Last night, it wasn't making much of an impression on me. I was observing the superficial things, like how he kept his hands flat on the desk, one on top of the other, and occasionally the top hand would release the bottom hand, which would then flap about in the tiniest of gestures. The text seemed to be the sort of thing he needs to say and does say once in a while. As in most cases, it didn't seem extraordinary-- as if he really wants to communicate -- but dutiful -- as if he's doing that thing a President needs to do. He had his inflections right, but it came out in the usual singsong. Trying to think how he could have done better, I pictured President Reagan and imagined his inflections. I have the feeling the people who coach Bush have studied Reagan and extracted some tips, and Bush is doing what he can. But, as Bush might say, it's hard.
Let's look at the text, just the core of it here:
Since the horror of 9/11, we've learned a great deal about the enemy. We have learned that they are evil and kill without mercy -- but not without purpose. We have learned that they form a global network of extremists who are driven by a perverted vision of Islam -- a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent. And we have learned that their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes, men are beaten for missing prayer meetings, and terrorists have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations. The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation.This invites us to support his military efforts not by scaring us about violence, but by inspiring us about American values. We can appreciate and want to protect our own freedom, and that should make us want to fight an enemy who would deprive us of it. That merges into an argument that we should want to engage in a struggle, the struggle of the century, to bring our values to people around the globe. He can't say this ideological struggle is between American values and Islam. The Islamic values here are a "perverted," "radical" distortion of Islam. The implication is that there is a real Islam, and the President knows what it is, and it's something much more like the American values. This all goes by so quickly when you're listening to the speech.
He speaks next of the threats of violence to us. "We face an enemy determined to bring death and suffering into our homes." To keep the enemy out of "our homes" and to avoid having the "Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons," we need to fight the war to victory. He argues that we have had much success so far, in Afghanistan, "put[ing] al Qaeda on the run." What about Iraq?
I'm often asked why we're in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress, and the United Nations saw the threat -- and after 9/11, Saddam's regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. And now the challenge is to help the Iraqi people build a democracy that fulfills the dreams of the nearly 12 million Iraqis who came out to vote in free elections last December.This is a very minimal restatement of why we went to war, and it won't satisfy anyone who wants to concentrate on that point, but it's not surprising that he moves quickly to the subject of the importance of sticking it out and making a success of it now that we're there.
Skipping some text:
We can be confident that our coalition will succeed because the Iraqi people have been steadfast in the face of unspeakable violence.The fact that things are so bad is the reason why things are so good. You can mock that rhetorical move, but I suspect it's appeared in thousands of war speeches. What else can he say (considering that he's not going to give up)?
And we can be confident in victory because of the skill and resolve of America's Armed Forces.He needs to inspire us to believe in victory, and he takes advantage of our respect for the troops. I'm eliding the sentences that detail his respect. From this paragraph, he goes to honoring the people who work in homeland security, as if the subject has been honoring the men and women in public service. The Iraq section of the speech is over.
Five years after 9/11, our enemies have not succeeded in launching another attack on our soil, but they've not been idle. Al Qaeda and those inspired by its hateful ideology have carried out terrorist attacks in more than two dozen nations. And just last month, they were foiled in a plot to blow up passenger planes headed for the United States. They remain determined to attack America and kill our citizens -- and we are determined to stop them.This really is impressive and much more inspiring than Iraq. I can understand his frustration. Where things are going badly, in Iraq, there are events and pictures to demoralize us. Where things are going well, what we see is the lack of anything bad, and it is hard to get people to see that as anything at all.
Here's an interesting line tagged onto the end of that paragraph:
We'll continue to give the men and women who protect us every resource and legal authority they need to do their jobs.There's your legislative agenda for the election season.
Now he returns to the theme of ideological struggle:
One of the strongest weapons in our arsenal is the power of freedom. The terrorists fear freedom as much as they do our firepower. They are thrown into panic at the sight of an old man pulling the election lever, girls enrolling in schools, or families worshiping God in their own traditions. They know that given a choice, people will choose freedom over their extremist ideology. So their answer is to deny people this choice by raging against the forces of freedom and moderation. This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations. And we're fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.People given the choice will always choose freedom? Many people, it seems, accept mere order and security. Others give up every earthly freedom in exchange for the promise of heaven. It's a serious question, but he raises it only to drop it. He brings up 9/11 right there, so maybe you won't notice. And how does what happened on that "bright September morning" prove we need to remake the Middle East? Putting one sentence after another doesn't mean the ideas follow logically. There's some real sleight of hand in that last paragraph, and I think everyone knows it.
We are now in the early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom. Amid the violence, some question whether the people of the Middle East want their freedom, and whether the forces of moderation can prevail. For 60 years, these doubts guided our policies in the Middle East. And then, on a bright September morning, it became clear that the calm we saw in the Middle East was only a mirage. Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither. So we changed our policies, and committed America's influence in the world to advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism.
To stave off the doubts, he brings up Franklin Roosevelt, D-Day, Iwo Jima, and so forth. "Throughout our history, America has seen liberty challenged, and every time, we have seen liberty triumph with sacrifice and determination." Every time? Whenever we fight, we win, because we fight for liberty.
On this solemn anniversary, we rededicate ourselves to this cause. Our nation has endured trials, and we face a difficult road ahead. Winning this war will require the determined efforts of a unified country, and we must put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us. We will defeat our enemies. We will protect our people. And we will lead the 21st century into a shining age of human liberty.I agree with the basic point of the speech: We must continue the fight to victory. I don't think he's created any new inspiration here, though. People who think Iraq is a lost cause love liberty too. They're still going to criticize the war. They aren't going to "put aside [their] differences." He said "our differences," but clearly he's going to stay in his position and defend it. So, essentially, that means: Stop disagreeing with me. And, yes, you can laugh at the irony: Freedom is so wonderful that you should shut up.
We must "work together to meet the test that history has given us." Note the passivity. I didn't choose this, history made me do it. And since it's history, you need to get in line, get serious. There's a core of that that I absolutely agree with. We're in a war, so we need to concentrate on winning, and you should only want to do the things that help. But I don't think the assertions here are going to convince anyone, and he's given his critics new material. They are going to resent and resist the demand that we perceive ourselves as caught up in a massive, historical ideological struggle.