State of War Address
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
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
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
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
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.
exceptionalism, nationalism, good-ness and
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
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
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
could spell the end of international
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
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
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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