For George W. Bush, at least. In this year's State of the Union address, Bush led with his weakness--the Iraq War--and stuck to the un-nuanced and bold (if misleading) assertions he has used to justify the war and to argue for staying the course, his course.
After speaking of the death of Coretta Scott King (in which he endorsed the notion of heaven by speaking of her "reunion" with her husband), calling for preserving a "civil tone" in the "tough debates" of Washington (this from the man who during the 2002 campaign claimed the Democrats "were not interested in the security of the American people") and referring to September 11 (suggesting that it was the lack of democracy in Afghanistan that brought "murder and destruction to our country"), Bush launched into his standard comic-book defense of the war on Iraq. To protect America, he explained, the United States must fight for freedom and democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. (WMDs in Iraq? Whoever said anything about WMDs in Iraq?) "We do not forget," Bush said, the people who live in undemocratic "Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran." He did not include China in this list. And in Iraq, he continued, "terrorists like bin Laden...aim to seize power" and use Iraq as a "safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world." He added, "A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison...[and] put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country."
This is--to be polite--an absurd analysis. The insurgency, as even Bush has noted in other speeches, is mainly made up of rejectionists and Baathist remnants. Islamic terrorists are a fraction. They are fighting the United States more than they are fighting to take over Iraq. Moreover, these foreign jihadists are hardly in a position to "seize power" in Iraq. The dominant (Iran-backed) Shiite theocrats now in control are unlikely to let that happen, and they have militias of their own. But Bush depicted the mess in Iraq as an us-against-Al Qaeda clash. That is disingenuous and ignores the harsh realities and policy dilemmas created by the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq.
After laying out a false white-hat/black-turban dichotomy, Bush turned into a cheerleader. "We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it," he intoned. There can be no "retreating within our borders.... There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat.... The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil." Get the picture? And, interestingly, he equated disengagement in Iraq with "isolationism" several times in the speech. (Did a new memo come in from the pollsters?)
After rallying the public with his Americans-don't-retreat cry, he vowed he had a "clear plan for victory." He did not say when the clarity of that victory will become apparent. But he claimed, "We are winning." He did not--to borrow a term fancied by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--offer any "metrics" for supporting this claim. Then came the inevitable we-must-support-the-troops rationale for sticking with the war. And Bush pointed out the parents and widow of Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, who was killed last month in Falluja. They were sitting behind Laura Bush in the balcony. A bipartisan, standing ovation ensued. Was this a moment of genuine respect for the family of a fallen soldier? Was it a moment of exploitation, in which Bush was using their tragic, heart-wrenching sacrifice to prop up his war (which will produce other grieving parents and spouses)? The line between the two was thin.
When it came time to address his authorization of warrantless wiretaps, Bush was unapologetic and in-your-face. Staring at the members of the House and Senate before him--his voice rising--Bush defiantly defended what he called his "terrorist surveillance program." He suggested that if such a program had existed before 9/11 (when his Administration was proceeding slowly in devising a plan for dealing with Al Qaeda), perhaps the attack could have been prevented. (Prior to 9/11, the CIA and the FBI did have a bead on two of the hijackers, without having resorted to the use of warrantless eavesdropping, and failed to act until it was too late.) Becoming louder, Bush proclaimed, "If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al Qaeda, we want to know about it--because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again." Republicans jumped to their feet. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled, perhaps in amazement at or appreciation of Bush's brazenness. In a classic Rove-ian maneuver, Bush was daring Democrats to come after him on this point. The not-too-hidden message: Go ahead, make my day; I'll shove this down your throats in the coming elections. As GOPers shouted their approval, that long-ago-banished smirk seemed to flash on Bush's face for an instant.
Bush does this sort of speechifying well. The sentiments and arguments are stark--easy to convey. But his defense of Iraq was nothing new. It's hard to imagine this rhetoric having much, if any, impact on public attitudes here or abroad. After nearly three years of war in Iraq, Bush's words matter little. The mess there will remain once the speech is done.
