WASHINGTON -- I had not seen President Bush person-to-person since a long 14-hour interview with him just before his first presidential election, so I was curious to attend his "important big speech" last week at the invitation of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Certainly, I would not see the man with whom I had spent those pleasant hours in 1999. He was modest then, and completely charming, as we roamed from appearance to appearance in Midland, Texas. He talked about ending welfare, stopping the advancement of unprepared children in the third grade, and even of his own idea of "cottage industries" to pick up the economic slack. He seemed to me like a true Republican reformer then, a man whose eyes filled with tears at the mention of his father, the first President Bush. He said to me, with impressive modesty, "If I'm president, fine; if not, I'll just come back home to Texas."
A lot of water -- dark, turbulent water -- has gone over the dam since then and especially since 9/11, when he discovered Afghanistan, Iraq and other points east of Suez, hitherto unknown to him. So I did not anticipate that same, almost boyish portrait. But I did see something different than what I had expected.
Only last week, the super-hawkish Wall Street Journal ran a front-page news story with the subhead "Some Top Brass Say Troops May Be Fueling Insurgency." In short, our military is now contending that we may well be creating, and re-creating every day, the war we are fighting to end. The Washington Post reported that U.S. military thinking has changed completely -- that they are planning to reduce U.S. troop levels next year and have sharply lowered expectations for what America can accomplish.
One might have thought such informed thinking from his own military, coming even as the president's approval ratings plummet over Iraq (54 percent of Americans in recent Zogby polls say the president is on the wrong track), might have moved him to give a more nuanced speech, a speech that would have laid out a more thoughtful future plan. But it did not.
Only moments after the president walked into the beautiful, blond-wood theater at the Ronald Reagan Building, ramrod-straight and dressed in gray suit and red tie, it was clear that his original "compassionate conservativism" is dead. In fact, the president's thinking has not been in the slightest affected by the confusion and terrible losses in Iraq.
In the next hour, even as pundits were still betting that he would take a more moderate or at least analytical tone, he in effect declared war on even more of the world.
Radical Islam is not simply a reasonably small fundamentalist uprising, in the president's view; and our fight against it is congruent historically with the noble fights against evil fascism and communism. Its adherents and adepts dream of "an empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." They have a "focused ideology that (is) evil, but not insane." Terrorists "regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity," aided and abetted by "helpers and enablers ... allies of convenience like Syria and Iran." He compared today's Iraq and Afghanistan (and wherever else we are or are not going) to the American losses in Beirut in 1982 and to similar losses in Mogadishu in 1993. Thus, Iraq was never an isolated case, or avoidable, but part of an ongoing persecution of America in the world that America must every moment defend against.
The notably uncaptured Osama bin Laden, not mentioned at all in Bush's recent speeches, was named, by my count, five times. Osama is a child of "privilege" who sends others out to die but "never offers to go along for the ride."
The sense of the long and deadly serious speech was that the United States had no responsibility for any of this. He put together Chechen extremists killing schoolchildren in Russia, Israelis on the West Bank and memories of the Crusaders in a kind of mumbo-jumbo mixture of violence, hatred and suffering in the world. "In fact," he finally said, "we are not facing a set of grievances that can be soothed and addressed. No act of ours invited the rage of the killers, and no concession, bribe or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder. We will never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory."
Wow! What is one to make of this extraordinary pronouncement, especially coming at this time?
It certainly shows that the president, instead of looking for a respectable way out of the Iraq quagmire, which would leave our important efforts in Afghanistan the space to be successful, has once and for all declared Iraq the center of the war on terrorism. It is truly now a war of the worlds, a war in line with other moments of American history. His statement that we had stopped 10 terrorist attacks, three of them in the United States, was newsworthy -- but even that piece of good news could not overshadow the fact that, for instance, Beirut and Mogadishu were American defeats in places where, like Iraq, we had no need to be.
Finally, as a new statement of policy and purpose, this speech portends rough days, weeks and years ahead for the nation.
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