The leader of the free world gave his second prime-time press conference today,
and the world, or at least the US, was watching. For the best part of an hour,
George W Bush basically ignored whatever questions were asked of him, and single-mindedly
hammered away at his talking points, prime among them the idea that regime change
in Iraq is a central and necessary part of the war on terror.
It was clear to me that the purpose of the press conference was not to lay
out the case for war: Bush did that (much better than anybody expected) in his
State of the Union speech,
but there was little in the way of such argument today. There was no marshalling
of intelligence here, none of the kind of rhetoric we’ve been seeing from Tony
Blair for months. While Blair likes to concentrate on the high and real cost
to Iraqis of the present sanctions regime, Bush reiterated over and over again
the unknown and unknowable cost to Americans of a second terrorist attack on
the US homeland.
This is the kind of talk which goes down well in the heartland: all of America
was shaken by the events of September 11, and the president is doing his utmost
to persuade them – not through argument so much as by simply using the
words "Iraq" and "terror" in close conjunction over and
over again – that fighting back against Iraq makes perfect sense from
a war-on-terror point of view.
The global statesman we caught a brief glimpse of in January has gone. I’m
not surprised: Bush has always been bad in unscripted situations, and today
his old habits, the bizarre speech patterns, the flubs, were back. At one point,
Bush referred to "the events of September the eleventh" … pause
… then, with emphasis, "2001". As though he was comparing
them to the events of September the eleventh in, oh, 1973, or 1996. Later on,
he called the IAEA the IEAE. These mistakes are forgivable, but, combined with
very slow speech in general, they do sound like someone who isn’t used to having
to win arguments. Nearly all of the questions were more coherent than just about
any of the answers, which put Bush in a bad light for those people (a tiny minority
of the US population) who like to judge politicians in terms of their rhetorical
Bush’s refusal to engage with the press corps kept the event on a very shallow
basis. Given the same amount of time, a Clinton or a Blair could and would have
presented their audience with a detailed and compelling world view. Bush just
droned his way through a frankly boring opening statement, and from then on
gave us nothing more than variations on the initial theme. He said that September
11 was Saddam Hussein’s "brand of terror", that Saddam was a direct
threat to the US, and that if he thought the US was safe from attack, that he
would be thinking differently. He was asked many times, in many different ways,
whether he wasn’t worried that, contrariwise, an invasion of Iraq would only
make such terrorist attacks more likely, but he never tried to answer the question.
There was no talk of Iraq becoming a beacon of democracy in the Middle East,
of Saddam’s ouster leading to more freedom and prosperity in the region as a
whole. There was just a very somber tone, garnished with the barest hint of
petulance when the subject of those who disagreed with the president was raised.
The most ridiculous part came when Bush was asked, directly, twice, whether
any war on Iraq would be considered a failure if Saddam Hussein were not personally
captured. He ducked the question, twice, and then, later on, in response to
a completely different question, said very clearly that if Saddam were to leave
the country, he’d be very happy with that. Since it’s pretty hard to see why
such an eventuality would become unacceptable once a war had been started, there’s
no reason for him not answering the question which was put to him – unless
he made a determination before he even started speaking that he would not even
attempt to answer direct questions.
Kudos, then, to Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, who got a straight
answer to the straight question of whether the US was going to seek a UN Security
Council vote even if it didn’t think it would win. Answer: yes. The only question
now is what the vote is going to be on: at one point Bush seemed to imply that
the US might request a vote on little more than whether or not Iraq had complied
with Resolution 1441. He could probably get unanimity on that, thereby getting
something passed at the UN, even if it fell well short of authorising
the use of force.
But it was clear that Bush was in no mood for compromise where Iraq was concerned,
even if he might be flexible on the wording of UN resolutions. "When it
comes to our security, I really don’t need anyone’s permission," he said,
setting up the inevitable invasion as some kind of war of self-defence. He felt
no need to answer the question on what he might need to see before making the
final determination that war was necessary: obviously, to him, the need for
a war has already become apparent, and the only way to prevent one would be
for Saddam to either disarm forthwith or leave the country entirely.
In sum, then, this was not a performance to rally world opinion behind a US
invasion. Rather, it seemed to build on the recent paranoia-inducing activities
of the Department of Homeland Security, and try to build domestic support for
war on a foundation of fear that otherwise we would be risking a second 9/11,
or worse. This is an unusual, if not unprecedented, stance for America: the
idea that we should go to war now because otherwise who knows what these people
could do to us. Is it too much to ask that the president of the USA be fighting
for something, rather than simply against what he calls "weapons
of mass murder and terror"? After all, it’s not as if Bush doesn’t have
more of those than anybody else.
Yesterday, I attended a small campaign rally for Howard Dean, the Democratic
presidential candidate who’s generally considered to be the most liberal of
the bunch. (What that means is that he instituted civil unions as governor of
Vermont, but thinks that the other 49 states should make their own decisions
on such matters.) It was held in a trendy bar down the street from me, and was
packed with good-looking 20-somethings toting cellphones and BlackBerrys, who
cheered any kind of anti-war sentiment with gusto. Dean is a pretty slippery
politician: he’s highly Federalist, and so on most controversial issues (gun
control, education, gay rights) he generally seems to say that each state should
decide for itself what it’s going to do. But I did like him enough to look up
his website, where I found an incredibly well-argued
speech on foreign policy.
As it happens, Dean is opposed to many, if not most, of the positions of the
present administration. But what made me really angry as I was reading the speech
was not primarily the fact that Dean was right and Bush is wrong. It was the
fact that Dean could give such a speech at all, while Bush simply couldn’t.
Bush’s job is not to worry about the balance of power in the world: he can
leave that to Condi Rice. Bush’s job is to lead, and to lay out Rice’s
vision in a compelling enough way that the world feels that here is a man who
knows what he is doing. That’s what he had to do today, in front of the media.
And he failed. By not answering their questions, by speaking so slowly and so
repetitively that you could almost hear their eyes rolling up into the back
of their heads, Bush achieved precisely nothing.
The past month or so has seen the Bush administration lose momentum on Iraq.
The hawks were at their most feverish following the State of the Union; since
then, global demonstrations and shows of solidarity by Russia, France and Germany
have sent the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. Colin Powell’s multimedia
presentation at the UN was nothing compared to the sight of millions of people,
around the world, unanimous in their desire for the US to back away from what
could be the beginning of World War III. Bush was given many opportunities to
speak to those people today, and flubbed every one.
Putin, Chirac and Schröder have public opinion on their side, and are
setting the agenda. Bush is flailing in his response, and Blair, exhausted by
Northern Ireland, isn’t providing the necessary backup. Bush is the commander-in-chief
of the US forces, and as such can override the objections of as many allies
as he likes. They can’t stop him from invading. But with their support, an invasion
would be an act of strength and international resolve. Without it, Bush loses
a lot of credibility. And he certainly didn’t increase that today.