The truly tragic thing about George W. Bush's fifth State of the Union address was the president's refusal to acknowledge that anyone might remember what was said in his previous speeches to Congress and the nation.
Three years ago, Bush laid out a vision for developing democracy in the Middle East that at least sounded relatively realistic. Echoing statements he had made during the 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore -- when he decried the doomed work of "nation building" -- the president admitted that elections in developing democracies might not turn out the way that his neoconservative "brain trust" had promised they would. And he seemed to be O.K. with that.
"Time after time," Bush warned, "observers have questioned whether this country, or the people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the president did not begin to understand, let alone appreciate, the consequences and responsibilities inherent in those words.
Bush, a man whose awareness of the world and its complex politics was scant at the time of his election and who has learned little in the ensuing years, appears to have genuinely believed that if polling stations were set up, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians and others would elect the local equivalents of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, George Allen and Jim Sensenbrenner. Maybe, in his worst nightmares, Bush imagined the prospect that a Palestinian Russ Feingold or an Iranian Howard Dean might prevail. But that would be as scary as his cloistered consciousness allowed things to get.
Then the voting began. And Bush found himself confronted with an Iranian government that seems to be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent to U.S. meddling in its affairs, an Iraqi government that has yet to embrace pluralism, an Egyptian government that maintains its hold on power by denying the most viable opposition party its place on the ballot and a Palestinian government led by a party with a campaign strategy that includes armed struggle.
Speaking last night after a series of elections where voters in fledgling democracies placed their faith in extremist parties that are unenthusiastic about "western standards of progress," Bush had a responsibility to at least attempt to reconcile the new realities created by the results of recent voting. He ranted against "radical Islam" but would not acknowledge its popular appeal. He said Middle East democracies must be allowed to reflect the values and ideals of Middle Easterners, but then proceeded to tell newly elected governments what they must do to meet his -- decidedly western -- standards.
The address raised more questions than it answered.
Does the president still believe that the United States should not act "as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress." If so, should he not take the appropriate, if politically and personally difficult step of accepting the choices of the Iranian and Palestinian peoples? And should he not decry moves in Iraq, Egypt and other countries to control and constrain the democratic experiment in a manner that denies the majority of citizens an opportunity to select the extremist government of their choice?
Or has the president's commitment to democracy been shaken by election results that were not to his liking?
Bush needed to resolve those contradictions last night with an honest discussion of recent developments.
Instead, he delivered an irrational address that maintained an almost childlike certainly in the prospect that, someday soon, voters in Gaza City, Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo will begin casting ballots according to the same "western standards of progress" as voters in Grand Rapids, Toledo, Baltimore and Carson City.
Everyone knows that Bush has trouble admitting his own mistakes. But how can he fail to recognize that his ungrounded idealism of the past -- as evidenced by last year's State of the Union address, in which the president declared that, "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure" -- has crashed into the harsh reality of a Hamas win at the Palestinian polls?
Bush introduced the term "faith-based solutions" to American politics. Faith is appropriate at times. But when the unwelcome developments challenge assumptions, faith must be tempered with realism -- and perhaps even a measure of humility. Last night was the point at which Bush needed to get real. Instead, the president asked the American people to embrace his unresolved contradictions and to cling with him to increasingly dangerous delusions.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.