Yesterday's address to the nation by President George W. Bush represented, in some ways, nothing more than the sort of stale clichés we have come to expect from the administration: "war on terror," "if you harbor terrorists, you're as guilty as the terrorists," "defeat the terrorists," plus a timely reminder of September 11.
Not present in the speech, of course, were any references to "weapons of mass destruction" or other discredited elements of presidential rhetoric. Yet the speech was noteworthy in its succinct encapsulation of current White House thinking on the Iraq war.
As a historian I was struck by his references to history as an agent of change:
We did not ask for this war, but we're answering history's call with confidence -- and we will prevail.While this phrase might be dismissed as a rhetorical flourish, there were other passages that bore the same stamp of a teleological view of history:
Yet we can be confident of the outcome, because America will not waver -- and because the direction of history leads toward freedom.Yet the President seems wholly unaware of the role of the United States in shaping the history of the Middle East. Were it not for the CIA-led overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 - and our subsequent, unwavering support of brutal dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - the world might never have witnesssed the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
The President seemed to directly contradict the pejorative ramblings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, noting that "many" of those who express dissent about Iraq "are sincere and patriotic." He took issue with a Pentagon report issued last week, however, that noted a sharp increase in sectarian violence; the President insisted that "commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that Iraq has not descended into a civil war."
The current raison d’être for the war in Iraq seems to be summed up in this passage:
First, we're staying on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them overseas so we do not have to face them here at home.This rhetoric has been used in the past, but has begun to appear with great frequency in many statements issued by the White House over the past few months. The phrase is curious, because it sounds almost apologetic, as if to say: "Well, we screwed up, but at least the war is not being fought on US soil."
This is a deceptive statement, because the war against terror is being fought on US soil, as well as on the soil of every sovereign nation. One cannot pick up a newspaper or watch a televised news program without seeing daily references to terror acts or investigations of terrorists around the globe.
As if to strengthen this dubious philosophy by repeating it, the President coninued:
If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.Again, we will continue to face terrorism in our cities irrespective of whether or not we fight a war in Iraq; as long as there are violent political actors who disagree with American policy, there will be terrorists. Terrorism is not an action that was created in - or is exclusive to - the Middle East, and claims that this is a tactic unique to "radical Islam" are facetious. One could make a strong case that the Aliied firebombing of cities such as Dresden during World War II was among the most egregious uses of terror against civilains in modern history.
The President mentioned that " we recently launched a major new campaign to end the security crisis in Baghdad," although he declined to give specifics of the "encouraging" signs that he sees. Unfortunately, the President's rosy view of the situation in Baghdad does not mirror reality, as more than 39,000 Sunni and Shiite Iraqi Arab families have fled to Kurdistan because of concerns about security in other regions.
Choosing a different course than that advocated by the White House, argued the President, will only guarantee that "our children will face a region dominated by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons." This statement ignores the fact that there are already states that possess nuclear weapons in the region - Israel, Pakistan, and India - and that none of these states is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (I am exlcuding Russia and China from this discussion, even though the two nations each have a global nuclear reach). While the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran might change the balance of power in the Middle East, the President and his operatives regularly deceive the American public about the uniqueness of Iran's nuclear aims.
If the President were serious about reducing the threat from nuclear weapons, he would not have engaged in a unilateral agreement with India that undermines decades of work in reducing the likelihood of nuclear war. The purpose of this speech, though, had more to do with domestic political considerations than any lofty ideals such as nuclear non-proliferation, and we are once again reminded that this administration is woefully inept in its grasp of history, contemporary geopolitics, and even the art of rhetoric.