Wednesday, September 20, 2006

When I Parted Company with George W. Bush

Is there anyone in the universe who agrees with my interpretation of George W. Bush's speech of 20 September 2001?

All right, I have a little confession to make. Those who know me know I distrusted George W. Bush ever since the early primaries in 2000. I was dissing Bush before it was fashionable. When he was selected president, I was embarassed as an American for having such a cowboy in the White House. By the time he was actually elected, this drugstore cowboy had become the outlaw president.

This column is a confession that he, or his speech writer, had me fooled one night in 2001. I can't remember now if I remained fooled for eight hours or eight days (at the most). In any case, when it came, it was a rude awakening. Nevertheless, looking back I have to say since George Bush was selected president 3½ years ago, he has done three things right. I'm referring to (a) the trashing of Trent Lott, (b) delivering his speech of 20 Sept 2001, and….. (c)….. actually I've forgotten the third item …

But that speech of 20 September was unique and different from every other Bush speech, before and since. In it, I actually found hope, eloquence, and encouragement. Who actually wrote it, I wonder? Anyways. . . I think we ought to review that speech in light of how things have unfolded since.

Looking, then at that speech, remember how it started out?

In the normal course of events, presidents come to this chamber to report on the state of the union. Tonight, no such report is needed. It has already been delivered by the American people....We have seen it in the courage of....We have seen the state of our union in the endurance of rescuers working.....We have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own.
This was very responsive and in tune with the sentiments, the very pulse of the American people in the aftermath of 9-11. We were united that night nine days later as we never have been since, and in those first few moments we sensed Bush was speaking for every one of us. He had us with him as he held up the light and promised to show us the path out of the strange and menacing darkness. Next, he said
My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our union, and it is strong....Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Yes, the necessary and resolute call to bold action. Got blood surging in my veins, I'll tell you. Bush paused to acknowledge the unprecedented out pouring of sympathy from all regions of the globe:
We've seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic....on behalf of the American people, I thank the world for its outpouring of support. America will never forget the sounds of our national anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris and at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo. We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America.
Remember that? Bush -- or his speechwriter -- was right on. Remember how the world responded? Remember the interception of a U.S. ship by a German navy ship in the Atlantic? When the two were along side, the German crew -- every man jack of them -- was in formation on deck, dressed in their formal whites, and the ship's audio system was blaring the U.S. national anthem? Remember that? Remember all over the world, even in Palestine, there was evidence of sympathy. Even Saddam, for a moment, forgot who he was and who we were. (The next morning he came to his senses.) It took an unnecessary war for the rest of the world to come to its senses. But, back in that moment we felt unity with the world for some other reasons:
Nor will we forget the citizens of 80 other nations who died with our own: dozens of Pakistanis, more than 130 Israelis, more than 250 citizens of India, men and women from El Salvador, Iran, Mexico and Japan, and hundreds of British citizens....The civilized world is rallying to America's side. They understand that if this terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens, may be next. Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments....They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa.
Bush put the attacks in the context of American history:
.... enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars. But for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war. But not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks. But never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day. And night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.
He accurately and succinctly identified our attackers:
.... a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda. They are some of the murderers indicted for bombing American Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and responsible for bombing the U.S.S. Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere....A fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teaching of Islam. The terrorists' directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans and make no distinctions among military and civilians, including women and children. This group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.....There are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries. They are recruited from their own nations and neighborhoods and brought to camps in places like Afghanistan, where they are trained in the tactics of terror. They are sent back to their homes or sent to hide in countries around the world to plot evil and destruction. The leadership of Al Qaeda has great influence in Afghanistan and supports the Taliban regime in controlling most of that country.
He took pains to isolate the enemy and to staunch any national impulse to blame everything and everyone in the Moslem faith.
The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics . . . . I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself . . . . The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends . . . . We're in a fight for our principles and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.
He castigated the enemy, showing them up as the craven scumbags they were (and are):
In Afghanistan we see al Qaeda's vision for the world. Afghanistan's people have been brutalized. Many are starving and many have fled. Women are not allowed to attend school. You can be jailed for owning a television. Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate. A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough . . . . we condemn the Taliban regime. It is not only repressing its own people; it is threatening people everywhere by sponsoring and sheltering and supplying terrorists. By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder.
And then the requisite, suitably unconditional ultimatum, offering the slimy, cowardly, uncouth enemy a sniveling way out:
And tonight the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban:
  1. Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of al Qaeda who hide in your land.
  2. Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens, you have unjustly imprisoned.
  3. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers in your country.
  4. Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure to appropriate authorities.
  5. Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps so we can make sure they are no longer operating.
These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion. The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.
He enlisted the help of all sympathetic peoples in a truly multilateral response to a world threat.
We ask every nation to join us. We will ask and we will need the help of police forces, intelligence service and banking systems around the world....The United States is grateful that many nations and many international organizations have already responded with sympathy and with support. Nations from Latin America to Asia to Africa to Europe to the Islamic world....Perhaps the NATO charter reflects best the attitude of the world: an attack on one is an attack on all....The civilized world is rallying to America's side. They understand that if this terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens, may be next. Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments.
With FDR looking over his shoulder he reminded us there was nothing to fear but fear itself.
After all that has just passed, all the lives taken and all the possibilities and hopes that died with them, it is natural to wonder if America's future is one of fear. Some speak of an age of terror. I know there are struggles ahead and dangers to face... But this country will define our times, not be defined by them. As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world . . . . . Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us . . . . Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage.
And like FDR, Bush promised us ultimate victory. "We will not tire," He said. "We will not falter and we will not fail." Of the craven enemy, he said:
They kill not merely to end lives but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way. We're not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.
And now I come to the phrase in the speech that I really want to talk about, because it seized my attention that night and it has always intrigued to this very moment. In mentioning it to others, I have never sensed that it received much notice. Every time I've tried to discuss it, I've been met with glassy eyes & blank stares. Perhaps it was overshadowed by a small cacophonous sentence elsewhere in the speech, which I'll mention later. Or perhaps, I just misunderstood it at the time. Anyways, here is the statement:
Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

There's the phrase, "every terrorist group of global reach". To me it meant focus. We were not going after everyone with a particular vengeance or backyard spat in every corner of the world. We were not declaring war against the IRA in Northern Ireland, We were not going into Russia to fight the Chechens. We were not going into Turkey to fight the Kurds' PKK. We weren't air-dropping into rural Columbia to fight the FARC, flying into Spain to suppress the Basque ETA, or convoying to Sri Lanka to pacify the Black Tigers of Tamil. We weren't about to pave Kashmir. We weren't going to misconstrue our mission of anti-terrorism with intervention in bloody civil wars in Sub-Sahara Africa in Angola, Burundi, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea-Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria-Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania-Zanzibar, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Nor, therefore, was this a war against the various terrorist groups in Palestine (Hamas and Hezbollah); only against "terrorist groups of global reach".

What, then, was it? It was a war against the fucking ass-holes who had the astonishing misjudgment to run amuck in our front yard and maybe our back yard (Europe). If the Taliban had been even nominally cerebral, they would have realized the consequences of not monitoring or controlling al Qaeda. But then the Taliban had a track record of cultural and historical myopia.

Anyway, Bush’s “every terrorist group of global reach" opened for me an element of hope by narrowing the focus. For me, this phrase offered a definition of eventual victory and it was a concept that encouraged the measurement of success along the way.

It was a beautiful speech, an almost perfect storm of eloquent rhetoric and historic moment. Before the world, Bush was hoisted upon an unprecedented pinnacle. An under-educated political hack with a famous political family and fortune behind him, anointed President by a divided Supreme Court, had been deftly lifted and seated - all too briefly -- into his Churchillian moment.

And what happened? Virtually overnight the better-educated Neocon cabal who had ridden into the White House with this pious, simple-minded cowboy led him astray; led him to squander his place in history, our country's international esteem, our national treasure, and the blood of our youth.

Originally published on 11 March, 2004.