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Bush Speech Therapy
Don’t Watch

Sober advice, for once

To give tonight’s speech by President Bush a listen is to give him credibility he forfeited four years ago. It’s to be complicit in the games of fear that has been his only trump card in Iraq and in the larger deception once known as the war on terror. Actually, it would prolong the complicity, considering the degree to which the nation has been complicit in both wars. If the deception has worked so far, why not press it further? Back in August Bush was circuiting the nation and playing up his temperamental outbursts, comparing the stakes in Iraq to the stakes against Nazism or communism. If we don’t fight them there he’d say (borrowing from about a dozen pat phrases that have been the sum total of his rhetorical gift to the nation in his six years as “war leader”) we’d have to fight them in American streets. He’s repeating that line tonight in one variation or another, never flinching, as most Americans still don’t, at the notion that it’s entirely acceptable for the United States to use another nation as sacrificial bombing range.

The line also evokes the old domino theory that so many presidents used to such effect since the mid-fifties. Eisenhower was first among deceivers to use it. It happened during a press conference on April 7, 1954. Robert Richards of Copley Press put this obviously planted question to him: “Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina for the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.” Eisenhower’s reply, in a curiously telling hierarchy of concerns that puts rubber and metal ahead of human beings: “First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs. Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world. Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. […] So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

Ike goes on to chat about the tin, tungsten and rubber plantations “and so on” that are so important to democracy. “But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia falling, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through the loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking about millions and millions of people. […] So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.”

From a theory based on little children’s game to geopolitical certainties grounded in fear, a little self-righteousness and plenty of corporate strategizing. It took twenty more years, 60,000 American lives and 2 million Southeast Asians’ lives to prove what could have been suggested in 1954: Neither Bangkok nor San Francisco were, HIV’s coming devastations aside, at risk. But the “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower so fondly warned about, a little late and a little duplicitously, had to be fed. The national security state was already, thanks to Truman, an insatiable beast. And Jack Kennedy, who was more hawkish and reckless, and occasionally mad, than Eisenhower by a long shot when it came to Southeast Asia, was sharpening his knives in the wings. The rest is tombstones.

We might have learned a thing or two. But it took the Reagan years to revert to a happy state of geopolitical amnesia, the first Bush years to restore America’s sense of invulnerability (as the Berlin Wall tumbled and Gulf War I played on television sets everywhere), and the Clinton years’ smug prosperity to get the nation’s reactionaries itching for wars to remind the world that we truly are the only superpower on the map (just as previous powers have itched their way to eventual defeat: hence China’s glib, encouraging silence.)

So here was Tony Snow on Tuesday calling Iraq again “the central front in the war on terror. Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. Why is it important? What does it mean? What can success breed? What does failure mean? A lot of those questions I think Americans want to hear answered, and they will be answered in the President’s address.” Actually, those were the questions we should have had answered prior to the invasion in 2003, when Iraq was the backwater it should have remained, the questions that have been answered with the wrong moves at every stage since, and that won’t get answered any differently tonight.

It was encouraging to hear another Kennedy tell the National Press Club on Tuesday that the Iraq war is “the overarching issue of our time, and American lives, American values and America’s role in the world are all at stake,” or that his vote against the war in 2002 was “the best vote I’ve cast in my 44 years in the United States Senate.” But that, too, is too late. The question now is what to do with a pair of broken nations—ours as well as Iraq, and whether it will be possible to extricate one from the other without blazing up more conflagrations than we’ll put out. The mere fact that the president is being given prime-time deference is indication that even now, the nation is more complicit in his crime than willing to prosecute it, let alone prosecute him. We keep expecting a miracle, although even a resignation speech would not do. Look at what would replace him.

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