Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bush's 9/11 Address: A Deconstruction

President Bush addressed the nation last night to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Surprisingly for some, perhaps, the President chose not to simply eulogize those who died. Instead, he offered a vigorous defence of his national security policy and sought to persuade a skeptical American public that his policies are the best way to keep the nation safe. In doing so, Bush sought to frame the conversation in the next two months before the mid-term Congressional elections in a way favorable to Republicans. An analysis of Bush’s remarks offers a wealth of information about the President’s worldview and how he is trying to sell that worldview to Americans.

First, Bush and his speechwriters are trying to mobilize the strain in American culture that the historian Frederick Merk has called “Mission.” This is the idealistic impulse to improve the world, bolstered by the conviction that America is uniquely good and uniquely equipped for the task. Thus, Bush argued that, “Throughout our history, America has seen liberty challenged, and every time, we have seen liberty triumph with sacrifice and determination.”

Bush also emphasized a distinction between civilization and barbarism, with America and her allies (though the emphasis was definitely on the U.S. and its “distinctly American” virtues) representing civilization and “the terrorists” representing barbarism. This dichotomy is reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt, whose worldview, according to historian Frank Ninkovich, was deeply influenced by a similar vision of the international system. Bush went further than Roosevelt did, however, in trying to rally Americans to his side. He depicted the current problem with radical Islamic terrorism as nothing less than a war to the finish between two diametrically opposed ideologies, democracy and Islamic extremism. He argued that, “The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation….[The terrorisists] know that given a choice, people will choose freedom over their extremist ideology….it is a struggle for civilization….And we're fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.”

In presenting this apocalyptic vision to Americans, Bush drew parallels with past successes in American foreign policy in an effort to connect Iraq in Americans’ minds with something good and invoked the names of mythologized Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. “Do we have the confidence to do in the Middle East what our fathers and grandfathers accomplished in Europe and Asia?”

He also defended his record in the fight against terrorism. Answering a common criticism, he acknowledged that Iraq had no connection to 9/11 but then, without skipping a beat, conflated Iraq, Iran, al Qaeda into one big “evil” that he claims threatens America and that demands nothing less than total victory in Iraq. “If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons. We are in a war that will set the course for this new century -- and determine the destiny of millions across the world….On September the 11th, we learned that America must confront threats before they reach our shores, whether those threats come from terrorist networks or terrorist states. I'm often asked why we're in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress, and the United Nations saw the threat -- and after 9/11, Saddam's regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power….Al Qaeda and other extremists from across the world have come to Iraq to stop the rise of a free society in the heart of the Middle East….The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad. Osama bin Laden calls this fight "the Third World War" -- and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America's "defeat and disgrace forever." If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened; they will gain a new safe haven; they will use Iraq's resources to fuel their extremist movement. We will not allow this to happen. America will stay in the fight. Iraq will be a free nation, and a strong ally in the war on terror.” In blurring the differences between Iraq, Iran and al Qaeda the President continued what seems to be an administration strategy of simplifying, at least for the public, the threats in the Middle East.

Bush world vision, of course, is linked to the Republican Party’s election strategy for the November mid-term elections: scare Americans and make them focus on national security (the only issue where voters trust them more than Democrats) to the exclusion of all else. Thus, Bush wants voters to think that, “Today we are safer, but not yet safe” This is a perfect pitch for the campaign: I am doing a good job but you still need to be scared. “Thanks to the hard work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, we have broken up terrorist cells in our midst and saved American lives. Five years after 9/11, our enemies have not succeeded in launching another attack on our soil, but they've not been idle. Al Qaeda and those inspired by its hateful ideology have carried out terrorist attacks in more than two dozen nations. And just last month, they were foiled in a plot to blow up passenger planes headed for the United States. They remain determined to attack America and kill our citizens -- and we are determined to stop them.” Bush also wants support for his continued efforts to legalize his use of wiretapping without judicial approval and the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists: “We'll continue to give the men and women who protect us every resource and legal authority they need to do their jobs.”

While critics of Bush will find little in this speech to applaud, no one can deny the skill with which he and his speech-writers address the American public. They hit on all the key buttons that Americans respond to: a clear definition of good vs. evil, with America as the protagonist; the superiority of American virtue; the memory of the “Greatest Generation” that triumphed over the Nazis and the Japanese in World War Two; the existence of a powerful evil that threatens the American way of life. As it stands, the President and his policies continue to be unpopular. The President’s speech, although dressed up as a commemoration of the attacks on September 11, was obviously the opening salvo of the White House’s attempts to stabilize public support for Bush’s Iraq policy and to frame the terms of the election debate on the only ground favorable to Republicans. The next few months will show whether or not this strategy will pay off, as it did in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

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