first time Alexei goes to the casino, he is driven by a generous impulse — to win the money that Polina needs. But he gets irrevocably hooked on the roulette wheel — so much so that even Polina's love is powerless to rescue him from his addiction.

It is often said that The Gambler described a particular Russian predilection for gambling. Against that backdrop, one wonders whether George W. Bush has a Russian soul. Maybe this even explains why Mr. Bush was so confident that when he looked Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye, he knew that he would be an honest partner.

Be that as it may, President Bush's policy vis à vis Saddam Hussein is one large, global-sized bet. Except, rather than playing the roulette, Mr. Bush seems to prefer poker.

Indeed, he took a major gamble a year ago that Saddam Hussein would blink when faced with its apparent determination to use U.S. military might to unseat him.

The White House also gambled that America's European allies would fall into line — even if the United States went ahead with war preparations without first getting their consent.

But, now that Iraq did not blink, the stakes are getting even higher. This time, the administration gambles that the Iraqi Armed Forces will be defeated with relative ease — and that there will be little damage to the oil-producing infrastructure in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Bush is also betting that the fall of Saddam won't reverberate in any negative fashion throughout the Middle East. Any real upheaval might topple unappealing, yet stable regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere.

Like any gambler, Mr. Bush has painted himself into a corner. Saddam has refused to buckle under — leaving the United States no choice but to fight. Otherwise, its credibility on the international arena would be damaged severely.

Since Mr. Bush by instinct is a gambling man — and an extremely lucky one so far — it is not surprise that he chose to proceed to fight right now. He made the decision even though it may well mean bearing the financial burdens of fighting and rebuilding Iraq near single-handedly.

One can only hope that North Korea — headed by full-blown gambler, Kim Jong Il — will not become emboldened enough to double the ante by choosing to push Mr. Bush around with the opening of a second front.

The really scary thought in all this is the following: Initially, the war against Iraq was meant to fit into the worldwide war on terrorism. As time went by, the connection with the hunt for those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 — never too strong to begin with — disappeared.

That raises an uncomfortable thought for Russians — as well as other who are familiar with Dostoevsky’s novel: Could it be that Mr. Bush — just like Dostoevsky's protagonist Alexei — is now gambling for the sake of gambling? Nobody can hope that this is on the agenda.