Post Mortem: State of the Union

Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, annotated by The Atlantic's James Fallows

A thinking enemy watched all of these scenes, adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back. In Lebanon, assassins took the life of Pierre Gemayel, a prominent participant in the Cedar Revolution. Hezbollah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict in the region and are seeking to undermine Lebanon's legitimately elected government. In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces. In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam—the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia—and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day.

This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in. [This phrase is like Donald Rumsfeld’s self-damaging line about going to war not with the army you want but the army you have. Nonetheless, it is a useful line. It gives supporters of the president and the surge something  effective to say.] Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. (Applause.) Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. [Another very good line, in expressing the stand the President wants the country to continue to make in Iraq.] Let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory. (Applause.)

We're carrying out a new strategy in Iraq—a plan that demands more from Iraq's elected government, and gives our forces in Iraq the reinforcements they need to complete their mission. Our goal is a democratic Iraq that upholds the rule of law, respects the rights of its people, provides them security, and is an ally in the war on terror.

In order to make progress toward this goal, the Iraqi government must stop the sectarian violence in its capital. But the Iraqis are not yet ready to do this on their own. So we're deploying reinforcements of more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq. The vast majority will go to Baghdad, where they will help Iraqi forces to clear and secure neighborhoods, and serve as advisers embedded in Iraqi Army units. With Iraqis in the lead, our forces will help secure the city by chasing down the terrorists, insurgents, and the roaming death squads. And in Anbar Province, where al Qaeda terrorists have gathered and local forces have begun showing a willingness to fight them, we're sending an additional 4,000 United States Marines, with orders to find the terrorists and clear them out. (Applause.) We didn't drive al Qaeda out of their safe haven in Afghanistan only to let them set up a new safe haven in a free Iraq.

The people of Iraq want to live in peace, and now it's time for their government to act. Iraq's leaders know that our commitment is not open-ended. [OK, here is the return of the Gaping Logical Hole. If it’s not open ended, we must be telling the Iraqis to shape up, or else. Or else what? We’ll leave—and bring on all the catastrophic consequences of a failed Iraq the President has just warned us about? Someone in the White House needs to work up an answer to this “Or else what?” question about Iraq.] They have promised to deploy more of their own troops to secure Baghdad—and they must do so. They pledged that they will confront violent radicals of any faction or political party—and they need to follow through, and lift needless restrictions on Iraqi and coalition forces, so these troops can achieve their mission of bringing security to all of the people of Baghdad. Iraq's leaders have committed themselves to a series of benchmarks—to achieve reconciliation, to share oil revenues among all of Iraq's citizens, to put the wealth of Iraq into the rebuilding of Iraq, to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's civic life, to hold local elections, and to take responsibility for security in every Iraqi province. But for all of this to happen, Baghdad must be secure. And our plan will help the Iraqi government take back its capital and make good on its commitments.

   My fellow citizens, our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options. We discussed every possible approach. In the end, I chose [Very dangerous two word combination—especially because, as delivered, Bush actually stressed the I. Because of the jokes about his being “the decider” and less joking comment about his royalist-sounding assertion of doing whatever he wants in Iraq regardless of popular or legislative opinion, would have been wiser here to simply say “we chose” or to vague it up with “In the end it was clear” etc] this course of action because it provides the best chance for success. Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq, because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.

If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. [See “Gaping Logical Hole,” above. Yes, these consequences sound bad. So how can we hold the Maliki regime to conditions?] We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country—and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.

For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is the greatest ally—their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens, new recruits, new resources, and an even greater determination to harm America. To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September the 11th and invite tragedy. Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq and to spare the American people from this danger. (Applause.) [Another effective “make them applaud” line. Even legislators who doubt every link in the Administration’s chain of logic about Iraq can’t afford not to endorse a promise to protect Americans from danger.]

