George Bush’s address to the nation was designed to do many things reassure Arab allies and Muslims around the world that the U.S. was not at war with their religion; rally Congress to support his war effort; buck up the military before its mission commences; and explain to the nation the new world in which it lives. But above all, the speech was at its heart an old fashioned demand that crime not go unpunished.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]That will prove to be the easy part. The new world order that Bush laid out for the country is far less clear than the rhetoric would imply. Despite his insistence that "you are either with us or with the terrorists" the United States still faces a world of ambiguity rather than Manichean contrast. Even as Bush’s speech came to an end, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that Iran is sending signals that it is supportive of our fight against the Taliban. And yet Iran, according to the U.S. State Department, is one of the states that sponsors terrorism. How do we deal with Tehran under those circumstances? Do we rebuff their entreaties or muzzle our guns? Iraq wasn’t mentioned in the speech, but the question of whether we turn our arms on Baghdad looms large and threatens to break up the coalition Bush is carefully cobbling together. The one bit of wiggle room the President gave himself was the phrase "terrorist groups with global reach." By defining the threat as those groups with global reach, he would seem to eliminate, say, the West Bank bomber who straps some dynamite to his chest and blows himself up outside an Israeli disco. Such a madman can reach Tel Aviv but not Thailand or Toledo.
But Al Queda, the President made clear, is different. And in his speech the President made defeating this particular hodgepodge the defining mission of his presidency. His take-it-or-leave-it offer to the Taliban was really just a feign at rushing headlong into a military assault on Afghanistan; there’s no way that the Kabul crowd would accept the president’s demand that they open their country for inspection and "hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure." That’d be most of the Taliban regime.
Bush’s effort to align himself with the traditions of Islam may or may not work, but he did have some nice turns of phrase. The terrorists had "hijacked Islam itself"; their "pretenses to piety" rang false. Bush’s denunciation of "the will to power" was effective, although it was hard to believe that the President had ever read Nietzsche, who coined the phrase. No matter; most of us who got assigned him in college never made it through either. Bush made the essential point: The Enemy is not psychotic but cunning, possessing not an erratic temper but a steely ideology and that it was evil. By invoking fascism and totalitarianism (read: Communism), he linked arms with The Greatest Generation and put himself in the continuum of leaders like F.D.R. and Churchill. But F.D.R. and Churchill had clearer military objectives than this President who, as he said, faces a more elusive enemy. The speech was really more Truman 1948 than FDR 1941. Bush sought to define a new world, to orient the work of the federal government around the central idea of defeating terrorism just as Truman and The Wise Men like Dean Acheson and Averill Harriman and George Marshall reoriented the federal government around the idea of defeating communism. They succeeded, of course; Stalin’s nuclear weapons and takeover of Eastern Europe combined with Mao’s triumph and war in Korea had a way of focusing the mind. Perhaps the attack on Manhattan will do the same.
Can Bush succeed at turning around the federal government and making it work in new and innovative ways? He’s got his work cut out; the massive intelligence failure that allowed the tragedy of 9/11 to take place was born of interagency rivalries and fiefdoms that won’t easily be brought down. There have been real successes at stopping terror; the millennium celebration was spared explosions by dint of the work of the FBI and CIA and similar agencies in Jordan and other countries. But still, reshaping the bureaucracy to be as nimble as the enemy won’t be easy. And as conservatives love to point out, throwing money at the problem is no solution.
In rallying the nation, Bush put himself in the tradition of wartime presidents rightly so but he didn’t ask for sacrifice. He called on Americans to hug their kids and be patient and to go to libertyunites.org. But that’s not the same as asking for a draft, getting Americans to fund massive foreign aid packages for countries like Pakistan or telling Americans that they might have to forego a Social Security cost of living adjustment. He prepared the country for the end of curbside check in, but he may not have prepared the country for the real hardship of war.
Still, it was hard not to admire the speech. The verbal miscues for which the President is known seemed, for the most part, absent. The speech’s simple and plain-spoken language served him better than the loftier rhetoric of, say, his inaugural address or his stem-cell decision talk. He seemed emotional but steady, confident but not cocky. "This will not be an age of terror," was simple and surefooted. His paeans to bipartisanship were obvious but also necessary and well done.
We forget it now, in the wake of victory (or what we used to think was victory) in the Gulf War, but Bush’s father’s speech in the fall of 1990 was flaccid by comparison. Delivered, eerily on 9/11/90, the speech was half about the coming Gulf War and half about deficit reduction. It attacked Saddam Hussein but also got into the minutiae of whether Congress should have an up or down vote on the budget resolution. This was better.
Do wars get the rhetoric they deserve? Maybe so. The Civil War yielded the Gettysburg Address and the Cold War Churchill’s Iron Curtain address. Sometimes, though, the rhetoric sails beyond the cause. Shakespeare’s Agincourt speech "We happy few, we band of brothers" celebrated what was, after all, a stupid battle. This is a just war the very definition of a just war, at least in its conception. So far, its rhetoric is right, too.