In his 2002 and 2003 State of the Union speeches, Bush telegraphed the invasion of Iraq. This time, even as he promoted a global crusade for democracy, he was less bellicose. (There's nothing like having an overextended and stretched-to-its-max military to moderate tough talk.) On Iran, Bush and his speechwriters (who went through thirty drafts of this not-so-monumental speech) showed they can learn from past mistakes. Unlike the 2003 State of the Union address--in which Bush presented the unconfirmed charge that Iraq had been uranium-shopping in Africa--Bush this time was more circumspect in decrying a foe. He said that the "Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions"--"ambitions" being a somewhat vague term. And he stayed clear of any details. He also told Iranians, "We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom." Could that be read as a pledge that he will not use military force to export freedom to Iran? (I hope a reporter asks Scott McClellan about this.)
The domestic stuff was mostly the same-old/same-old. Make the tax cuts permanent. (Don't worry about the massive and structural deficit that is growing.) Cut programs. (No need to note that federal spending has ballooned under the gaze of Bush and Congressional Republicans.) On healthcare, he pushed Health Savings Account, an initiative that insurance companies support and that mainly addresses the needs of people who already can afford to buy health insurance. He declared America "is addicted to oil," urged a boost in nuclear energy and proposed a series of fine-sounding initiatives regarding alternative energy. (Look for the inevitable statements from alternative energy experts that will show that Bush's proposals are on the slim side.) He called for training 70,000 new teachers for advanced-placement courses in math and science in high schools--but said nothing about college education. (He certainly did not boast about the recent cuts in college funding.) When Bush turned to Social Security--a focus of last year's address--he essentially hoisted a white flag. "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," he said, and Democrats began applauding and hooting. This was the closest the US Congress gets to question time in the British Parliament. Bush trudged on and called for creating a bipartisan commission to deal with the long-term fiscal challenges posed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. On the economy--no shocker--he said all was swell and pointed out that in the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs. (His speechwriters left out this factoid: To keep up with population growth, the US economy needed to add between 4.5 and 5 million jobs in this period.)
Bush twice referred to Jackgate--the Congressional corruption scandal tied to felonious GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. First, he equated public concern "about unethical conduct by public officials" with worries about "activist courts that try to redefine marriage." Seriously, he did, suggesting a moral equivalency between sleazy and criminal lawmakers and judges who decide that state Constitutions require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moments later, Bush offered the most benign comments on Jackgate a speechwriter could concoct: "A hopeful society expects elected officials to uphold the public trust. Honorable people in both parties are working on reforms to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington--and I support your efforts."
Commentators often complain when a SOTU comes across as a laundry list of overly hyped proposals meant to cover every area of policy known to Washington wonks. Bush certainly did not go overboard in this manner. Here is a partial list of subjects he did not have anything to say about: global warming, wage levels, missile defense, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, genocide in Sudan, torture, the mission to Mars (he promoted in SOTU 2004), the campaign against steroids (he promoted in SOTU 2004), Michael Brown and FEMA, and corporate responsibility.
At the end, Bush attempted a soaring-rhetoric finale. He equated his mission to change the world with the work of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, stating,
We have entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite.... [E]very great movement of history comes to a point of choosing. Lincoln could have accepted peace at the cost of disunity and continued slavery. Martin Luther King could have stopped at Birmingham or at Selma, and achieved only half a victory over segregation. The United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe, and been complicit in the oppression of others. Today, having come far in our own historical journey, we must decide: Will we turn back, or finish well?
Such rhetoric sounds good. But does it have any real meaning? There was no way for King to have achieved "half a victory over segregation." What would that have looked like? Integrated buses, but segregated lunch counters? And, as critics of Yalta grouse, the United States did accept the division of Europe, at least for decades. (The alternative was probably war, perhaps nuclear war.) And the United States has been complicit in the "oppression of others" by supporting repressive regimes and brutal armies in such nations as Chile, South America, El Salvador, the Philippines, Argentina, Iran and Iraq.
"Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage," Bush declared. "Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and we will finish well." Written in courage--it's a nice notion. But can Bush persuade Americans to stick with him in Iraq (and elsewhere) by tossing out well-crafted and dramatic lines that seem suitable for a Mel Gibson historical epic and that are designed to appeal to cliche-driven sentiments? It is a simple plan--and perhaps the best he's got.
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of "The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception" (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
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