Everybody knows that President George W. Bush is a hopeless speaker. His nasal East Texas twang grates on Yankee ears, and, I suspect, the ears of those possessed of more mellifluous Southern drawls as well. His grammar and syntax often fail him in question and answer sessions.
Yet the received wisdom concerning the President’s rhetorical abilities misses the point entirely. Since 9/11, President Bush has delivered a series of speeches rich in content and stirring in eloquence unmatched by those of any other president in living memory.
One would have to go back to Lincoln, or at least to FDR, to think of a president who has used the medium of the presidential address to educate and rally the American public to the same degree. Bush has enunciated new doctrines of international relations; broken with decades of American foreign policy, described in detail the perils of a new world revealed by 9/11, and explained why the promotion of democracy around the world, and particularly in the Middle East, is not only the most moral course but that most likely to guarantee the safety of Americans.
That presidential rhetoric, like Lincoln’s during and after the Civil War, has proven crucial to the war effort. As the immediate trauma of 9/11 fades, Americans have exhibited the natural human tendency to push the events of that day to the back of their mind and to convince themselves that they will not recur. The natural human tendency to avoid immediate and definite costs, while ignoring the long-range dangers of failing to act has reasserted itself. That tendency has been further reinforced by the apparent ingratitude of the most immediate and direct beneficiaries of the enormous sacrifices of lives and wealth that America has made.
The central task of the Bush administration has been, in Victor Davis Hanson’s words, `"to convince Americans to shoulder these thankless tasks that are so critical for world peace and our own national security, especially when the immediate costs so often cloud the more abstract long-term benefits."
Like Sir Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, who knows but one large thing, the President realized in the wake of 9/11 that America will either confront terror relentlessly abroad or face it again and again at home. A corollary of that recognition is that America cannot ignore the poisons generated by failed Middle East societies.
When the world changed on 9/11, the President changed with it. During the 2000 campaign, he showed his father’s typical disdain for "the vision thing" and for "nation-building." In the wake of 9/11, however, he became the chief architect of the vision of a Middle East transformed by a move to democratic government, a vision that has led America to engage in nation-building on a massive scale in Iraq.
President Bush’s role as guide to a dangerous, new world began with his first State of Union address after 9/11. America, he explained, had no choice but to act, and act decisively: "Time and distance from the events of September the 11th will not make us safer unless we act upon its lessons," said the President.
Chief among those lessons is the close connection between shadowy terrorist groups and their state sponsors. The President coined the phrase the "Axis of Evil" to describe those states that provide sanctuary for terrorist groups and export weapons of mass destruction, and vowed that he would not "wait on events, while dangers gather . . . [nor] permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons."
The phrase the "Axis of Evil" was widely ridiculed, just as President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire" and his decision to confront that empire, rather than to live with it in détente, were once ridiculed. Yet the President surely realized that only the clarity of vision provided by the dichotomy between good and evil could arouse the innate idealism of the American people and rally them to the enormous task ahead.
At the West Point graduation ceremony on June 1 2002, President Bush explained why the "new threat" of international terrorism requires "new thinking," and why the Cold War doctrine of deterrence that had prevented nuclear catastrophe for half a century no longer applied: "Deterrence – the promise of massive retaliation against nations – means nothing against shadowy terrorist nations with no nation or citizens to defend."
Because America could no longer defend itself by simply "hoping for the best," a new doctrine – preemption – would have to replace that of deterrence. In a world in which "even weak states and small groups c[an] attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations," America has no choice but to act first to keep terrorists from acquiring those weapons. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush explained.
The President quoted from the West Point commencement address of General George Marshall, delivered six months after Pearl Harbor: "We’re determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand, and of overwhelming power on the other hand." He made clear that the two go hand in hand. Unless American power and the willingness to use it are widely recognized by the enemies of freedom, the liberty of free peoples everywhere is threatened.
Once again, the President defiantly insisted on characterizing the battle as one between right and wrong. "Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place," he said. "Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. . . . We are in conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name."
Nowhere was the President’s willingness to rethink entirely ingrained assumptions and courses of action clearer than in his June 24 2002 speech on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In that speech, he completely renounced Oslo’s assumption that all concrete concessions must come from Israel as the stronger side and that progress towards peace can be measured by the signing of new agreements in which Israel makes further concessions in return for the reiteration of previous Palestinian promises.
Now, the President made clear, the ball was in the Palestinians’ court. They would first have to end terrorism as a precondition for further negotiations. Having declared war on terrorism around the world, the President had no choice but to cool the Palestinian’s manic expectations that suicide bombings would bring them closer to their goals. "A Palestinian state will never be created by terror," he declared.
That state, the President made clear, would have to be earned. And the means of doing so would be the creation of a viable Palestinian democracy – not just one election one time, but freedom of speech and press, an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and financial transparency and accountability.
In the June 24 speech, the President began developing one of his major themes over the next year and a half: democratic development as the antidote for failed Middle East societies and the resentment and blind hatred they produce. He fully adopted the insight of Andre Sakharov, the Soviet human rights crusader, that no nation can be trusted more than it trusts its own people. "If liberty can bloom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression, equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government," President Bush concluded.
More than a year later, in his November 6 address to the National Endowment for Democracy, and two weeks later from Whitehall Palace in London, Bush returned in full force to the importance of democratic development for the Middle East. While the number of democracies in the world had grown from 40 to 120 over the previous thirty years, that global wave of democracy has, in the words of a U.N.-sponsored report by Arab scholars "barely reached the Arab states." "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export," the President argued.
The President announced a dramatic break with traditional American foreign policy in the Middle East based on shoring up corrupt despots in order to ensure stability and the steady supply of oil. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush announced.
The President’s greatest achievement has been to paint the war on terrorism as both a noble cause and the key to a more secure world. He has repeatedly used the religious language of "calling" to describe the American role in advancing freedom, and expressed his belief that G-d has placed upon America the duty "to fight not to impose our will, but to defend ourselves and extend the blessings of freedom." Nor did he shirk from terming those blessings of liberty "the plan of Heaven for humanity."
"There is a line in our time, and in every time, between those who believe all men are created equal, and those who believe that some men and women and children are expendable in the pursuit of power. There is a line in our time, and every time, between the defenders of human liberty ad those who seek to master the minds and souls of others," he stated on the first anniversary of 9/11.
In many ways, according to the President, the terrorists have understood better than the citizens of the free world what is at stake in Iraq and the Middle East. "When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject ideologies of terror, and turn to pursuits of peace. Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat," said the President two years after 9/11.
"Our enemies understand this," he continued, which is why they fight desperately "to undermine Iraq’s progress and throw the country into chaos." Their courage, like that of Palestinian suicide bombers, derives from the perception of free nations as "decadent and weak."
At Whitehall Palace, Bush declared that "the terrorists have a purpose, a strategy to their cruelty. They view the rise of democracy in Iraq as a powerful threat to their ambitions. In this they are correct." They believe that their acts of terror will force America and its allies to "recoil and retreat." And in that, Bush promised, "they are mistaken."
If that promise turns out to be true, it will be in large measure due to the President’s ability to explain clearly to the American people what is at stake in the Middle East and to make them understand that "there will be no going back to the era before September the 11th 2001 – to false comfort in a dangerous world."