act starts to wear thin
It is unrealistic to expect total honesty from politicians. Their partisanship guarantees self-praise and self-serving arguments. Still, citizens expect them to operate within reasonable rhetorical limits. In the case of the president of the United States, whose constituency is not confined to his nation, the world expects his words to bear some resemblance to reality.
Non-Americans tuning in to George W. Bush's State of the Union address would have been disappointed. Even allowing for his domestic needs in an election year, it was riddled with disingenuous, at times dishonest, formulations as well as logical inconsistencies.
That was the conclusion I went to bed with Tuesday night. However, I woke up yesterday heaving a sigh of relief that, at least, he was not off to another war. But, first, the critique:
* His division of the world — between realists and those living under "the dangerous illusion" that the terrorist threat is over — was false. The real disagreement is over how best to tackle terrorists: his way or some other way.
* He was wrong to lump all his critics as those who wonder "if America is really at war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime ... a problem to be solved with law enforcement and indictments."
Not all do. Many, including myself, supported the war on Afghanistan but not on Iraq.
The president did get off a great punchline: "The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the U.S. and war is what they got." But the fact is that Iraq never declared war on the U.S.
* He posited the invasion of Iraq as a war of liberation. But that was never his chief stated aim. It was to neutralize the direct danger posed to the U.S. by the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Those weapons — anthrax, botulin, nerve agents and nukes from Niger, so dramatically and graphically illustrated in last year's State of the Union address — have now cleverly been downgraded to "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." (my italics).
* On his unilateralist war, Bush said he merely refused to "submit to the objections of a few." An overwhelming majority of nations opposed the invasion. That's "a few"?
The president did look good rhyming off the list of his "coalition of the willing." But the contributions of those beyond the U.S. and Britain have been minimal. Which is why American taxpayers are paying most of the $120 billion bill for the war, unlike the 1991 Gulf War whose $60 billion cost was paid almost entirely by the allies.
* His claim that under his watch, the world is "a better and safer place" flies in the face of his own argument that terrorists have been busy everywhere — "in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombasa, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Baghdad."
* His inclusion of Jerusalem in that list was instructive, as was his take on the Middle East: "As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends."
An allusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Nope, as the next sentence made clear: "So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East."
Greater Middle East? What's that? Without defining it, Bush plowed ahead: "We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friends."
A reference to the need for democracy among Arabs? Perhaps. Confronting Iran? Maybe.
Lest there be any doubt that he was taking a holiday from peacemaking in the Arab-Israeli conflict, he clarified his priorities:
"To cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda, the Voice of America and other broadcast services are expanding their programs in Arabic and Persian — and, soon a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region. I will send you (Congress) a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy."
There's the Bush doctrine: The mess in the Middle East is to be solved by duplicating regional propaganda with American propaganda.
* On Libya and Iran agreeing to open their nuclear and other weapons programs, he attributed the progress to not only his "leadership and resolve" but to his war on Iraq.
By this logic, another war somewhere in the vicinity of the Sea of Japan should scare North Korea into giving up its nuclear program.
* On Afghanistan, Bush painted a picture of peace and progress. But even with the help of the Canadian-led NATO contingent, President Hamid Karzai's writ runs only in Kabul — warlords reign supreme in the regions, drug production is up, and the Taliban are regrouped, taking advantage of American diversion in Iraq.
Notwithstanding all of the above, it was a chastened Bush we saw. He is discredited and he knows it. Hence the many rationalizations.
He is weak on the domestic front — a jobless economic recovery that may not last until the fall. He has little choice but to keep exploiting fear and pose as the war president with the mantra of battling "terror," "terrorism" and "terrorists." But the act is wearing thin and he will increasingly be seen as a one-trick pony.
He has already lost his halo. No sooner had he said that "key provisions of the Patriotic Act are set to expire next year" than the Democratic benches broke into applause, robbing his follow-up argument that the act must be renewed. This would not have happened during his State of the Union addresses in 2002 or even 2003.
The Democratic response to his speech, especially by Senator John Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark, was tough. Similar sentiments last year would have got them labelled as unpatriotic.
They should be saluting Howard Dean. By being bold enough to speak the truth, he has liberated them. He may not go any further in the primaries, but he has already served his party and his nation well.
The world should take comfort that the wheels of American democracy are
Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday. email@example.com.
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