After the build-up, the
speech. And, against all my expectations, Bush played a blinder: he actually
lived up to the hype. The awkward Bush of the Presidential campaign, with his
bizarre pauses in the middle of sentences and omnipresent smirk, has disappeared
entirely. In his place is – finally! – a true global statesman,
someone at least on a par with his father.
The beginning of the speech was tough for a liberal like me to sit through:
the disingenuous statistics about the size of the tax cut, the claim that the
repeal of the dividend tax would help "nearly 10 million seniors".
But it was delivered with strength and conviction, and, at least from where
I was sitting, was received more with sorrow than with anger.
Then came the humanitarian stuff: $450 million for mentoring at-risk children,
$600 million for treating drug addicts, and – the big one – an extra
$10 billion, on top of $5 billion already pledged, for fighting AIDS in Africa.
The AIDS passage, especially, was genuinely moving, both on an emotional and
on an intellectual level. Bush obviously feels compassion for Africans with
AIDS, and he also realises that this kind of gesture does an enormous amount
of good for the image of America in the eyes of the rest of the world. $10 billion
is a tiny sum compared to what the coming war will cost, and I’m sure that a
lot of that money will go straight to US drug companies and will do very little
for African economies. But it will do wonders for African lives, and that’s
a great thing.
Using the humanitarian programmes as the segue from the domestic to the foreign
part of the speech was a good idea. But it didn’t really work in practice: the
jump from fighting AIDS in Africa to fighting terrorists around the world was
abrupt and painful. Suddenly the compassion was gone, and the cowboy was back:
All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many
countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let’s put it this way, they
are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.
This kind of talk goes down very will in Middle America, but the audience in
the Wash-Bos corridor and in Europe was not half as impressed. Osama bin Laden
was conspicuous by his absence: rattling off a list of "a key Al Qaeda
operative in Europe, a major Al Qaeda leader in Yemen" is going to convince
nobody that the war on terror is being won.
But then came the grand finale of the speech – the moment we had all
been waiting for – and Bush was good.
Today, the gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing
America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical
and biological weapons. These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail,
terror and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to terrorist
allies, who would use them without the least hesitation.
This is sterling stuff, in a speech. We all know, intellectually, that Pakistan
and North Korea are both much more likely to sell weapons of mass destruction
to terrorists than Iraq is. But that’s no reason in itself not to act against
Iraq, and in terms of rhetorical ramping-up, Bush was doing a very good job
indeed. His words were slowing down, and his seriousness showed: no smirks here.
In an implicit acknowledgement that the "axis of evil" phrase that
he used last year was counterproductive, Bush addressed North Korea and Iran
with the statement that "different threats require different strategies."
There was nothing interesting or useful on North Korea: he seemed to be threatening
them with "isolation, economic stagnation and continued hardship,"
which is something they’ve surely grown used to by now. But he didn’t dwell
on Iran or North Korea. Rather, he moved swiftly on to Iraq. The naive, angry
and somewhat inchoate post-9/11 Bush of 2002 has become a focussed and determined
Bush in 2003:
A brutal dictator, with a history of reckless aggression, with ties to terrorism,
with great potential wealth will not be permitted to dominate a vital region
and threaten the United States.
Yes, Bush is saying, this is a war about oil. (That’s what "vital region"
means.) But just because it’s about oil doesn’t mean we’re wrong to wage it.
After all, Saddam has a lot of chemical and biological weapons which he can
give to terrorists at any time. We in the US even believe he’s still trying
to operate a nuclear weapons programme.
And then came the nut graf of the whole speech:
Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous
sums, taken great risks, to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But
why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for
those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate or attack. With nuclear arms or
a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume
his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East, and create deadly havoc in that
region. And this Congress and the American people must recognize another threat.
Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements
by people now in custody, reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists,
including members of Al Qaeda.
Actually, Bush kind of rushed through that last bit. I heard it, wondered if
he’d really said what I thought he’d said, and kept on listening. I don’t think
Bush really punched it with the weight it needed. But maybe that’s because it’s
a bit of a fudge: Congress and the American people must recognise that Saddam
is protecting Al Qaeda, but the US isn’t going to actually divulge any evidence
that that might be the case.
Many in Europe, and some in America, will be skeptical: we remember Nayirah
from the first Gulf War, tearfully telling of Iraqi soldiers brutally pulling
babies from incubators and leaving them to die – all of which, of
course, was completely made up.
This time, however, we have proxies, people who can demand to see the evidence
themselves. For, in the shock announcement of the evening, Bush declared that
The United States will ask the UN Security Council to convene on February
the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world. Secretary
of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraq’s illegal
weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its
links to terrorist groups.
I sincerely hope that this means the US has some serious goods on Saddam Hussein.
If it does – if Powell can convince the French, at least, that Saddam
has been hanging out with Al Qaeda, and can give them weapons of mass destruction
at any time – then maybe the war, which now seems inevitable, could be
waged with international backing, rather than simply being taken by the rest
of the world as yet another example of US imperialism.
Bush wasn’t done at this point: he needed a neat rhetorical flourish ("As
we and our coalition partners are doing in Afghanistan, we will bring to the
Iraqi people food, and medicines, and supplies. And freedom") and some
militaristic drum-banging (the "America believes in you" message to
the armed forces got the most applause of the evening). He also ended on a religious
note which sounded horrible to this atheist, but which I’m sure played very
well in most of America.
But in toto, the speech was a resounding success. Bush built on the
of Wolfowitz, and the internationalism
of Powell, and came up with something bigger and better than either: a sense
of strength, resolve, and (we hope) global leadership. I still don’t want a
war in Iraq: nothing that Bush said could make me change my mind on that. But
at least I can hold out some hope today, which I didn’t have yesterday, that
Bush might be able to rally his European allies around to his cause. And a war
with Europe’s backing is vastly preferable to one without it.