January 29, 2003

State of the Union I

State of the Union

I would have flirted with the notion of staying up until 2:00 AM London time to catch W’s State of the Union live but, suffice it to say, getting satellite television in London is an arduous task. Therefore, I instead settled for reading the State of the Union in the A.M. While without the benefit of catching the subtleties related to W’s delivery of the speech, I must say the speech reads (mostly) very well.

Karl Rove’s influence is apparent from the get-go with the initial strong emphasis on domestic issues like tax cuts, health care reform and environmental issues. Message: I am not my father and will not ignore domestic issues to my electoral peril. Not that the Herbert Walker tag would ever really stick to W—his “common” Reaganesque qualities insulate him from Connecticut Yankee stereotypes. Clearing brush and chopping wood on the torrid Crawford ranch evoke far different images than Kennebunkport golfing forays in the breezy Maine summer.

Yet the heart of this State of the Union dealt with the “axis of evil” countries—well, really one in particular—as Bush further put the U.S. on a war footing in preparation for conflict with Iraq (see State of the Axis in next post). The transition within the speech from domestic issues to foreign policy also betrayed Karl Rove’s extensive influence. W spoke of the “compassion of America” in the context of volunteers visiting prisoners in jail, mentors for disadvantaged young students, and drug recovery programs. Then he extended the mantle of “compassion” beyond the U.S.: “The qualities of courage and compassion that we strive for in America also determine our conduct abroad.” Thus the appeal to the great American center under the rubric of compassionate conservatism is linked to Administration foreign policy overseas.

In this context, however, the speech passes through a weak spot with breezy treatment of our rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan (no mention of the extensive firefight in southeastern Afghanistan just yesterday) and international food aid issues. Surprisingly, even for this Administration which has de-emphasized previous administration’s energetic peace-processing in the Middle East, the issue of helping to broker a Middle East peace is sandwiched between the brief aside regarding Afghanistan and talk of “feeding the hungry.”

Mention of continuing efforts to “seek peace between a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine” might just as well have been left out. The subtext here was the continuing victory of neo-conservatives within the administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It appears that until Arafat more or less passes from the scene (whether by death, exile or delegating power to a credible Prime Minister thus solely relegating himself to figurehead status), this President is not prepared to seriously engage the two parties in the Holy Land on a search for peace.

That is the real message behind referencing a “democratic” Palestine. And stressing that peace would be with a “secure” Israel goes beyond the traditional peace process "land for peace" (ie., security) formulation. It is a further indication that W views Israel’s leadership as grappling with the very same “homeland security” issue he faces in the U.S (no differentiation regarding a national liberation struggle appear to complicate the picture for W). The “roadmap” will thus likely remain a cul-de-sac even after the Israeli election that returned Sharon to power yesterday. This is unfortunate as the parties are exhausting themselves through protracted confict and an energetic U.S. leadership role is critical to the prospects of brokering any forward movement that will stem the carnage in the region. But that is a discussion for another day.

This weak patch in the Bush State of the Union is improved, however, by a lengthy discussion on combating AIDS in Africa. Here, Bush shows that he is not just rhetorically paying lip service to his “compassionate conservative” values vis-ą-vis their extension overseas. $10 billion of new funds dedicated to “turn the tide” of the AIDS plague in the Caribbean and Africa is a significant initiative by any measure. Further, as Rove surely realizes, it helps immunize Bush from a potential campaign issue that Democratic foreign policy grandees like Richard Holbrooke have been touting as a full-blown national security threat.

Mr. Bush then continues some pre-electioneering positioning defending his record on the war on terrorism. He preemptively moves to hobble so-called national security candidates in the Democratic field like Joe Lieberman or The New Republic’s latest flavor of the month FL Senator Bob Graham (or is it now Gary Hart?) by stressing that over 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in the past year or so (an impressively large number that simultaneously reminds listeners of the massive human toll of 9/11). Bush also lists various terrorist plots that have been uncovered over the past 15 or so months in time to save lives from the Straits of Hormuz to Buffalo, New York.

He also reminds us all of the continued perils presented by the war on terror lest the public become overly complacent given the occurrence of no mega-terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11: “There are days when our fellow citizens do not hear news about the war on terror. There is never a day when I do not learn of another threat, or receive reports of operations in progress, or give an order in this global war against a scattered network of killers.”

The message to Nancy Pelosi, Warren Christopher and other disgruntled Californians: The war on terror is not on the backburner but very much front and center. We are lucky we have not lost a significant number of lives since 9/11 to another attack. This is partly because we are prosecuting the war with utmost diligence. And we will continue to do so, even as we expand the war on terror. (see above on “State of the Axis”)

Posted by Gregory at January 29, 2003 03:55 PM
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