The finality of the long — seemingly endless — period of indecision, fractured alliances, ambivalent allies, and fruitless diplomacy had an unusual touch. The president flew two thirds of the way across the Atlantic to meet with the leaders of the diminished ranks of our allies. The trip doesn’t take much more air time than a flight to Denver, but there was operatic grace in seeking out a remote island, one of an archipelago as beautiful as any on earth, and touching down with the prime ministers of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, where the language spoken is foreign, and where an Atlantic U.S. Air Force base serves as a promontory of U.S. vigilance for the world Columbus left, to discover the new world. The mother country of the Azores endured a left-wing coup in 1974. A few years later, the governor of the islands disclosed, with not much discretion, that if the military continued power in Portugal, the Azores would declare their loyalty to Lisbon ended, and make out for themselves. The Azores had been a colony for about 500 years.
We learn that the leave-taking of President Bush was especially moving. He treated the natives who came to see him off in his majestic carrier, an airplane with more bodies on board than Columbus brought on his ship, to a special show of fraternity, not visibly different from his intensive exchanges with the firefighters in New York. And we know what he was thinking as, after nightfall, he boarded the plane with the honor guard, because the next day he would express himself. In New York, three days after September 11, a fresh chapter opened for America; at the air base in Terceira, it moved forward to the next stage. We would be going to war.
We learned that on Air Force One there were two speechwriters there to help him craft the address he would give 24 hours later. Mr. Bush spoke the language of going to war so very different from such as was spoken during the first centuries of the Azores’ sentient life on earth. When the islands were discovered, there was no human life there. Before the colonizers settled down to being a metropolitan district of Portugal, they were fought for, and dominated intermittently, by the Spanish. When they went to war in those days, the missions were outspoken. The rulers wished for glory, foreign possessions, and wealth.
Nothing of the kind preoccupied Mr. Bush in the missions he described on Monday night. Lenin preached to faithful Marxist ears that colonialism was the chief and vital enterprise of the bourgeois world, motivating policy and life. Revisionists have carefully argued, in recent years, that the overhead of colonialism often exceeded its fruits, challenging a central postulate of Marx-Lenin. It is not widely held that we are moving against Iraq for material reasons, and it is plain that our motives are hardly material, unless one classifies as a material motive the determination to safeguard one’s freedom and security.
In his speech the president was airborne with confidence in his mission and in the reasons for it. His exposure to the Azores might have made him more cautious when he spoke of the prospects for Iraq after liberation. Portugal, climbing out from monarchy soon after the turn of the century, moved towards an autocracy that lasted for 35 years, after which was the military coup, reaching an institutionalized democracy only in the late ’70s.
President Bush spoke directly, using the personal pronoun, to the people whose country he would invade. The military campaign “will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror.”
And then? “We will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.” And at the close, “Unlike Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty. And when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.”
Mr. Bush would have done better to speak more modestly about expectations. Sitting down on vast oil reserves does not bring prosperity or freedom, as we are quickly reminded merely by citing Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. What Mr. Bush proposes to do is to unseat Saddam Hussein and to eliminate his investments in aggressive weaponry. We can devoutly hope that internecine tribal antagonisms will be subsumed in the fresh air of a despot removed, and that the restoration of freedom will be productive. But these concomitant developments can’t be either foreseen by the United States, or implemented by us. What Mr. Bush can accomplish is the removal of a regime and its infrastructure. The Iraqi people will have to take it from there.