The State of the Union address was understated, but it was still quite a revolutionary sort of speech (“free people will set the course of history”). It was an elemental talk about life and death, good and evil — and the desire for allies, but the determination, if need be, to act alone. Somber tones without a note of triumphalism added to its power — helped by the president’s calls for idealistic foreign activism coupled with new domestic concerns. Americans like tough talk — but only if it is arises out of larger moral sensibilities.
The president’s generational promise (“we shall not pass on our problems to others…”) to promote freedom across the globe — the old dream of JFK that was dashed in Vietnam — was presented as the logical extension of compassion at home. So a society that seeks the removal of a killer like Saddam Hussein logically would do so for the common good since it now vows to save millions in Africa from AIDS, to mentor the children of prisoners, and to ensure that a family of four making $40,000 would pay a mere $45 in income taxes.
Both the tone and strategy of his warning to Saddam Hussein were designed to dispel the image of a reckless geopolitical gambler, whose war with Iraq is but an extension of his own elite concerns or braggadocio. Tonight the president was more a solemn Gary Cooper in High Noon than the gun-toting Wild Bunch.
But the strength of the speech was not really found in its measured delivery or political strategies, but in its content. Three themes stood out. First, he made no apologies for last year’s Axis of Evil. Yes, all three remain evil and yet must be dealt with through three correspondingly different strategies: hope for and encouragement of a growing grassroots democratic revolution in Iran, regional allied containment of a now nuclear Korea (a warning about the failure to preempt rogue nations), and either the removal of Iraq’s mass weapons or the dictator who acquired them.
Second, the president reminded us that we cannot trust Saddam — “not a strategy not an option” — because he has not accounted for tons of chemical and biological weapons. Our allies have forgotten that if we know he had weapons, and we know he has not explained their present whereabouts, then it can only be that they remain and they remain because they are planned to be used either for blackmail or mass death. It was an effective prologue to the promised greater detailed report of Secretary Powell to follow.
Third, the looming war was phrased in terms of a pre-Vietnam era ideal of global liberation — a natural dividend of American resoluteness that derives from a particular sense of right and wrong that is more than just cynical Realpolitik. When purveyors of mass death seek to trump their previous murder, ultimately the only solution is to create conditions where a Saddam Hussein or an Iranian theocracy cannot aid them or threaten others — which means either their demise or acceptance of freedom. In that regard, we should not forget that only a “democratic Palestine” can result in a “secure Israel.” And so Saddam Hussein is now a footnote to history — and the world will have only to decide to what extent it will ignore, hasten, or oppose his departure.
There was one critical fallacy in the president’s speech. Despite promises of “fiscal responsibility,” there were promises of billions of dollars in expenditures in additional programs and entitlements, promises of billions in cuts of income and dividend taxes — and both costly agendas coupled with the likelihood of an expensive war. That the Democratic deer-in-the-headlights response did not anticipate, and so did not reply to this fiscal impossibility is an indication of the opposition’s general paralysis. But that is what generally happens when you are on the wrong side of history in opposing the removal of a deadly fascist, in a post-9/11 world where there is no margin of error.