Those who may share U.S. President George Bush’s anguish in these recurrent winters of our discontent are not many.
It is easy to describe Bush as a beleaguered president in a war that a majority of Americans now question as the November mid-term election demonstrated. They want an end to the war in Iraq without having to admit defeat.
The agony of Bush is compounded by his knowledge of the enemy.
That and the constraints placed, in a free society within the context of our integrated world, on his office and its ability to wage the sort of war necessary to defeat the enemy.
U.S. presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt and Truman were also reviled in their times and during their respective winters of discontent.
But their circumstances in defeating the enemies of freedom were much different, and less onerous than those Bush has to contend with.
The Confederates were slave-holders, bent on destroying the American Union, rather than give freedom to their slaves.
Despite doubts about Lincoln during the worst months of the long Civil War, the enemy was clearly visible and victory was precisely defined as saving the Union and crushing the Confederacy.
Similarly, Roosevelt and Truman fought the fascist and militarist powers of Germany and Japan who were on a rampage across the world.
Even in the darkest moments of World War II their political opponents could not, dared not, publicly doubt the objective of securing the unconditional surrender of these enemies.
But the enemy Bush is contending with—while a majority of Americans and America’s allies pretend it doesn’t exist—is not merely an alliance of states or a mix of ideologies or a cause that the United States must fight and defeat.
The current enemy is the outcrop of a broken civilization of the past, spewing forth from its rotting bowels an endless horde of militants and fellow-travellers, carrying with them the most atavistic ideas about faith and politics that modern civilization, which Bush represents, hesitates to name for what it is.
We have to go back to the declining years of the Roman Empire to find a parallel with our times. Rome had spread civilization far and wide around the Mediterranean basin, but over time it became besieged by barbarians from outside its frontiers and then from within.
Civilization is more supple, hence fragile, than the iron and steel from which it is built. It might be likened to a garden, delicately laid out and carefully maintained.
When ignored or unattended, weeds destroy what human artifice builds with much labour.
Over time, people take their civilization for granted, become careless and unwilling to bear the burden of protecting it. Then its defences are breached, as Rome was, and the city is overrun by those who envy or loathe civilization, bringing ruin in their wake.
Radical Islamism and Islamist terrorism have already made a wasteland of the greater Middle East. Where once a great Islamic civilization prevailed, now, in its place, there so often thrives a culture of bigotry and tribal violence, with their effects spreading outwards across land and sea.
Rome did not know how to defeat the barbarians before they overran her. Those who endlessly fault Bush for the shape of the world visible since 9/11, will one day cry a river if he and his successors fail to save civilization from its present-day enemies.
Michael Novak, a Catholic theologian and philosopher, named Bush “the bravest president” for staying firm in confronting the contemporary barbarians, despite the venom of his peers.
In the dark winter nights, some of us will have prayers for Bush, knowing the difference between what he represents and those who would prey upon civilization.