The first half of President Bush’s State of the Union swan song brought together a hodgepodge of disconnected themes and proposals. Devoted to domestic issues, the first half of the speech barely alluded to the war in which we are engaged. The discussion of taxes — the proposal to make his tax cuts permanent, the vow of no new taxes, the request that those who support higher taxes send their checks and money orders to the IRS — was the highlight of the first half.
But would an average citizen watching the first half of the speech even understand the subjects the president was addressing in such a telegraphic style? Earmarks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, No Child Left Behind, the Doha Round, clean energy technology (including advanced battery technology!), greenhouse gases, global climate change, increasing government funding for science, the prohibition of cloning, the confirmation of judges, charitable choice. As Churchill said of the dessert he asked to be removed, this pudding lacked a theme.
Indeed, the themeless first half of the speech belied the seriousness of the foreign policy issues addressed in the second half of the speech. Here President Bush took justifiable pride in the surge/counterinsurgency strategy that has produced incredible progress on the battlefield in the course of a year. In an act of magnanimity that his opponents will never reciprocate, he confined his derogation of the defeatists in the chamber with him to a single sentence: “When we met last year, many said containing the violence was impossible.”
In year seven of the war against the United States, however, President Bush did not even name the enemy:
We are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century. The terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency that we hold dear. Yet in this war on terror, there is one thing we and our enemies agree on: In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny.
But what does our enemy believe in? Surely something more was called for.
Beyond references to the Afghanistan and Iraq fronts, the second half of the speech was notable less for what it said than what it didn’t say. Where the Bush administration has focused its diplomatic efforts, its diplomacy has traced a Clintonian arc. North Korea was not even mentioned. How go the efforts to hold North Korea to its commitment to declare its nuclear programs? Interested listeners will have to look elsewhere for an answer.
At least Iran was menioned. Indeed, a close listener could deduce that Iran’s war against the United States continues in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet President Bush barely mustered a harsh word toward the powers-that-be in Iran:
We are also standing against the forces of extremism embodied by the regime in Tehran. Iran’s rulers oppress a good and talented people. And wherever freedom advances in the Middle East, it seems the Iranian regime is there to oppose it. Iran is funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing Hamas? efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land. Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon. Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you, we respect your traditions and your history, and we look forward to the day when you have your freedom. Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, and cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.
To borrow the formulation of the first President Bush: “Message: I have thrown in the towel.”
President Bush also promoted his efforts to create the framework for a Palestinian state by the end of the year:
We are also standing against the forces of extremism in the Holy Land, where we have new cause for hope. Palestinians have elected a president who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel. Israelis have leaders who recognize that a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state will be a source of lasting security. This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem, I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year. The time has come for a Holy Land where a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine live side-by-side in peace.
Has the Palestinan president ever “confronted” terror? If so, last night would have been a good time to reveal his efforts. Somehow President Bush omitted to mention that the Palestinian president was in the middle of the three-day mourning period he had declared to honor one of the most vile terrorist mass murderers in the history of the modern Middle East.
The president concluded his speech with an allusion to the Constitutional Convention and its handiwork. The president attributed America’s greatness not to its government, but rather to the spirit and determination of the American people. “By trusting the people, our Founders wagered that a great and noble nation could be built on the liberty that resides in the hearts of all men and women.” One can’t help but reflect that if there is something distinctive in the spirit and determination of the American people, perhaps not all people can similarly be trusted with the rigors of free government. President Bush invokes a universal truth while paying tribute to the virtue of a particular people.
At the end of President Bush’s first term, Charles Kesler reflected on Bush’s problematic invocation of the human heart in support of free government. The constitutional system of limited government reflects both trust and distrust of the people. If the founders “trusted the people,” why did they limit the power of the people to express their will through the government? It seems to me that even President Bush’s peroration last night tends to show a speech divided against itself.