This is where matters stand tonight, in the here and now. I have spoken with many of you in person. I respect you and the arguments you've made. We went into this largely united, in our assumptions and in our convictions. [First half of a nice rhetorical gambit…] And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. […. and the second half. A subtle but obvious reminder that most of the prominent Democrats in the room in fact cast votes in favor of the war. Remember those days, Senator Clinton? Remember, ex-Senator Edwards, watching at home? ] Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work. And I ask you to support our troops in the field, and those on their way. (Applause.) [Many legislators in the room would question the next-to-last sentence. Not a one of them could afford not to be seen cheering the final line.]

The war on terror we fight today is a generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others. And that's why it's important to work together so our nation can see this great effort through. Both parties and both branches should work in close consultation. It's why I propose to establish a special advisory council on the war on terror, made up of leaders in Congress from both political parties. We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us. We'll show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory. [Hmmm, and remind me about the Iraq Study Group again?]

And one of the first steps we can take together is to add to the ranks of our military so that the American Armed Forces are ready for all the challenges ahead. (Applause.) Tonight I ask the Congress to authorize an increase in the size of our active Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 in the next five years. (Applause.) A second task we can take on together is to design and establish a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps. Such a corps would function much like our military reserve. It would ease the burden on the Armed Forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them. It would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve in the defining struggle of our time. [Perhaps I have become too jaded, but here I think the President tries out an argument that cannot possibly help him. Should more Americans be involved in what is described as the transcendent struggle of the era? Of course! But maybe the time to bring up that point would have been four or five years ago—or if it was to take this long, perhaps it should be backed up with some specific actions and ideas, probably involved radical energy-conservation measures.]

Americans can have confidence in the outcome of this struggle because we're not in this struggle alone. We have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism. [Very similar risk: Is it sensible to talk about these two or three illustrations of efforts with other countries, when the whole idea of “how the world feels about America” leads in directions you’d rather avoid?] In Iraq, multinational forces are operating under a mandate from the United Nations. We're working with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the Gulf States to increase support for Iraq's government.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran, and made it clear that the world will not allow the regime in Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. (Applause.) [There's an obvious “or else what?” question here, but that’s for another day. For speech purposes, it’s wise to leave the threat unexpressed.] With the other members of the Quartet—the U.N., the European Union, and Russia—we're pursuing diplomacy to help bring peace to the Holy Land, and pursuing the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. (Applause.) In Afghanistan, NATO has taken the lead in turning back the Taliban and al Qaeda offensive—the first time the Alliance has deployed forces outside the North Atlantic area. Together with our partners in China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, we're pursuing intensive diplomacy to achieve a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons. (Applause.)

We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma—and continue to awaken the conscience of the world to save the people of Darfur. (Applause.) [I applaud the sentiments in this sentence—and recognize it immediately as one that would have been fought over for days and weeks ahead of time. The speechwriters would be under pressure to cut something, anything, to keep the speech from getting too grotesquely long. The “policy guys” would say: Believe us, these two lines will make a difference. The mention of Cuba is pro forma, but having the other names come out of a U.S. president’s mouth can have some effect—especially his saying “Burma” rather than the name the local regime prefers, “Myanmar.”]

American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy. Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required. [One of the few appearances of what used to be George Bush’s favorite rhetorical  touches: a spiritual reference that will be recognized by those who will appreciate it and ignored by those who might not. Also a reoccurrence of “compassionate conservative” themes of his original presidential campaign.] We hear the call to take on the challenges of hunger and poverty and disease—and that is precisely what America is doing. We must continue to fight HIV/AIDS, especially on the continent of Africa. (Applause.) Because you funded our Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the number of people receiving life-saving drugs has grown from 50,000 to more than 800,000 in three short years. I ask you to continue funding our efforts to fight HIV/AIDS. I ask you to provide $1.2 billion over five years so we can combat malaria in 15 African countries. (Applause.)

I ask that you fund the Millennium Challenge Account, so that American aid reaches the people who need it, in nations where democracy is on the rise and corruption is in retreat. And let us continue to support the expanded trade and debt relief that are the best hope for lifting lives and eliminating poverty. (Applause.)

