Former National Security Council staffer Will Inboden, a contributing editor to this journal, has an important critique of historian Jean Edward Smith’s hostile new biography of George W. Bush. Smith claims Bush tried to talk French President Jacques Chirac into the Iraq War by citing biblical prophecy.
Here’s Inboden in Foreign Policy:
According to Smith, in a January 2003 phone call between Bush and Frech President Jacques Chirac, during which Bush urged the French president to support a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, Bush allegedly told his counterpart, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins” (339). Smith then goes on at some length describing the obscure Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Gog and Magog (complex passages about which biblical scholars differ upon the meanings) and asserts, “biblical writings were determining Bush’s decision about war in the Middle East.” Moreover, in Smith’s account, this alleged presidential application of biblical prophecies to Iraq had a tremendous consequence in that it caused Chirac to decide to oppose the war: “Bush’s religious certitude and his invocation of Gog and Magog scuttled the possibility of French support for military action”
The conversation is utterly and completely false. Bush never said these words to Chirac or anything of the sort to any other world leader. I have checked with multiple senior people with firsthand knowledge of the call Bush had with Chirac, and all confirmed that Bush never said anything remotely resembling those words.
No wonder Smith’s footnote for this passage only references an unreliable book by a partisan journalist, and that book in turn relates the Chirac anecdote without any sourcing whatsoever. The Chirac story has reverberated in the media for years, but Smith seems to be among the first serious (or credulous?) scholar to repeat it in print and treat it as fact. Peddling internet fabrications as facts and basing a significant thesis (Bush as war-crazed religious zealot) on those fabrications is scholarly malpractice.
That Smith never did the research necessary to verify this scurrilous story bespeaks a larger interpretive failure on his part. Anyone who knows Bush, or even knows anything about him, on hearing the Gog and Magog story would immediately think, “That just doesn’t sound at all like Bush.” Yes, he is a man who speaks openly about his faith, but that is hardly unusual for an American president – Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Eisenhower, and many other presidents did so as well. But Bush never focused on or even spoke about obscure and contested biblical prophecies, or try to relate them to current events, let alone use them as a basis for momentous national security decisions. Here is the deeper tragedy of Smith’s book. Having spent many hours reading secondary sources on Bush, Smith never developed enough of a familiarity with the man to intuit that the Chirac story did not ring true. Rather, it seems that Smith’s partisan contempt for Bush so distorted his perceptions that he became willing to believe even the most outlandish fabrications about Bush — as long as they were negative and conformed to Smith’s biases.
In Fall 2013 I met Smith when he spoke at a Winston Churchill conference in Washington, DC. When I asked him about his next book, he said it was a Bush biography and, he added slyly, it would not be favorable. No doubt.
Here’s a direct account from Smith’s new book about the purported Bush-Chirac exchange:
After several more exchanges, Bush changed course. “Jacques,” he said, “you and I share a common faith. You’re Roman Catholic, I’m Methodist, but we are both Christians committed to the teachings of the Bible. We share one common Lord.”
Chirac did not reply, and the president continued. “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophesies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.”
Chirac had no idea what Bush was talking about. Gog and Magog are Old Testament images that evangelicals employ as the personification of evil in an apocalyptic conflict in the time of the Messiah. In the New Testament’s Book of Revelation the names Gog and Magog are applied to the evil forces that will join Satan in the great struggle at the end of times. According to that rendition, God will send fire from heaven to destroy them and then preside over the last judgment. The Book of Revelation is the favorite book in the Bible for many evangelicals, and is often regarded even more highly than the gospels themselves. For George W. Bush, it was the epicenter of the universe.
When Chirac’s staff eventually untangled the Gog and Magog reference, it confirmed the French president’s worst fears. Biblical writings were determining Bush’s decision about war in the Middle East. Weapons inspections would never be sufficient if the president believed a war with Iraq was God’s will. For Chirac the answer was clear. France was not going to fight a war based on George Bush’s interpretation of the Bible. Bush’s religious certitude and his invocation of Gog and Magog scuttled the possibility of French support for military action.
This imagined exchange claimed by Smith between Bush and Chirac is indeed fantastic. As Inboden noted, Bush was not known to talk about the End Times, much less to a nominally Catholic French president not renowned for piety or familiarity with Anglo-Saxon Protestant folk beliefs about biblical prophecy. Would Chirac even know what a Methodist is? And I’m not personally familiar with any major evangelical schools of thought that saw the Iraq War through this kind of prophetic prism. It is instead a caricature assumed by persons, including secular historians and their editors, who know very little about supposedly crazy American evangelicals, and choose to project the worst.
In the same vein, Ronald Reagan was said by his feverish and frightened critics to believe that Gog and Magog in the Bible referred to the Soviet Union. These critics surmised 35 years ago that Reagan might precipitate a nuclear war because of his supposed interpretation of biblical prophecy. Instead, Reagan concluded sweeping arms control agreements and effectively negotiated a peaceful end to the Cold War.
Are Americans influenced by evangelical belief actually motivated to work for peace whenever possible? That possibility is rarely considered by some critics who with relish prefer to misconstrue and fear popular American religiosity.