President George W. Bush painted a pleasingly simple black-and-white picture of the world in his State of the Union Address on January 28. It was a choreographed political speech with several statements of strong intent rather than a factual assessment of the nation’s current “state.” That America is strong and resolute, while Saddam Hussein is the embodiment of evil, was, not surprisingly, Mr. Bush’s main theme. Unlike last year, there was no Axis of Evil and no mention of Osama bin Laden. The blanket assurance in the opening paragraph that “every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people” will be resolutely dealt with was intended to indicate that Mr. Bush is mindful of other flashpoints in the world—though they later paled to relative insignificance, as Iraq became the dominant foreign theme.
The first half of the speech was devoted to domestic issues, as the President sought to relaunch himself as a “compassionate conservative.” As the main accomplishments of his administration’s first two years, he listed education reform, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and tax relief. All this amounts to “a good start,” Bush asserted, adding that his first goal for the coming year is to have an economy that grows fast enough to offer full employment. He deftly ascribed America’s present economic woes mostly to factors beyond his control, such as terrorist attacks, and asserted that further tax reductions are the best way to assure economic growth.
Mr. Bush’s statistical claims may come to haunt him, however. He first asserted that “92 million Americans” will enjoy tax relief this year, averaging $1,100 per household. While his commitment to reducing taxes is commendable in principle, this particular example was unfortunate and misleading, since the breaks disproportionately benefit the wealthiest taxpayers. That Mr. Bush chose to average out the windfall may indicate that he is aware of the unpleasant implications. In real life, the overwhelming majority of Americans will receive substantially less, while a small minority will get much, much more. Typical families in the middle of the income spectrum will receive just $256 in tax breaks, and about half of all filers will receive $100 or less.
President Bush’s second example sounded no less questionable. He claimed that a family of four with an income of $40,000 would see its federal tax burden fall from $1,178 to $45 per year, not mention-ing that the same family is likely to pay nearly three times that amount—about $3,100—in other payroll taxes. And, finally, his justification for eliminating the taxation of dividends (“to help the nearly ten million seniors”) sounded dis-ingenuous.
The President claims that tax breaks are needed to kick-start the economy; Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Green-span, however, has expressed doubts. The $2.23 trillion Bush budget for 2003-04 included no costs for war against Iraq and a subsequent occupation. The cuts would add $1.1 trillion in deficits over five years to the nation’s $6.4 trillion debt. The President had promised that tax cuts “would not come at the expense of Medicare and Social Security,” yet he will have to borrow the money from Social Security surpluses only years before every dollar will be needed to fund the baby boomers’ retirements.
The President has a difficult job defending his tax cuts against class-war attacks. His speech revealed the chinks in his armor in a way obviously not intended by its writers, and a cynic might add that a prehensile plutocracy packages its self-gratification with paeans to “the little guy.” While the Democrats have their own version of class warfare (with a heavy admixture of race), the GOP doctrine is to make the little guy believe knocking the rich is not merely immoral but self-defeating, since “you, too, can be a millionaire.” For the vast majority of the American middle class, however, the idea that they will become millionaires is simply an as-yet-ungrasped fantasy in the post-bubble dispensation. It is far more realistic to concern yourself with keeping your job and pension. A secure sufficiency is not seven-figure wealth, but neither is it the penury of Argentina’s former middle class.
Mr. Bush’s promise that next year’s budget would increase discretionary spend-ing by only four percent (“Federal spending should not rise any faster than the paychecks of American families”) is laudable, but it is unlikely to be fulfilled in view of the clouds of war and the array of spending programs that the President enumerated—notably, his “second goal” of “high quality, affordable health care for all Americans.” He rejected a “nationalized health-care system that dictates coverage and rations care” yet proceeded to state that “health-care reform must begin with Medicare,” which is “the binding commitment of a caring society.” Accordingly, he pledged to commit an additional $400 billion over the next decade to reform and strengthen Medicare. Even a loyal Republican could be excused for wondering how those two objectives fit together, for what is Med-i-care if not a “nationalized health-care system” par excellence?
The most pleasant surprise in the President’s address was his proposal to provide $1.2 billion for research “so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.” The commitment “to make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy” is good news, especially from a team with so many oilmen on board. No meaningful disengagement from the quagmire of the Middle East is possible without much reduced dependence on fossil fuels. Reducing and gradually ending unnecessary and harmful dependence on foreign oil is probably the easiest to achieve of all prerequisites for America’s survival.
