President Bush reserved nearly half of his speech, and all of his rhetorical muscle, for the topics of terrorism and the war on terror in his 2007 State of the Union address to Congress.
Even those topics presented as outside of the immediate scope of terrorism became terrorism issues: oil independence was urged to reduce American vulnerability to terrorist intervention. Immigration and border patrol reforms and technologies were presented as necessary to stop terrorists from hoofing their way to U.S. soil. Nearly the entirety of foreign policy was addressed as a function of winning the "war on terror."
Little Is New in 2007 Vision of Terrorist Threat
Amid the rhetoric of "high responsibility" and terrorists' "shoreless ambitions" there was little that was new in President Bush's unyielding narrative of what happened on September 11, 2001 and subsequently.
The horrific events of that day, in the Bush rendering, revealed a hostile Middle East teeming with terrorists, all closely resembling each other, and slowly, but surely, encroaching on American infrastructures and highest ideals. The president described a "decisive ideological struggle" between radical Islamist "evil" and American authored "liberty," terms he has used repeatedly in the past.
Rising from the repetition of past speeches, however, there are four observations we can make at this juncture, about the meaning of Bush's words on the "war on terror," as it enters its sixth year.
War on Terror Continues Focus on Islamic Middle Eastern Groups
- President Bush, and presumably those who inform his thinking, have become more specific in references to particular places, groups, factions, and leaders. He has learned the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite , that Hezbollah operates in Lebanon, that the Taliban operates in Afghanistan and environs. This is an interesting learning curve, and reveals the distinct and ultimately limited Middle Eastern focus of the "war on terror." He never mentions, for example, Chechen militants, some of whom have ties to radical Islamist groups and intentions.
- And yet, these distinctions have no force in meaning for Bush in his speech. In the end: "The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans ... kill democracy in the Middle East ..."
This lack of distinction is a hallmark of the President's grand vision of epic struggle. It's very problematic, from a policy perspective, because it means the Bush Administration can't distinguish the distinct local intentions or desires of specific groups. What Hezbollah wants is historically and now distinct from what different strains of Al Qaeda want. The assassination of Lebanese politician Pierre Gemayal in 2006, mentioned by President Bush as a specific terrorist act, is lumped together with Taliban engagement of NATO forces in Afghanistan in that year.
What's wrong with this? It's a terrible position from which to conceive, let alone enact, policies or responses to these groups. Anyone who has ever had to bargain or deal with a hostile opponent knows it's crucial to understand as much as possible what motivates them and what they want. Lumping all groups together, and assigning them the motivation of "evil" is simplistic, but more important, fruitless. The Bush Administration, and whatever Administration follows in 2008, must learn a little history if they want to shape a secure future.
- The President holds with an impressive rhetorical tenacity to the connection between a broadly waged war on terror and the war in Iraq.
The speech slickly skated in one paragraph from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to Al Qaeda and Sunni extremists in Iraq. In Bush's geography, the war in Iraq is the keystone of a war on terror, and his recommendations about Iraq appear to flow from the depth of his conviction on this point.
- There are almost no specific actions or policies recommended to counter terrorism. This is very curious for what is presented to us as among the most monumental and basic menaces to Americans in their entire history.
The speech, rather, careens between assurances that much, if invisibly, has been done to keep the U.S. safe so far, and generalizations that the U.S. must "remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred," support moderates and "voices of democracy" in the Middle East, and pursue an Iraq policy that the President previously laid out.
The only new, and explicit, action recommended by the President is the expansion of the American armed services by 92,000 in the coming years and the creation of a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps that can be "hired" in times of war. Hopefully, we will hear more in coming weeks about what sounds like a brave new combination of outsourcing supporting military tasks and a draft.
All Islamist Groups Are Alike: A Totalitarian Evil
The War in Iraq is Seen as Keystone of War on Terror
Few Specific Actions or Policies
What Voters Can Ask of Their Politicians regarding Terrorism
Voters, regardless of political leaning, who are beginning to think about the 2008 presidential elections, may want to ask three questions of their next president, when thinking about terrorism related issues:
(1) How does this candidate talk about terrorist groups and actors? Does s/he appear to know and understand distinctions between different groups?; (2) What, actually, are they going to do and what resources are they going to use to deal with international terrorism? (3) Are these acts and actions proposed in a transparent way to the American public, so that we can participate in deciding whether those actions appropriately respond to threats?
That sort of transparency is crucial in a democracy, and the example would surely inspire the incipient democracies the President claimed the U.S. must encourage, in his 2007 State of the Union Address.