Big leaders can make even small countries look big, as Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair have reminded us often in recent weeks. But it is surely rare that a small leader makes even the greatest power look small. President George Bush accomplished that dubious feat in his televised address to the American people on Monday night.
Exile or war, he threatened the Iraqi regime: you have 48 hours to decide. But neither the staging of the President's address nor his manner matched those words. Rather than sitting behind his Oval Office desk, Mr Bush had chosen to stand at a lectern, between two flags. He was visually diminished by the upright comparisons. He looked pale (what had the make-up and lighting people been doing?) and diffident. His brow permanently furrowed, his eyes squinting, he fluffed lines. He could not settle on a constant pronunciation of even his chief adversary (Iraq or Eye-rahq, or Eye-rakk). Was this the sole superpower's Commander? In Chief?
Fluency in speech has never been George Bush's forte. He lacks the gift of that natural communicator, Bill Clinton; unhoned by parliamentary debate, his oratorical skills are untrained. Beside the polished Mr Blair, he often seems untutored and crass. No one has ever required him to be Cicero. But on Monday, at what could prove to be a turning point in his presidency, Mr Bush was a small man ordering a scared and insecure country into war.
Without direct allusions to the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, his whole speech was none the less suffused with that trauma. "The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this terrorist threat," he complained, "but we will do everything to defeat it."
The risk of new and imminent 11 September-type terrorist attacks loomed large. "We choose to meet that threat now," he said, "where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities." And he warned: "Should enemies strike our country, they would be attempting to shift our attention with panic and weaken our morale with fear." He went on, somewhat lamely retaining the conditional: "In this, they would fail."
Increasingly in recent utterances, Mr Bush has confused the specific threat that may be presented by Iraq and the general, post-11 September threat of terrorism. According to one poll, upwards of 40 per cent of Americans now believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the hijacked planes that struck the World Trade towers and the Pentagon. Mr Bush now shares that confusion, or it suits his purpose to reinforce it.
Either way, the image of Saddam Hussein that he projects is that of an author of terrorism and a patron of al-Qa'ida, even though no one has yet produced any evidence of a link between the presumed perpetrators of the 11 September atrocities and Iraq. Nevertheless, Mr Bush insisted: "The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed." This was just one of many statements that were highly debatable, if not downright wrong.
From the notion that ridding the world of the Iraqi leader will reduce the universal terrorist threat to the presumption of a direct link between Saddam and al-Qa'ida, Mr Bush came across as inhabiting the nightmare world of a paranoiac who sees mortal danger around every corner. Wherever you look, he implied, there are threats to America and Americans.
Now and again, the President adds almost, it seems, as an afterthought that others might be threatened. At some indefinite time in the future, he worried, "the terrorists could fulfil their stated ambitions and kill thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of innocent people in our country or any other". The "terrorists" have it in not just for Americans, but for "our friends".
For President Bush, Saddam Hussein appears as a cartoon tyrant in a brightly colored cartoon world, in which morality remains sharply black and white. There is no crime of which the Iraqi leader is not already judged guilty, no means to which he would not resort. The Iraqi regime, he insists, "has a deep hatred of America and our friends"; it continues to possess "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised"; if Saddam tries to cling to power, "he will remain a deadly foe to the end". "Thugs and killers" is how Mr Bush describes Saddam and his cronies.
Obliquely, but with calculated cynicism, the American President conjured up images of the Nazi Third Reich and the Nuremberg trials. In a direct appeal to Iraq's military to surrender or defect, the American President urged: "If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life... in any conflict, your fate will depend on your actions... War crimes will be prosecuted, war criminals will be punished and it will be no defense to say 'I was just following orders'."
In this Bush world, Saddam Hussein's ultimate ambition is not hanging on to power by nefarious means in a small, corrupt and clan-ridden dictatorship, but nothing less than world domination. He and Iraq are presented as posing a direct threat to the United States and the American people. In desperation, Mr Bush said, Saddam Hussein "and terrorist groups" may try to conduct terrorist operations "against the American people and our friends".
At times, the American President came across as a scared suburban parent, terrified of the unknown, averse to all risk and fixed on keeping his household and his neighborhood"safe". "Instead of drifting along toward tragedy, we will set a course toward safety." And before "the day of horror" could come, "this danger will be removed".
Having annihilated the tyrant (Biff! Bang!), erased the evil tentacles of his power (Crash! Wallop! Zap!), Mr Bush held out for Iraq's hard-pressed and soon to be bombed people a paradisiacal future in the image of the American ideal. The "coalition" note the illusion of a multi-state alliance that will comprise, at most, a preponderance of American troops, some Britons and a few Australians will deliver, Mr Bush promised, "the food and medicine you need". It will "tear down the apparatus of terror" and help to create an Iraq that is "prosperous and free".
The Bush vision of "free" Iraq incorporates the all-American values prevalent at the turn of the 21st century. Again, there is that "safety", much prosperity and a whole lot of freedom, as defined by Americans for America, which includes jaded Iraqis might note with a bitter smile "no more wars of aggression against your neighbors".
There is not the slightest hint in the Bush lexicon of a world that might not be transformed into an ideal, Disneyfied America, no recognition that prosperity and American-style freedom might not be the first, or even most precious, conditions desired by Iraqis from their unsought "war of liberation". There is none of the cultural sensitivity at which Bill Clinton excelled, and no room for a reborn Iraq as Iraq. Just the flat canvas of an American future, with Bluebeard (sorry, "tyrant Saddam") magicked out of his castle and the snow-capped mountains and the sunlit green fields beyond.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd