Nothing highlights the chasm between the rosy picture President George W. Bush tried to paint in the State of the Union last night and the sober reality of ongoing war in Iraq than these two quotes: "2,245 Dead. How many more?" "My fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning."
Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan, an invited guest at the State of the Union, was ejected from the House chamber and arrested because her t-shirt read: "2,245 Dead. How many more?" She spent four hours in jail. President Bush never saw her or her t-shirt-- Sheehan was out of the building before he even ascended the podium.
Last night, President Bush tested out new variations on the "we are winning" theme, but offered nothing new that would answer Sheehan's question, or the heart-broken questions of so many other bereaved family members who have lost sons and daughters in the war. For dramatic effect, he read from a letter written by 27-year-old Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay to his family before he died in Fallujah in December and praised the sacrifices of men and women in uniform. The audience was peppered with solemn young people homes from war zones far away.
As President Bush read about honor, I thought of another recent casualty of the war in Iraq. Army Reservist Douglas Barber, a soldier who returned home to join Iraq Veterans Against War, committed suicide in January. According to the Veterans Administration, more than 40,000 soldiers of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from mental health disorders. Barber's war wounds were on the inside and he spent two years seeking counseling and disability assistance from the VA. He wrote, "we cannot stand the memories* we are haunted by seeing children killed and families wiped out."
Against the backdrop of recent news headlines like: "Stop-Loss Used to Retain 50,000 U.S. Troops," "Report: Army Near Breaking Point," "Nearly Half of Iraqis Support Attacks on U.S. Troops," and "Most Iraqis Doubt U.S. Will Ever Leave," the President's light of democracy piercing the dark vision of hatred is no more than speechifying. Shopworn phrases about a "clear plan for victory" and "progress on the ground" in Iraq and eventually "decreasing troop levels," sounded even more tattered and tired as he raced through
them- his eyes darting from one side of his invisible teleprompter to the other.
Under the headline of the White House speechwriters' "hopeful society," President Bush added a new dimension to the global war on terrorism that surely had the straight-faced Joint Chiefs of Staff raising eyebrows. Bush intoned, "The only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred," and offered "political freedom and peaceful change" as the antidote.
To illustrate the "advance of freedom," President Bush got specific with lines like: "in 1945 there were about two dozen democracies," and now there are 122. He described what could be termed "a new axis of undemocratic holdouts"-- including Burma and Zimbabwe, both newcomers to the State of the Union. But the trumpet of freedom sounds a flat note when confronted with U.S. policies of arming and aiding undemocratic regimes throughout the world. In 2003, 20 of the top 25 U.S. arms clients in the developing
world-- a full 80%-- were either undemocratic regimes or governments with records of major human rights abuses according to the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report. When the State and Defense Departments release data for 2004 and 2005, the gulfs between the rhetoric of building democracy and the reality of arming dictatorships will only widen.
FREEDOM, IRAQ AND TERROR? Not Again!
Fifty-two minutes of speed-reading and pomp was too much to endure without the State of the Union Drinking Game. This morning, The New York Times provided a handy diagram to the post-SOTU hangover. President Bush uttered the words Freedom, Iraq and Terror 50 times according to their tally. How many beers down the hatch for those three words? It's a good thing I didn't play last year-63 sips for those three words.
But, at the end of the night, it is not the headache from drinking or empty rhetoric that matters, its how these policies, promises and platitudes impact the United States and the world. In this speech, President Bush recommitted to endless war, and we have to do more than tip the bottle one more time in response.
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center and the author of U.S. WEAPONS AT WAR 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict?