A President is well advised to choose his words carefully. This is something the incumbent, left to his own devices, is not always capable of doing. A State of the Union speech finesses that difficulty. The speaker speaks off the teleprompter, not the cuff. And the words that scroll down on the angled reflectors to his left and his right are as carefully—or, at any rate, as exhaustively—considered as bureaucratic thoroughness can make them. Every prepared Presidential address has multiple authors, but a State of the Union is the product of whole buildings full of them. The text that George W. Bush recited last Tuesday night had gone through thirty drafts.
It’s safe to assume, therefore, that the President was not speaking casually when he identified America’s mortal enemy as “radical Islam.” This is the latest milestone in a wandering terminological journey that began shortly after September 11, 2001. “War on terror” has always been problematic, at both ends. The word “war” has the requisite urgency, and it has proved useful in intimidating the political opposition at home. But, as we have seen in Iraq and elsewhere, its associations—pitched battles, clashing states, disciplined armies with general staffs—can invite actions that are, at best, beside the point. “Terror” is not a conquerable enemy, or an end in itself. It is a method of achieving some political goal, however outlandish or unrealizable—an ugly and frightening method, as was the bombing of civilian populations in the Second World War. But “war on terror” is a chimerical circle, like “war to end all wars.” Woodrow Wilson’s war to end all wars defeated imperial Germany, but it did not, and could not, defeat war. Nor can a war on terror defeat terror.
Now and then over the past couple of years, the Administration has halfheartedly tried to shed the straitjacket of its own slogan. “We actually misnamed the war on terror,” Bush mused in the summer of 2004. “It ought to be ‘the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.’ ” A year later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a run at substituting the catchier “global struggle against violent extremism.” It didn’t fly. Bush, who had decided that he wants to be a war President, not a struggle President, shot it down. But “struggle” would at least have acknowledged that warfare is not the sole solution, and “violent extremism” would have recognized a motive behind the method.
Last October, speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy, the President returned to the topic, floating more names for the “focussed ideology” that brought down the Twin Towers. “Some call this evil Islamic radicalism,” he said. “Others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamofascism.” As of last week, he seemed to have settled on “radical Islam.” It’s a bad choice, reminiscent of his early talk of a “crusade.” Violent jihadism, yes. Islamist (as distinct from Islamic) terrorism, yes. But not Islam, radical or otherwise.
There’s no doubt, of course, that terrorists of the Al Qaeda ilk are drawn from the ranks of adherents of “radical”—which is to say, extreme or fundamentalist—Islam. But radical Islam is a far broader and more variegated phenomenon than the terrorist virus that infects it. Its incarnations range from Al Qaeda to the clerical and legal establishments of Saudi Arabia. In virtually every iteration, it demands the subordination of women, the stunting of education, and the curbing of the freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion. It should be opposed, as part of America’s thirty-year-old campaign against violations of human rights. But it is not in and of itself a casus belli. Violence and terrorism are not intrinsic to it. And it is emphatically not something against which the United States should seek to fight a war to the death. One of Al Qaeda’s goals has been to frame the conflict as a holy war between Muslims and infidels. In calling it a war, Bush emphasized its seriousness, but at the cost of granting its criminal perpetrators the dignity of warriors. Calling it a war against Islam, even radical Islam, grants them the other half of their wish.
In the section of his speech devoted to the prospects for what he called “democratic reform across the broader Middle East,” the President said, “The Palestinian people have voted in elections, and now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace.” He was right to emphasize the aspects of Hamas’s ideology that are inimical to peace, rather than calling on it to abandon its (radical) Islamic identity. But he skated lightly over the implications for his own policies of Hamas’s victory in last month’s Palestinian legislative elections. All over the region, the unintended consequences are piling up. The elections in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Lebanon were a good thing, but they resulted in gains for, respectively, warlords, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah. In Iraq, Bush asserted, “we are winning.” But the war there, which shows no sign of ending, has stretched America’s military to the limit, pinning it down while potentially more dangerous threats have gathered. The “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-pro
On the related subject of homeland security, Bush had only two things to say. He demanded that Congress reauthorize—presumably without changing a word—the so-called Patriot Act, which was passed in haste shortly after the September 11th attacks. And he defended—no, boasted of—the National Security Agency’s vast, formerly secret program of warrantless electronic eavesdropping, undertaken on his orders and rebranded in his speech as “the terrorist-surveillance program.” “If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al Qaeda,” he said, “we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.” But those who are questioning Bush’s program, both Democrats and Republicans, agree that terrorists must be surveilled. What alarms them is not just that the President is breaking a particular law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but that his rationale for doing so amounts to a claim that he can flout any law at all, as long as the flouting is under cover of an endless (and, according to him, misnamed) war.
The evening’s only startling moment came when Bush announced that “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.” This acknowledgment, as welcome as it was overdue, was followed by a call for an increase in federal funding of research into alternative fuels. For this, and for failing to renew his call for drilling in the Arctic wilderness, the President was quickly attacked in a Wall Street Journal editorial as a Jimmy Carter clone, a liberal, and a co-opter of Democratic ideas—a fairly good indicator that he may be on to something. But it soon became apparent that, while he may be a reformed drinker, he is not yet a reformed oilman. “The best way to break this addiction is through technology,” he said. Whether or not it’s the best way, it’s the only way he mentioned. But relying solely on a cheap, painless technological fix to conquer oil addiction is like relying solely on methadone to conquer heroin addiction. Abstinence is needed, too. The energy equivalent is conservation, which is superior in every way to substitution. The best way to encourage conservation—and the true sign of a serious energy policy—would be imposing a hefty gasoline tax and raising mandatory fuel-efficiency standards. No points for guessing whether any such proposals found their way into the speech. Anyway, the subsidies Bush is proposing would, at best, restore research spending to its Clinton-era levels. Two days after the speech, the Times reported that the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory will begin laying off workers next week, thanks to a fifteen-per-cent cut in its current budget. The State of the Union address was a disappointment only to those who were foolish or forgetful enough to expect something better.