So you saw that speech by President Bush to the UN assembly and you're wondering what to make of it. Maybe you saw him speaking and thought that sounds reasonable enough and then thought to yourself did I just say that? It's nothing to be ashamed of. Speeches are written to get you to respond that way. If you go back later and dissect them, your initial impression doesn't always hold up.
I thought it might be interesting to take a speech writer's guided tour of the script and look a little at its construction. Standard tour guide thing: you ask the questions, I'll give you the answers. Just to save time, I'll ask your questions as well. If you've watch Donald Rumsfeld's press conferences, you'll know this is a standard technique in modern discourse. Utterly routine.
Okay. First question: Mr Speech Writer, the speech starts with a whole lot of stuff about a widening circle of liberty and security and development. It all sounded pretty hopeful.
Answer: You bet. No accident there. The last thing this President is likely to do is go up there and say that geopolitics in the 21st Century are one awful mess. That's what his critics are saying. The first thing you have to do is get people thinking you're rolling cheerfully and hopefully along some road towards a bigger brighter future. He might fancy himself as Churchill, but he's not about to tell everyone to brace themselves. This is the instant gratification generation, raised on decades of soothing TV commercials. You don't want to scare anyone.
Question: Then he goes on to say some stuff that sounded pretty gutsy in a John Wayne sort of way. What do you make of this:
Every nation that wants peace will share the benefits of a freer world. And every nation that seeks peace has an obligation to help build that world. Eventually, there is no safe isolation from terror networks, or failed states that shelter them, or outlaw regimes, or weapons of mass destruction. Eventually, there is no safety in looking away, seeking the quiet life by ignoring the struggles and oppression of others.
Answer: This is a development of the If you're not with us, you're against us line. You imply that by disagreeing with the particular direction the US has embarked upon, you're choosing to ignore the struggles and oppression of others. Of course, as we know, this is entirely correct. Those peaceniks of Germany and France and all those other unwilling citizens of the world have no concern whatsoever for what is taking place in the Middle East.
Q. Oh really? I don't like the way they're doing this either but that doesn't mean I'm not concerned about the future of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. And I'm as keen as the next vulnerable civilian to see Al Qaeda being tackled.
A. As are many others. But let's not jump to conclusions. Let's read the rest of the speech and see if the President's managed to conceive some viable, inclusive strategy to unite the free world in a campaign to deal with the people who would do them harm.
Q. Okay, then. I see he goes onto talk about security. What's this about?
In this young century, our world needs a new definition of security. Our security is not merely found in spheres of influence, or some balance of power. The security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind.
A. As a rhetorical device this is quite handy. You pronounce the need for something new - in this case a definition of security - and then before people have stopped to ask themselves whether that's true and whether we actually need this new definition, you're charging ahead and giving it to them, which is in this case: The security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind.
The idea here is to provide a little ideological support for the grand dream that you can airdrop democracy into Iraq with Daisy Cutters and just wait for the bells of freedom to ring and for a 21st century domino theory to work its way around the Middle East. When you look at the way Iraq and its neighbours have responded to the arrival of this gift from the West, you'd have to say the exercise is looking a bit shaky so far. Let's see if he develops the point.
Q. Oh. No. He doesn't. Wait a minute - now he's talking about terrorism. This might be going somewhere:
Members of the United Nations, the Russian children did nothing to deserve such awful suffering, and fright, and death. The people of Madrid and Jerusalem and Istanbul and Baghdad have done nothing to deserve sudden and random murder. These acts violate the standards of justice in all cultures, and the principles of all religions. All civilized nations are in this struggle together, and all must fight the murderers.
A. Very controversial saying you're opposed to terrorism, of course.
Q. You're being snide, I can tell. Look - now he's getting on to specifics to back it up:
We're determined to destroy terror networks wherever they operate, and the United States is grateful to every nation that is helping to seize terrorist assets, track down their operatives, and disrupt their plans. We're determined to end the state sponsorship of terror -- and my nation is grateful to all that participated in the liberation of Afghanistan. We're determined to prevent proliferation, and to enforce the demands of the world -- and my nation is grateful to the soldiers of many nations who have helped to deliver the Iraqi people from an outlaw dictator.
A. What's happening here is a standard rhetorical technique: invoke the memory of tragic victims and then wrap your policies up in that invocation to give them the blush of respectability. If you believe that busting up Iraq and aggravating ever greater numbers of the population has been the right way to diminish terror rather than foster more of it, you might think that the last sentence of that paragraph runs pretty well. If you think that tracking down Al Qaeda-supported terrorists might have had more to do with people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and various other pockets of the world, then you might not find this quite so persuasive. Still, maybe he'll get on to that in the next paragraph.
Q. Um, no, that's it. Now he's on to a checklist of issues he says the US has been supporting in the UN: AIDS, human trafficking, human cloning, economic aid, debt peacekeeping, genocide.
A. Yes. This is all building up to a pitch for something. "We've done all these things, now it's time for a little quid pro quo."
Q. I think I see it coming. He's back on to democracy again.
A. Yes. You can paraphrase it fairly succinctly: Democracy is the fairest system we know. It can flourish, and has done so, in many different cultures. It stands for freedom, and everyone deserves that. But it can take time for democracies to establish themselves. We'll you'd certainly not resist the opportunity to labour that last point when you're talking about Iraq, where the idea of democracy leaping into flower has proven to be something of an overly-optimistic expectation by the thinkers in Washington. And here we go:
Freedom is finding a way in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and we must continue to show our commitment to democracies in those nations. The liberty that many have won at a cost must be secured. As members of the United Nations, we all have a stake in the success of the world's newest democracies.
Not long ago, outlaw regimes in Baghdad and Kabul threatened the peace and sponsored terrorists. These regimes destabilized one of the world's most vital -- and most volatile -- regions. They brutalized their peoples, in defiance of all civilized norms. Today, the Iraqi and Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom. The governments that are rising will pose no threat to others. Instead of harboring terrorists, they're fighting terrorist groups. And this progress is good for the long-term security of us all.
The Afghan people are showing extraordinary courage under difficult conditions. They're fighting to defend their nation from Taliban holdouts, and helping to strike against the terrorists killers. They're reviving their economy. They've adopted a constitution that protects the rights of all, while honoring their nation's most cherished traditions. More than 10 million Afghan citizens -- over 4 million of them women -- are now registered to vote in next month's presidential election. To any who still would question whether Muslim societies can be democratic societies, the Afghan people are giving their answer.
Since the last meeting of this General Assembly, the people of Iraq have regained sovereignty. Today, in this hall, the Prime Minister of Iraq and his delegation represent a country that has rejoined the community of nations. The government of Prime Minister Allawi has earned the support of every nation that believes in self-determination and desires peace. And under Security Council resolutions 1511 and 1546, the world is providing
that support. The U.N., and its member nations, must respond to Prime Minister Allawi's request, and do more to help build an Iraq that is secure, democratic, federal, and free.
Q. This looks like the quid pro quo you were talking about.
A. Yes, in or out of the coalition of the willing, we'd appreciate your help now, if you don't mind. Another way to put it might be: this thing has taken a very discouraging turn. Terrorists are pouring into Iraq, a significant proportion of the civilian population hates us, and the whole thing is spiralling out of control. But we came in here with a mission, and by God, we're going to stick with it, no matter how many people get killed, and no matter how much further this thing spirals out of control.
Q. Wouldn't some people say that it's time to re-assess your strategy and ask if the initial one has been proven with the wisdom of hindsight to have been mistaken?
A. Oh, no. That's flip-flopping. That's what liberals do. You won't find any mea culpas or second thoughts or arguments for a pause for wise reflection in this speech. You're much better off suggesting that problem in Iraq is with the terrorists and not with the disaffected population. You liked that John Wayne start didn't you? Well you keep it simple in a Western. Good guys and bad guys - evildoers and avenging angels. No matter who else might be in this fight, you go on characterising it as one between the soldiers of the free world and the terrorists. Like this:
A democratic Iraq has ruthless enemies, because terrorists know the stakes in that country. They know that a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a decisive blow against their ambitions for that region. So a terrorists group associated with al Qaeda is now one of the main groups killing the innocent in Iraq today -- conducting a campaign of bombings against civilians, and the beheadings of bound men. Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists and foreign fighters, so peaceful nations around the world will never have to face them within our own borders.
Our coalition is standing beside a growing Iraqi security force. The NATO Alliance is providing vital training to that force. More than 35 nations have contributed money and expertise to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. And as the Iraqi interim government moves toward national elections, officials from the United Nations are helping Iraqis build the infrastructure of democracy. These selfless people are doing heroic work, and are carrying on the great legacy of Sergio de Mello.
As we have seen in other countries, one of the main terrorist goals is to undermine, disrupt, and influence election outcomes. We can expect terrorist attacks to escalate as Afghanistan and Iraq approach national elections. The work ahead is demanding. But these difficulties will not shake our conviction that the future of Afghanistan and Iraq is a future of liberty. The proper response to difficulty is not to retreat, it is to prevail.
The advance of freedom always carries a cost, paid by the bravest among us. America mourns the losses to our nation, and to many others. And today, I assure every friend of Afghanistan and Iraq, and every enemy of liberty: We will stand with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq
until their hopes of freedom and security are fulfilled.
Q. There seems to be a lot missing here - why doesn't he address the fact that things seem to be getting worse all the time? Why doesn't he say more about Afghanistan? Why doesn't he say more about what he's going to do to get the terrorists?
A. All good questions. However he has other fish to fry by the look of this, because now he's moving on to get everyone on board the democratic peace train.
These two nations will be a model for the broader Middle East, a region where millions have been denied basic human rights and simple justice. For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. Oppression became common, but stability never arrived. We must take a different approach. We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations.
Q. What's wrong with that?
A. Nothing, in principle. But implementing that change takes skill and diplomacy. He might have explored, a little, what shape that initiative might take in the months and years ahead, given that people are pretty rattled by the way the plan has panned out so far.
Q. Well he does talk about getting a democracy fund going.
A. Yes, that's an interesting notion:
Because I believe the advance of liberty is the path to both a safer and better world, today I propose establishing a Democracy Fund within the United Nations. This is a great calling for this great organization. The fund would help countries lay the foundations of democracy by instituting the rule of law and independent courts, a free press, political parties and trade unions. Money from the fund would also help set up voter precincts and polling places, and support the work of election monitors. To show our commitment to the new Democracy Fund, the United States will make an initial contribution. I urge other nations to contribute, as well.
Q. So is it a good thing to include in the speech?
A. I guess so. You'd have to say, though, that this seems to be a way of dressing up an ill-fated excursion in international relations with the gloss of the noblest democratic ideals.
Q. So the problem with the speech isn't so much what's in it as what's been left out?
A. Right on the money, Woody.