For George W. Bush, at least. In this year’s State of the Union address, Bush led with his weakness–the Iraq War–and stuck to the un-nuanced and bold (if misleading) assertions he has used to justify the war and to argue for staying the course, his course.
After speaking of the death of Coretta Scott King (in which he endorsed the notion of heaven by speaking of her “reunion” with her husband), calling for preserving a “civil tone” in the “tough debates” of Washington (this from the man who during the 2002 campaign claimed the Democrats “were not interested in the security of the American people”) and referring to September 11 (suggesting that it was the lack of democracy in Afghanistan that brought “murder and destruction to our country”), Bush launched into his standard comic-book defense of the war on Iraq. To protect America, he explained, the United States must fight for freedom and democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. (WMDs in Iraq? Whoever said anything about WMDs in Iraq?) “We do not forget,” Bush said, the people who live in undemocratic “Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran.” He did not include China in this list. And in Iraq, he continued, “terrorists like bin Laden…aim to seize power” and use Iraq as a “safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world.” He added, “A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison…[and] put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country.”
This is–to be polite–an absurd analysis. The insurgency, as even Bush has noted in other speeches, is mainly made up of rejectionists and Baathist remnants. Islamic terrorists are a fraction. They are fighting the United States more than they are fighting to take over Iraq. Moreover, these foreign jihadists are hardly in a position to “seize power” in Iraq. The dominant (Iran-backed) Shiite theocrats now in control are unlikely to let that happen, and they have militias of their own. But Bush depicted the mess in Iraq as an us-against-Al Qaeda clash. That is disingenuous and ignores the harsh realities and policy dilemmas created by the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq.
After laying out a false white-hat/black-turban dichotomy, Bush turned into a cheerleader. “We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it,” he intoned. There can be no “retreating within our borders…. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat…. The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.” Get the picture? And, interestingly, he equated disengagement in Iraq with “isolationism” several times in the speech. (Did a new memo come in from the pollsters?)
After rallying the public with his Americans-don’t-retreat cry, he vowed he had a “clear plan for victory.” He did not say when the clarity of that victory will become apparent. But he claimed, “We are winning.” He did not–to borrow a term fancied by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–offer any “metrics” for supporting this claim. Then came the inevitable we-must-support-the-troops rationale for sticking with the war. And Bush pointed out the parents and widow of Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, who was killed last month in Falluja. They were sitting behind Laura Bush in the balcony. A bipartisan, standing ovation ensued. Was this a moment of genuine respect for the family of a fallen soldier? Was it a moment of exploitation, in which Bush was using their tragic, heart-wrenching sacrifice to prop up his war (which will produce other grieving parents and spouses)? The line between the two was thin.