Politics February 2006

Post Mortem: State of the Union

Bush's 2006 State of the Union address, annotated by The Atlantic's James Fallows

Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world. [This is a sophisticated step up from one of the Administration's standard arguments about Iraq. When asked whether the invasion of Iraq might actually have worsened the terrorist threat, Vice President Cheney, in particular, has specialized in this answer: Hey, we weren't in Iraq on 9/11, and they attacked us anyway! That doesn't meet a logical test, but the President's point here does: an insurgent-dominated Sunnistan in central Iraq could indeed become another haven for terrorists.] Lacking the military strength to challenge us directly, the terrorists have chosen the weapon of fear. When they murder children at a school in Beslan, or blow up commuters in London, or behead a bound captive, the terrorists hope these horrors will break our will, allowing the violent to inherit the Earth. But they have miscalculated: We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it. [This last sentence is one of several effective lines summing up the policy stated in the Second Inaugural address. Agree or disagree, the President and his team have found ways of distilling their argument.]

In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. [This sentence is not going to convince anyone who didn't start out supporting the president. With a normal army, yes—if you pin them down one place they can't attack thousands of miles away. But why should that apply to a loose terrorist network?] There is no peace in retreat. [This sentence, by contrast, is clear and strong, as is much of what follows.] And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will—by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself—we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.

America rejects the false comfort of isolationism. [Freudian slip? "False comfort" to illustrate another "False Choice"? The False Choice, of course, is that you're either 100% for the Administration's policy, or you are embracing isolationism.] We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies, and faced down an evil empire. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed and move this world toward peace. We remain on the offensive against terror networks. We have killed or captured many of their leaders—and for the others, their day will come. [I'll stop pointing this out now, but the President and his team have figured out that the right way to present this war is as part of an honorable continuum from the Good War in which the president's own father fought. In this model 9/11 was Pearl Harbor; Al Qaeda are the Nazis; questionable regimes like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are like our questionable anti-Nazi allies, the Soviets; and the current President is less like FDR than like the unflappable Winston Churchill. You don't have to agree with this analogy, but it is wise to notice the way it's being put forward.]

We remain on the offensive in Afghanistan, where a fine President and a National Assembly are fighting terror while building the institutions of a new democracy. We're on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory. First, we're helping Iraqis build an inclusive government, so that old resentments will be eased and the insurgency will be marginalized.

Second, we're continuing reconstruction efforts, and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy, so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom. And, third, we're striking terrorist targets while we train Iraqi forces that are increasingly capable of defeating the enemy. Iraqis are showing their courage every day, and we are proud to be their allies in the cause of freedom. [One-paragraph summary of the multi-week, multi-speech Iraq Offensive late last year.]

Our work in Iraq is difficult because our enemy is brutal. [But this summary has none of the "mistakes have been made" tone of last fall's series of speeches.] But that brutality has not stopped the dramatic progress of a new democracy. In less than three years, the nation has gone from dictatorship to liberation, to sovereignty, to a constitution, to national elections. At the same time, our coalition has been relentless in shutting off terrorist infiltration, clearing out insurgent strongholds, and turning over territory to Iraqi security forces. I am confident in our plan for victory; I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people; I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home. As we make progress on the ground, and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels—but those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, D.C. [Apart from the merits of the argument, a somewhat weird rhetorical moment. An attack on politicians in Washington, DC, delivered by ... the most powerful of all politicians in Washington, DC. A further refinement of the "running against government as a way to control government" strategy pioneered by Ronald Reagan.]

Our coalition has learned from our experience in Iraq. We've adjusted our military tactics and changed our approach to reconstruction. [Not "mistakes have been made," but "lessons have been learned"—and to the President's credit, it's in the active voice.] Along the way, we have benefited from responsible criticism and counsel offered by members of Congress of both parties. [How can he have delivered this with a straight face? It's always a mistake to deliver a line that no one believes, and that everyone realizes the speaker doesn't believe either.] In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice. Yet, there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. [The payoff for the preceding impossible-to-believe sentence: by setting up the theoretical possibility of "constructive" criticism, the President can distinguish that from harmful destructive carping.] Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy. [Effective line, but how does it square with the President's emphasis from his earliest days in Texas on "personal accountability"?]

With so much in the balance, those of us in public office have a duty to speak with candor. A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, would put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little. [Effective two sentences, because they're true. Even those who most opposed the war have to admit that there is not a nice way out of it.] Members of Congress, however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in this vital mission. [Last sentence here ties to skillful next paragraph. This is all an elaboration on "Support Our Troops," and ties support for the individual soldiers to support for the policy as a whole.]

Our men and women in uniform are making sacrifices—and showing a sense of duty stronger than all fear. They know what it's like to fight house to house in a maze of streets, to wear heavy gear in the desert heat, to see a comrade killed by a roadside bomb. And those who know the costs also know the stakes. Marine Staff Sergeant Dan Clay was killed last month fighting in Fallujah. He left behind a letter to his family, but his words could just as well be addressed to every American. Here is what Dan wrote: "I know what honor is. ... It has been an honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to ... . Never falter! Don't hesitate to honor and support those of us who have the honor of protecting that which is worth protecting."

Staff Sergeant Dan Clay's wife, Lisa, and his mom and dad, Sara Jo and Bud, are with us this evening. Welcome. [This is of course the "Lenny Skutnik" moment—the introduction of someone sitting in the guest box with the First Lady, whose virtues exemplify a theme the President wants to stress. Sustained applause here, not simply in genuine recognition and sympathy for this bereaved family but because no one can afford to be the first to stop clapping. Applause for the family hard to separate from applause for the President; "support the troops" becomes "support the war."]

Our nation is grateful to the fallen, who live in the memory of our country. We're grateful to all who volunteer to wear our nation's uniform—and as we honor our brave troops, let us never forget the sacrifices of America's military families.

Our offensive against terror involves more than military action. Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change. So the United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East. Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, and protection of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote.

The great people of Egypt have voted in a multi-party presidential election—and now their government should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism. The Palestinian people have voted in elections. And now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace. [Okay—and what if they don't?] Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps of reform—now it can offer its people a better future by pressing forward with those efforts. Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens. Yet liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity. The same is true of Iran, a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon—and that must come to an end. The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats. [This paragraph comes close to, but doesn't really deal with, the dicey question: what happens when democracy leads to results we really don't like???]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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