You Wouldn’t Know

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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Watching President Bush deliver his annual State of the Union address to Congress and the nation this week, it was hard not to notice the subdued, almost chastened tone of his delivery. Gone were the trademark winks and expansive body language that have characterized his public appearances for years. He was, like his message, restrained, at times almost downbeat.

And with good reason. He had to acknowledge that his most ambitious goal for his second term, the reform of Social Security that he announced in last year’s speech, is as good as dead. The rest of his domestic program consisted of a grab bag of small gestures of little lasting significance. He could hardly aim any higher, given the constraints imposed by the massive budget deficits that he created and cannot fix. As for his onetime dream of being a uniter, it is now reduced to pleading for civility in public debate — and even that was followed by a cheap swipe at critics of his Iraq policy, whom he accused of “defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure.”

It’s too bad. If things were less polarized, the president might be of a mind to take a page from his critics and learn something about acknowledging failure. More than half his speech was devoted to defending his global war on terrorism. To hear him talk, you might think we were winning.

Bush presented his war strategy as nothing less than a millennial mission to bring “the end of tyranny in our world” by exporting electoral democracy, mostly to the Muslim peoples of the Middle East. By so doing, he said, we will put Islamic radicalism on the run, “deliver the oppressed and move this world toward peace.” In practical terms, the campaign has three main fronts: hunting down terror networks like Al Qaeda, winning the war in Iraq and supporting “democratic reform across the broader Middle East.” On each of those fronts, he said, we’re moving forward. We’ve “killed or captured” many leaders of the global terror networks. We’ve got a plan for victory in Iraq, where the people can all but taste the “benefits of freedom.” Best of all, we’ve led the way to model elections in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

He also made brief mention of Iran, “a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite.” Iran supports terrorism in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories, he said. It also aims to acquire nuclear weapons. That, he said, is something “the nations of the world must not permit.” Then, speaking directly to “the citizens of Iran,” he declared that he “respects your right to choose your own future” and “hopes one day to be the closest of friends.”

Listening to the president, you might actually be tempted to think that democracy actually does help to temper extremism and weaken terrorists. You wouldn’t necessarily know that the effects of the administration’s crusade to liberate the globe have strategists in friendly capitals around the world tearing their hair in despair.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that the “clerical elite” running Iran was freely chosen by Iranian voters in a multi-candidate election. For that matter, you wouldn’t know that its ambitions include not just acquiring a nuclear bomb but also “wiping Israel off the map.” Nor would you know that the West’s ability to restrain Iranian ambition has been greatly reduced by the elimination of Iran’s main strategic rival, Saddam Hussein.

You wouldn’t know that the model elections held last week in the Palestinian territories, in large part at the insistence of the Bush administration, have given power to an Islamic radical group that glorifies terrorism and that wants, like the Iranians, to eliminate the Jewish state.

Listening to the president, you might actually think that the world was a safer place today as a result of his policies. You might think that democracy magically transforms fanatics into reasonable people rather than merely empowering them to pursue their goals.

But if you looked at his body language, you might suspect that he knows, somewhere deep inside, that it’s not working, and that he just doesn’t know how to acknowledge failure.

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