The Long View 2003-01-29

This topical take on the 2003 State of the Union address is now mostly interesting because we have an opportunity to remember Rahm Emanuel's praise of W before he became Barack Obama's Chief of Staff.

The State of the Union
George W. Bush had already proven that he can give soaring, Churchillian addresses. What he proved last night was that he can give a forceful but normal one. Whether through consultation or because all great minds think alike, he largely followed the advice that Peggy Noonan gave in her recent column, entitled Just the Facts. Noonan is perhaps more sensitive to this matter than are other pundits. She was called in at the last minute to write the last State of the Union Address given by the current president's father. That president planned to run for reelection largely on the basis of his recent victory in the Persian Gulf, with the result that he had almost nothing to say in January of 1992. She did a pretty good job on the speech, but you can do only so much with geniality and a reduction in the capital-gains tax. Bush Senior was defeated later that year because he gave the impression there was nothing he wanted to do with the presidency.
To put it mildly, this was not a problem with last night's address. A former Clinton adviser and now congressman from Illinois, Rahm Emmanuel, put it best with a wonderful mixture of metaphors and propulsion systems:
"This is one of those moments when you get all eight cylinders of the presidency operating, and they're going to use as much octane as they can to get him back into orbit."
Every president after Richard Nixon seemed to become paralyzed whenever a foreign policy issue dominated the national agenda. George W. Bush, in contrast, has somehow recovered the knack of the early Cold War presidents of talking about foreign and domestic policy without making one sound like a distraction from the other. Some of these domestic proposals have merit, but not many, frankly. He still wants to cut taxes drastically while fighting a low-intensity world war. His ideas about partially privatizing the Medicare program would make the lives of seniors more complicated and stressful. On the other hand, he did signal to the people that he is interested in much the same things they are interested in. Actually, the social welfare measure he proposed that will probably do the most good was not domestic but foreign: tripling the amount of money the US spends to combat AIDS in Africa.
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As for the foreign policy half of the speech, the president's job was made immensely easier by the report that UN weapons inspector Hans Blix gave to the Security Council on Monday. I still think that Dr. Blix is Mr. Magoo, but even Mr. Magoo knows when he has been insulted. The last straw seems to have been the Iraqi agreement to let the inspectors talk to scientists privately, followed within hours by evidence that no scientist would actually be interviewed under those circumstances. Contrary to widespread expectations, the president did not divulge much new intelligence information about Iraq last night. Still, it was news to me that some of the "scientists" the UN inspectors did interview were really Iraqi security officers. There comes a time when even the most pacific bureaucrat wants to load for grape.
We should note that the president has made himself a hostage to fortune. "The war against terrorism is being won," he said. This is true. We see this especially in Europe, where poisons and explosives are discovered every other day in the hands of would-be terrorists. Islamist cells have been uncovered in Spain and France, in Britain and Germany. The attacks are being stopped. The problem is that they are still being attempted, and at an accelerating pace.
The groups and individuals involved are increasingly diverse. The hijackers of 911 were mostly from Saudi Arabia. The latest detainees are more likely to be from North Africa. Chechnya is starting to play the role that Afghanistan once did as a training ground. Many sources say that a major terrorist offensive will be launched when the US launches a conventional offensive against Iraq. Some of these terrorist attacks will probably succeed, and the presidents' critics will say that he provoked attacks that caused casualties among Western civilians. This reasoning is very much like the argument that FDR caused the attack on Pearl Harbor by refusing to sell the Japanese more oil. The charge is true, after a fashion, but it rather misses the point.
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The president promised to consult with the UN about further steps against Iraq. He said that Colin Powell would make the case for decisive action to the Security Council next week. However, he also made clear that the US would act whether or not the UN did. This got applause in the House chamber, but one suspects it came chiefly from the Republican side. There were many odd things about the Democrat's response to the speech (which began before the speech was delivered, of course), but by far the oddest was the determination of the party leadership to treat the Security Council as a third house of Congress. Their insistence that the US is always stronger when aligned with the UN is starting to sound like the story of the mythological Simurgh bird, which is omnipotent on the condition that it do nothing.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle spent the day before the speech telling anyone who would listen that "the state of the Union is anxious." This would have been a good line, had the president's address consisted of platitudes and threats. It played poorly against the address that was actually delivered. Afterward, the Congressional Democratic leadership, particularly those with presidential aspirations, fought shy of making a conspicuous response. They took the very unusual step of having the rebuttal made by a governor, one Gary Locke of Washington. He used much of his time paying tribute to his immigrant grandfather from China. It was not a bad talk, but it was delivered by someone who knew no more about foreign policy than George W. Bush did when he was a state governor. Locke's real purpose seemed to be simply to remind voters that the Democrats are the party of abortion and affirmative action.
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Early polls indicate the president's address was well received. It's not that people necessarily agree with President Bush. It's just that now they are reassured he is on the case.

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