From Kennedy to Kipling to Bull
|But does he know why it's Guernica rather than Washington crossing the Delaware that hangs in a United Nations lobby?
Bush at the U.N., in Camouflage
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, September 20, 2006
I suspect the commentariat will have been impressed by President Bush’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations on Tuesday — impressed by its tone of apparent conciliation, its direct appeal to various parts of the world, its seeming lack of bombast. It was a clever speech, in that it replaced substance with tone, leaving little there there when you look behind the words. It was also a stylistically disjointed speech, as if written by committee. The first part could have been spoken by John Kennedy. It was lofty. Quotable. More or less true. But his frame of reference was the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, not the Bush Doctrine. So the truthfulness was borrowed: The first indication of a lack of substance at the heart of the depleted Bush Doctrine. The second part of the speech—beginning, not surprisingly, with Bush’s inevitable straw man: “Some have argued that…”—could have been written by Rudyard Kipling and delivered by Teddy Roosevelt, with a touch of Moses at his most presumptuous: It was White Man’s Burden meets Anglo presumptions at their messianic worst, with Dr. Phil-like psychobabble smooshed in for good measure: “We know that when people have a voice in their future, they are less likely to blow themselves up in suicide attacks. We know that when leaders are accountable to their people, they are more likely to seek national greatness in the achievements of their citizens, rather than in terror and conquest.” On both counts, empty words disconnected from a suicide bomber’s context, or from the kind of reality Bush himself, an allegedly accountable leader, has imposed on the United States and the world—national greatness in the achievement of a mission that answers to a “higher authority,” in Bush’s own words, rather than to the desires of the citizenry, here or abroad.
We then get into the meat of the speech, the direct appeals “to the people of” Iraq , Afghanistan , Lebanon , Iran , Syria and Darfur . This is long-distance imperialism pure and simple, the presumption that the United States somehow is the standard and authority of other people’s ways to peace and means to tolerance. Had this been 1919 or 1945, or even 1960, the appeals would have projected something more than rank arrogance. The United States had the capital, both moral and political, to project ideals and seek reforms abroad. But if it could afford to do the first part richly and inspiringly, it’s because it did the second part sparingly, carefully. The last five year’s recklessness spent all that capital and more. The United States is in a political and moral deficit in the eyes of the world. And it has no more wares, no more actual power (military or economic) to wield around as it once did: not a single one of Bush’s appeals to all these nations was backed up with the promise of anything like generous financial aid, let alone humanitarian or military force, as in Darfur.
It was nice to hear the president state unequivocally that Darfur is suffering a genocide. Not so nice to hear him prevaricate à-la-Rwanda, and ante up no more than “logistical” support for a more forceful United Nations force in East Africa . But what choice does he have? The United States military, once welcomed almost anywhere it went, because it was trusted, (Vietnamese-like exceptions obviously aside) is now as reviled as if it were the old Soviet Union ’s expeditionary forces. It cannot afford to be deployed in places like East Africa because it has become such a lightning rod of anger. That’s Bush’s doing. So when he states, as he did on Tuesday, that “my country desires peace,” the world, naturally, has only one response: You have an unfunny way of showing it.
Those appeals to six nations may stand in welcome contrast to his previous and various axes of evil (his characterizations of Syria and Iran have never been so conciliatory). But they’re the words of an overspent power discovering its limits at last: They’re like rhetorical loans of inspiration and good will—backed by nothing, not even the collateral of trust, once America’s strongest trump card.
Half-way through the speech, Bush makes further declarations that unravel the disjointedness of his aims: Even in a mere 2,700-word, twenty-minute address, you can hide the disconnect from reality—hallmark of this administration’s hubris—only so long. “Working together,” he told the people of Iraq , “we will help your democracy succeed, so it can become a beacon of hope for millions in the Muslim word.” A seemingly attractive, unassailable line. But not really so, even if you put aside Iraq’s catastrophic disintegration: the beacon Bush wants lofted would point in the direction of Pakistan, a dictatorship and an American ally; in the direction of Saudi Arabia, a milder but still Taliban-like theocracy and a staunch American ally; in the direction of Egypt, a dictatorship and an American ally. One wonders why, say, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation and a carefully, slowly emerging democracy, isn’t itself a beacon to the world’s Muslims, a more appropriate beacon than anything America’s neo-con engineers have ever rigged up.
The final part of the speech is its weakest yet—a retread of the “road map” for peace between Israel and Palestine, though its dissonant introduction, compared with what Bush had said to six previous nations’ people, bears noting: He did not say “To the people of Palestine, to the people of Israel,” or even “to the people of the Holy Land.” He said: “The world must also stand up for peace in the Holy Land ,” a statement as skimpy of meaning and conviction as Miss Universe contenders’ whines for peace on Earth. But he did refer to a Palestinian state living “peacefully with the Jewish state of Israel”—the first time, I suspect, that an American president has so explicitly referred to Israel as a Jewish state, as a religious state. He devoted a good four minutes to the matter, then went for his conclusion. That part was all Bush:
Freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed -- it must be chosen. From Beirut to Baghdad , people are making the choice for freedom. And the nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice, as well: Will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East -- or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists? America has made its choice: We will stand with the moderates and reformers.
Seventy-seven words of rhetoric that no longer soars for having been so relentlessly shot down by its real-world contradictions (“Freedom, by its capture, cannot be imposed”? So what are we doing in Iraq?). But the concluding message is more ominous. It’ll be richly misinterpreted as the “new Bush,” the solidarity seeking Bush, the no-longer unilateral Bush. Bull. It’s the very same Bush who gave us his most repeated formula of 2001 and 2002: “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” but in slightly more camouflaged words: Saying that “the nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice,” and declaring that the United States has made its own (“We will stand with the moderates and reformers”) once again reduces all questions, all situations, every country’s challenge to an American-tagged either-or choice. If you’re not with the moderates and the reformers, you’re with the terrorists. If you’re not with those the United States stands with, you’re with the terrorists. If you don’t see it America ’s way, Bush’s way, you’re with the terrorists. The formula recognizes no third way, no divergence from Bush’s unipolar vision of the world. But if the last five years tell us anything, it’s that the unipolar approach has been a terrible failure, has itself been the cause of as much violence as it initially set out to quell.
In sum, Bush hasn’t budged. He knows how to flatter on a world stage now. He knows how to scratch the UN’s back. But scratch his own, and the surface sheen gives way to the same old Bush, minus the capital, minus the forceful Michael Gerson rhetoric, minus the domestic legitimacy he once, if barely, enjoyed. We’re down to a Bush desiccated but unrepentant. In other words, to an autumnal patriarch at his potential worst. Heaven help us.