STATE OF the Union, state of war: They have a nice ring. When George W. Bush goes before the Congress and the nation tomorrow night, he will present himself (again) as a war president. Personally and politically, the identity defines him. Instead of the callow leader he was in the beginning of his presidency, he will conduct himself as a man of sharp determination, with defiance born of the impression that his fight is to the death. He will justify all of his policies, including the illegal ones, by citing his responsibilities -- and privileges -- as wartime commander in chief. He will not have to remind the men and women in front of him that twice (just after 9/11 and just before Iraq), they voted to license his use of ''all necessary and appropriate force" -- enabling acts by which most of them still stand. The United States became a nation at war with congressional collusion.
But did it? Here is the embarrassing question: Is America actually at war? We have a war president, war hawks, war planes, war correspondents, war cries, even war crimes -- but do we have war? We have war dead, but the question remains. With young US soldiers being blown up almost daily, it can seem an absurd question, an offensive one. With thousands of Iraqis killed by American firepower, it can seem a heartless question, as if the dead care whether strict definitions of ''war" are fulfilled. There can be no question that Iraq is in a state of war, and that, whatever its elements of post-Saddam sectarian conflict, the warfare is being driven from the Pentagon.
But, regarding the Iraq conflict as it involves the United States, something essential is lacking that would make it a war -- and that is an enemy.
The so-called ''insurgents," who wreak such havoc, are not America's enemy. They are not our rivals for territory. They are not our ideological antagonists. Abstracting from the present confrontation, they have no reason to wish us ill.
Americans who bother to imagine the situation from the Iraqi point of view -- a massive foreign invasion, launched on false pretenses; a brutal occupation, with control of local oil reserves surely part of the motivation; the heartbreaking deaths of brothers, cousins, children, parents -- naturally understand that an ''insurgency" is the appropriate response. Its goal is simply to force the invaders and occupiers to leave. Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds have intrinsic reasons to regard each other as enemies, from competition over land and oil, to ethnic hatreds, to unsettled scores. No equivalent sources of inbuilt contempt exist among these people toward America. Taken as a whole, or in its parts, Iraq is not an enemy.
President Bush would say Iraq is only one front in the so-called war on terrorism. Surely, in that realm, where the antagonist has a name and a face, the US is authentically at war. If Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are not an enemy, what is? True enough. But the war on terrorism is not real war either, since the Pentagon has proven itself incapable of actually engaging Al Qaeda. That, of course, is because Al Qaeda is a free floating nihilism, not a nation, or even a network. Al Qaeda is a rejectionist idea to which deracinated miscreants are drawn, like filings to a magnet, but that drawing power is generated in Washington. Bin Laden was a self-mythologized figure of no historic standing until George W. Bush designated him America's equal by defining 9/11 as an act of war to be met with war, instead of a crime to be met with criminal justice. But this over-reaction, so satisfying at the time to the wounded American psyche, turned into the war for which the other party simply did not show up. Which is, of course, why we are blasting a substitute Iraq to smithereens.
Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault.
In each case, Bush is presiding over a self-serving delusion, in concert with a self-emasculating Congress, his partners as would-be war profiteers. Anticipating tomorrow night, one could say Bush will, on this question, be lying to the American people again. But that would presume he is not first lying to himself. State of war? No. State of the Union? Catastrophe, pure and simple.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe