Bush's State of War Address


PressInfo # 143

 January 30, 2002


By Jan Oberg, TFF director


President Bush's State of the Union address was great rhetorically, he was self-confident and visionary. He comforted, I assume, the souls of Americans. Members of Congress rose to their feet and applauded him repeatedly and enthusiastically. I've taken the trouble to listen to the speech, read it carefully and analyse it. Why do I, deep down, perceive this speech as bellicose, disrespectful of others and as boding ill for the world?

I believe we all have a duty now to try to dialogue with Americans about the fact that some of us who are by no means "anti-American" feel increasingly alienated by what we hear and see. I, for one, was brought up with great admiration for the United States; my parent's generation always pointed to how Americans helped Europe, to the Marshall Plan and the dynamism of American society, its art, literature and music, and the miracles of its economy. The US of the late 1950s and 1960s was a country admired by millions at the time; it had a vision about society and humanity that many looked up to and hoped to become part of. It was an ideal.

President Bush's speech in 2002, in contrast, instils fear in me. I am deeply disturbed by it. I cannot possibly see his leadership as an ideal. And I can see nothing fundamentally good about a world in which the US, or any other power for that matter, is all-dominating and refuses to be a partner among equals.



The speech lacks humility, self-criticism and respect for difference. To an extent I find tasteless, President Bush praises only his own nation. He emphasises that it has never been stronger, "we" are winning the war, the American flag flies, the might of the US military, "our" cause is just, it has courage, compassion, resolve, calm, responsibility. It is so good that "we can overcome evil with greater good." Deep in the American character he finds honour and has discovered that, especially in tragedy, God is near. America stands for freedom and dignity of every life.

In short, America is only good and does only good. However, those of us who are social scientists and have seen different countries around the world know that each and every society has some less positive aspects. There is no recognition of the problems that continue to haunt the American society, for instance its rampant domestic violence. Ten times more Americans are murdered by fellow countrymen than by the attacks on September 11.

Secondly, no other leader in the world would speak in this manner about his own nation. While some of us were brought up with the idea that there are limits to how much you may boast about yourself, the President seems not to have been as he is both self-satisfied and self-righteous. One must simply wonder, whether George Bush as well as the decision-makers and speech writers around him increasingly live in their own world and have a distorted view of themselves and their nation. Or do they believe that their power is so great that by merely stating this as a mantra, people will believe it like children in madrasas learn to believe in the Koran and ask no questions?


The concepts and actors that are absent in the world according to Bush

I do not only miss a minimum of humility in Bush' speech. What is also absent is every mention of, let alone expression of gratitude toward, other important actors, including allied organisations. Thus, George Bush does not mention NATO, the EU, OECD, WTO or the UN. Furthermore, he does not mention human rights or international law. There is no mention that the US is willing to help alleviate world poverty, AIDS, and health and sanitation problems for the world's underprivileged. Expressions such as "basic human needs", "global development", "global environment problems" are not mentioned once.

We also did not hear what the Bush administration aims to do to avoid a repetition of the mysterious fiasco that September 11 was to the CIA and FBI. Indeed, there is no mention whatsoever of reforms to American society or political institutions, except schools. There is no mention of the economic power concentration in Multinational Corporations, MNCs, or of the military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower once upon a time had the courage to mention as a problem. Finally, the word democracy is absent.


Defining the threat and the solutions on behalf of the world, no consultation needed

Next there is the systematic mixing of US interest with the interests of the world. Or differently expressed, the belief that American values are universal and where they are not accepted, they should be. You may call this the projection, mission or imperialist aspect of President Bush's speech. He also announces the establishment of a new Freedom Corps that, among other things, will "extend American compassion throughout the world." It will "encourage development, and education, and opportunity in the Islamic world," he announces.

The President also introduces the idea of American justice everywhere in the world - not that of the international community of the coalition, not that of the UN. "Our armed forces have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of the United States: Even 7,000 miles away, across oceans and continents, on mountaintops and in caves, you will not escape the justice of this nation." This means that wherever the United States foreign policy leadership chooses to see an enemy, the US will enforce its justice (in legal, political and psychological terms). It can only be interpreted to mean that US justice overrules international law as well as the laws of enemy countries.

What threatens the world is what threatens America. What is bad for the US is bad for the world. America thus has a duty and the privilege to defend others who, according to the leadership in Washington, are also threatened. It is the US that defines the threat, the priorities and the means. It will, one understands, defend itself and the world at all costs. To those who may not share President Bush's perception and interpretation of the world, he warns, "if they do not act, American will." There is also this warning, "All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to protect America and our allies from sudden attack." The world is hereby informed; it is not consulted.

This must be understood in the light of a fundamentally good nation that never has done anything wrong, and won't, and therefore, logically, knows what is best for others. Thus, no need to even talk to them about it.


The world is about "good versus evil"

The world George Bush shares with us in his speech is simple, bordering on the primitive. It is an intellectual fraud. There are evil people and there are good people, like in Western films, and the US has decided who is who. Bush is proud that America has "captured, arrested and rid the world [killed - JO] of thousands of terrorists." He talks about an "axis of evil" made up of North Korea, Iraq and Iran, similar to the way Reagan referred to the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union. We must overcome evil, "evil is real, and it must be opposed."

Thus, there is absolute Evil and absolute Good, black and white. There are "us and them". Terrorism has now substituted communism. Cold War rhetoric is back. All the complexities of the real world are reduced to this formula. If this worldview is presented only for domestic consumption, a European such as myself would like to believe that Americans are too smart and well-educated to believe in such immature perceptions of our immensely complicated world. If this speech presents the actual, dominant worldview of the most powerful decision-makers on earth, the Bush leadership is in need of help from good-willed experts in a variety of fields. Intellectual assumption underpinning American foreign policy must rise above those of pub brawls.


American exceptionalism, nationalism, good-ness and chosen-ness

George W. Bush presents an image of the exceptional United States as standing above the rest of humanity, as a judge and as a saviour. It is not a partner in, or a member of, the international community. I have worked in countries with a strong sense of nationhood, indeed nationalism, such as Croatia, Serbia, Somalia, and Japan. Their nationalisms pale in comparison with the American nationalism cultivated during the last four months and promoted in the speech. Standing together in crisis and loving one's country is fine, perhaps the word for it should be patriotism. Using patriotism to think of yourself as #1 and making everybody lower or invisible is nationalism or chauvinism.

"America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere." Either this is an empty statement or a dangerous statement. It ignores that these values can be interpreted and practised in different ways. It denies the right of others to do so. But then Bush adds, as if feeling he is going a bit too far,"We have no intention of imposing our culture - - but America will always stand firm."

America's chosen-ness draws its legitimacy from two sources: from history, "History has called America and our allies to action," and from God, "God is near." Thus, Bush sees the American nation, in an almost biblical sense, as a chosen people, chosen to do good, chosen by History and by God. But is this anything other than Christian fundamentalism fighting other fundamentalisms?

As mentioned, the Freedom Corps shall spread American compassion - a special - and will encourage development, education and opportunity in the Islamic world. Could we imagine President Bush inviting some kind of corps from the Islamic world to do something like that throughout America?


American militarism could spell the end of international democracy

Finally, there is the relentless drift towards violence, the pride in that overwhelming techno-military might. He proudly tells the world that the US spends $30 million per day on the war, that it is only the beginning of the war, and that much more is needed. This means that what he will send to assist the rebuilding of Afghanistan equals ten days of the war against terrorism; so much for compassion. The US military budget will approach US $400 billion or half - 50 per cent - of all the military spending in the world.

The United States has around ten times higher military expenditures and thus, perhaps, a twenty times greater military technological capability than all of its designated enemies and rogue states put together. Why is it that someone so strong is so obsessed with being threatened? Is this is a healthy or an increasingly pathological, paranoid response? Is it psychologically justified that September 11 leads to such measures or are the events of that day merely exploited for other purposes?

The United States of today is history's most powerful nation. No other actor or group of actors can persuade this single actor to do something it does not want or abstain from doing what it wants. American world domination is a possibility. It militates against every conceivable definition of international democracy. Even if totally benevolent, one actor being able to dictate its policies against the will of all others, is closer to authoritarianism than to democracy.

My point is not that America should not have this position in the contemporary and the future world (at least until other actors rise to competitive power). My point is that no single actor, no ideology and no policy, even if lead by a Gandhi, a Mandela or a Mother Theresa, should ever be given that much power over all the rest.


Why Bush's United States is dangerous

The omission of others, self-aggrandisement, the projection of one's own values on the rest of the world, the unreal perceptions of the complexities of the world, exceptionalism and the self-illusionary idea of being only good and thus chosen by History and God. Combine these elements with almost incomprehensibly large, technical and economic resources devoted to long-term, world-wide war. And there you have a formula that will inevitably lead to more harm than good for all, including to the US itself.

If the United States leadership does not want to be with the world, but stand over and above it, it works against its own best interests and that of the world. World War or utter chaos will become reality somewhere down the road of such civilisational decay.

However painful it may be, it is indeed time for admirers and allies of the US to voice their concerns. How can we help the American people to understand that there are real reasons why some of us increasingly see their great nation as a danger, rather than as a blessing and an ideal?


© TFF 2002



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