President George W. Bush’s October 6, 2005 address before the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was billed by the White House as a major speech. And it was.
Though the speech was a deeply flawed and profoundly disturbing effort, it represented the President’s most developed attempt to cast the Iraq war as a part of the global war on terror. It was a neo-conservative manifesto–”an ideological vision of a global conflict between freedom and tyranny, good and evil.
Seeds of this line of thinking have been present from the beginning of the conflict, growing, it appears, as the war worsens and public opinion sours.
Despite the President’s assertion that progress in Iraq is undeniable and irreversible, there is much evidence to the contrary. The Administration’s troubles are compounded by the fact that the public’s support for the war continues to decline, as does the President’s own favorable ratings (now down to 37% in one poll). The stage was thus set for a “major speech.”
In the President’s expanded vision, the war on terror is the same as World War II and the Cold War–”a theme Bush first tried out in his pre-Katrina speech to a largely military audience in San Diego. At the same time al-Qaeda has been morphed into Nazism and communism and bin Laden a threat on a par with Hitler and Stalin.
These parallels are a stretch, to be sure. Firstly because they are so exaggerated and ahistorical. While al-Qaeda and bin Laden’s threats and evil intentions are clear–”even when they had a base in Afghanistan, they lacked the power and potential of those with whom they are now compared. Elevating them to that level presents dangers, as well. (It is ironic that at the same time the President was presenting this transformation of al-Qaeda into an empire-in-the-making, he also presented a contradictory but more realistic and nuanced view of the terrorist group, describing them as “local cells…not centrally directed…more like a loose network with many branches than an army under a single command.”)
One of the problems that haunted the US during the Cold War was the tendency to see all regional conflicts through the prism of the US-Soviet rivalry. As a result, conflicts were either locked in place or exaggerated. Much the same may be happening again in Chechnya and Palestine, to cite two cases. By lumping all of these conflicts into one global struggle we lose sight of their individual origins and potential solutions.
Finally, by dismissing the role that Iraq has played in fueling both extremism and global terror, the speech provides no way out but unending conflict.
What is required, at this point, is a clear headed examination of what went wrong in Iraq–”not an ideological effort to paint us deeper into a corner there. Instead of seeing that the war, entered into for the wrong reasons, poorly planned and badly executed, has had unintentional consequences, the President has sought to remake the war’s intent and expand its imperative. Instead of accepting responsibility he casts blame on others. Instead of understanding the aggravation presented by our role there, the speech reduced it to a benign “presence” and equates it to other benign “presences”–”Russia in Chechnya and Israel in the Palestinian territories.
This “major speech” was not well received here. One newspaper editorialized that it had little to offer “besides usual rhetorical flourishes…and muddle and confusion.” Another accused it of “misreading the progress of the war.” One commentator, unfairly I believe, said that the only contribution the speech made was to “turn up the volume on a broken record.”
The headlines the speech received all focused on the President’s claim that the Administration had foiled ten terrorist attacks since 9/11. In response one newspaper wrote that “senior law enforcement officials questioned whether any of the incidents…ever constituted an imminent threat to public safety and said authorities have not disrupted any operative plots within the US since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
It was a major speech, but a flawed one. Instead of a clear headed examination of reality, it was an ideological based exaggeration. It provided no solution other than to continue on the current path until “victory”–”although victory is never defined. As such, it leaves us waiting for more speeches, still to come.