When America serves others in this way, we show the strength and generosity of our country. These deeds reflect the character of our people. The greatest strength we have is the heroic kindness, courage, and self-sacrifice of the American people. You see this spirit often if you know where to look—and tonight we need only look above to the gallery.

[Here begins the Lenny Skutnik portion, in which real human beings become specimens and symbols of the points a president wants to make. This was done more deliberately than usual—sometimes presidents just leave the press to parse out the meaning of the list of guests sitting near the First Lady in the balcony—and it was also more moving than most. Bush and many of the legislators seemed genuinely touched to be reminded of Mutumbo’s story—and proud of the idea that he had chosen this as his homeland…..] Dikembe Mutombo grew up in Africa, amid great poverty and disease. He came to Georgetown University on a scholarship to study medicine—but Coach John Thompson got a look at Dikembe and had a different idea. (Laughter.) Dikembe became a star in the NBA, and a citizen of the United States. But he never forgot the land of his birth, or the duty to share his blessings with others. He built a brand new hospital in his old hometown. A friend has said of this good-hearted man: "Mutombo believes that God has given him this opportunity to do great things." And we are proud to call this son of the Congo a citizen of the United States of America. (Applause.)

After her daughter was born, Julie Aigner-Clark searched for ways to share her love of music and art with her child. So she borrowed some equipment, and began filming children's videos in her basement. The Baby Einstein Company was born, and in just five years her business grew to more than $20 million in sales. In November 2001, Julie sold Baby Einstein to the Walt Disney Company, and with her help Baby Einstein has grown into a $200 million business. Julie represents the great enterprising spirit of America. And she is using her success to help others—producing child safety videos with John Walsh of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Julie says of her new project: "I believe it's the most important thing that I have ever done. I believe that children have the right to live in a world that is safe." And so tonight, we are pleased to welcome this talented business entrepreneur and generous social entrepreneur—Julie Aigner-Clark. (Applause.) [Compared with the others, this part had a Huh?? Element. She got Disney to buy her company, and…..?]

Three weeks ago, Wesley Autrey was waiting at a Harlem subway station with his two little girls, when he saw a man fall into the path of a train. With seconds to act, Wesley jumped onto the tracks, pulled the man into the space between the rails, and held him as the train passed right above their heads. He insists he's not a hero. He says: "We got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms. We have got to show each other some love." There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey. (Applause.) [This was the most impassioned applause of the evening, and with good reason. A genuinely heroic story—made more interesting, rather than undercut, by Autrey’s waving and doing call-outs as if he’d just won a Grammy. But seriously, this was a story that moved everyone who heard about it, and all credit to the President for honoring him.]

Tommy Rieman was a teenager pumping gas in Independence, Kentucky, when he enlisted in the United States Army. In December 2003, he was on a reconnaissance mission in Iraq when his team came under heavy enemy fire. From his Humvee, Sergeant Rieman returned fire; he used his body as a shield to protect his gunner. He was shot in the chest and arm, and received shrapnel wounds to his legs—yet he refused medical attention, and stayed in the fight. He helped to repel a second attack, firing grenades at the enemy's position. For his exceptional courage, Sergeant Rieman was awarded the Silver Star. And like so many other Americans who have volunteered to defend us, he has earned the respect and the gratitude of our entire country. (Applause.) [No comment necessary. It was again touching rather than odd that Rieman, full heartedly, joined the applause with everyone else.]

In such courage and compassion, ladies and gentlemen, we see the spirit and character of America—and these qualities are not in short supply. This is a decent and honorable country—and resilient, too. We've been through a lot together. We've met challenges and faced dangers, and we know that more lie ahead. Yet we can go forward with confidence—because the State of our Union is strong, our cause in the world is right, and tonight that cause goes on. God bless. (Applause.)  [Speechwriting team: God bless you for a graceful ending that cleverly saved for the very last sentence of the speech the required phrase “the State of our Union is…” and whose very last words were, “that cause goes on.”  If only the President had seen the wisdom of stopping there.]

state of the union, bush, iraq, 2007, james fallows, analysis, postmortem, atlantic monthly, annotated
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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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