February 5, 2002

State of the Union Bombast

We don't know whether Osama bin Laden was able to hear President Bush's State of the Union speech last week, but if he did he surely would have been delighted.

For after his terrorist forces suffered a humiliation in Afghanistan, and after all the world could see that the bin Ladenist regime which shielded Al Qaeda was bankrupt morally and politically and militarily, George W. Bush has breathed new life into his anti-American vision.

When it chased bin Laden from his lair in Afghanistan, the United States had essential backing from Pakistan and Iran, Russia and China, the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union, considerable support from most Arab governments, and the unanimous support from Europe.

Bin Laden's notion that his terrorism would inspire the Muslim world, divide the West, and destabilize the United States proved an idle fantasy.

But in the victory's aftermath, Bush's menacing speech about the "axis of evil" (comprising North Korea, Iran and Iraq) has set off alarm bells in virtually every foreign ministry in the world. (The phrase, I heard in Washington last week, came from the glib pen of speechwriter David Frum, the former Weekly Standard editor.)

The Bush speech appeared to signal that the President has endorsed the plans of that small coterie of journalists and think tank intellectuals who, in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, began pushing relentlessly for war against Iraq and Iran, while demanding American attacks on other Muslim and Arab regimes. Though they failed to find evidence tying Iraq to the 9/11 attack, they made no secret of the fact they wanted an American war on Saddam Hussein regardless of Iraqi culpability. Within days of 9/11 they circulated a letter asserting that failure to remove Saddam would constitute a craven "surrender" in the war against terror. North Korea was thrown in the way the odd Italian grandmother is pulled out of an airport line and searched to show the United States wasn't targeting Muslim states alone.

It is not always simple to discern the reasons behind advocacy, where real motivations are usually mixed and often muted. Some weeks ago, John McCain blurted out that the reason the United States should attack Iraq is that Iraq poses a potential threat to Israel. When interviewer Chris Matthews tried to pursue the issue further, McCain became confused. Adding Iran to the list a country now in the midst of a dramatic democratization process, which had been surprisingly cooperative with the United States during the Afghan campaign, raises the bid considerably. Chronicles foreign editor Srdja Trifkovic summed up the matter succinctly:

"[T]he inclusion of Iran in the 'axis' is unexpected and represents. . .a major and extremely dangerous victory for the neoconconservative cabal that thinks if Osama bin Laden did not exist he should be invented. Dangerous because a simultaneous campaign against Iraq AND Iran can be desired only by those who want to turn America's current 'passionate attachment' in the Middle East into a permanent and irrevocable alliance that must not be subjected to critical scrutiny. They want America to initiate an all-out war with all the enemies of its 'only reliable ally in the region' whether they be real, potential, or imagined, regardless of whether this is in the interest of the United States to do so. . . [A] massive confrontation with a regional power par excellence -- Iran -- as well as a huge chunk of the Arab world, a confrontation that probably cannot stop short of nuclear exchanges and ultimately, of terrorist attacks on America that would make September 11 look like Bull Run [compared] to Antietam."

Of this there should be no doubt: if America benefited from the good wishes of most of the world after 9/11, global response to a new campaign against Iraq and Iran would be sullen and hostile. The early indicators are clear: Iran's reformist parliament, the spearhead of what may be the first transformation of a fundamentalist Islamist state into a real democracy minced no words in denouncing Bush. "We will not tolerate any aggression" read a statement issued by the parliament. "Bush's recent positions ... constitute a threat to world peace." America's closest allies were more circumspect British foreign minister Jack Straw tried to excuse Bush's words by claiming they were meant to influence forthcoming congressional elections (a full nine months away!). By contrast, applause for the speech came from the well entrenched neocon clique, with William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, and William Kristol hailing Bush's "leadership" from editorial perches in the New York Times and Washington Post. The brain dead Democrats tried to change the subject to Enron.

One problem with Bush is that one can never be sure how well he understands the implications of the words he is given to read in his speeches. After he was drubbed in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, reporters wrote of encountering vocally expressed doubts in the Bush camp about whether trying to elevate the likeable and easygoing governor to the presidency was an idea that had been sufficiently thought through. But the Republican faithful rallied to him, the Christian Right carried him to victory in South Carolina, and for the remainder of the campaign, he issued relatively measured and temperate statements on foreign policy. Still, the thought that he could be manipulated is never far from the surface: he is after all a man whose SAT scores would not in today's college admissions environment secure him admission to a competitive state university unless he could play wide receiver. Has the President ever contemplated the way wars have sometimes spun out of control of those who planned and started them? Has he read even a popular history of the origins of World War I? There is no reason to think so.

If the United States is fortunate, Bush's State of the Union bombast about the "axis of evil" will go down simply as a mistake – a threat that wasn't followed through on (as were many of Bill Clinton's threats), and which will be forgotten as the administration pursues the liquidation of the Al Qaeda networks. But if Bush follows through and starts wars against Iraq and Iran, the United States will find itself without real allies, encountering massive anti-American demonstrations in Europe and throughout the world, and a significant reduction in the quality of anti-terrorist police and intelligence cooperation it now receives from other nations. Much of the world will perceive the war not as legitimate self-defense against a terrorist enemy, but as an act of destabilizing anti-Islamic aggression America is pursuing for its own twisted reasons.

Could Osama bin Laden ask for anything more?

Text-only printable version of this article

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