Mr. Bush’s fourth goal, “to apply the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America,” smacked of his father’s gooey “thousand points of light,” with equal doses of New Age and born-again rhetoric: “The homeless, the fatherless, the addicted” will be helped through the “wonder-working power in the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people.”
From his faith-based initiatives, Mr. Bush abruptly turned to foreign affairs with the Wilsonian assertion that “the qualities of courage and compassion that we strive for in America also determine our conduct abroad.” He started with Afghanistan, where “we helped liberate an oppressed people . . . and we will continue helping them secure their country, rebuild their society, and educate all their children—boys and girls.” This was an exact encore of last year’s State of the Union Address, in which he said that, in Afghanistan, the United States had “freed a country from brutal oppression,” while her women, formerly “captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school,” are now free.
The difference is that, a year later, Afghanistan is anything but a showcase of America’s global benevolence in action. Liberating Afghani girls and women was never among the stated objectives of the military action, and the embarrassing failure to capture or track Bin Laden was covered up by the allegedly splendid results of America’s new role as the harbinger of progress and empowerer of the underprivileged around the world.
Mr. Bush went on to say that “we must remember our calling, as a blessed country, to make this world better.” This approach to world affairs is disastrous: A
realistic attachment to the national interest—the art of the diplomatically possible—has the potential to realize moral purposes, while the mantle of morality and alleged American exceptionalism (“blessed” by whom? where? when? how? why?) has led straight to the moral collapse of interventions in the Balkans over the past decade. This was the weakest part of the speech by far. Its focus on AIDS in Africa was a touchy-feely, politically correct irrelevance: the problem is indeed lamentable but hardly relevant, let alone vital, to the state of the Union. All of the rhetoric about AIDS policy, mentoring, and Afghani women was put in the speech as a rhetorical counterpoint to Iraq. Whether these are good or bad ideas is beside the point. The administration most likely has no intention to pursue any of them.
Mr. Bush’s subsequent rapid transition from natural plagues, through the “manmade evil of terrorism,” to Iraq was sketchy. Saddam was introduced with the now customary comparison to Hitler, while the other two members of last year’s Axis of Evil, Iran and North Korea, were treated perfunctorily and effectively dismissed for the moment. (“Different threats require different strategies.”) Instead of explaining why Iraq is more pressing than North Korea—in view of the latter’s confirmed nuclear ambitions and emerging arsenal—Mr. Bush reversed the argument by claiming that we “must learn the lessons of the Korean peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq.”
The elaboration of that alleged threat—including a list of old self-degradable biological and chemical materials—was nothing new. Mr. Bush also graphically referred to Saddam’s brutality and human-rights violations, but we have heard it all before from Mr. Blair. (If such unpleasant practices call for military intervention, then the President should deal with Saudi Arabia—the worst Islamo-fascist freak show on Earth—first and foremost.) He also referred to the British claim that Iraq recently tried to acquire uranium from Africa and to unnamed defectors who talked of biological-weapons labs—but such claims are difficult to substantiate.
The President’s direct and unambiguous claim that “Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda,” had never before been stated so authoritatively. Had it been provable, it would have given him the smoking gun he needed to get the recalcitrant allies on board. As it happened, Mr. Bush’s statement set expectations too high: The evidence Mr. Powell subsequently offered to the U.N. Security Council on February 5 fell short of conclusive and caused a backlash among America’s reluctant European partners.
The final lines of the speech brought us back to the President’s messianic view of America and her role in the world: The call of history has come to the right country; we exercise power without conquest and sacrifice for the liberty of strangers; we know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation (“The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity”).
That was megalomaniacal. To deal with various threats effectively and on the basis of consensual leadership, the United States should discard the pernicious notion of her “exceptionalism.” The implication that America is not only wise but virtuous, and that her foreign policy is influenced by values and not by prejudices, is preposterous. It hinders interest-based alliances and blurs the clarity of debate, which, in the case of Iraq, hardly existed outside the gnostic mantras of Washingtonian ideologues. That the claim of exceptionalism makes literally billions of people all over the world very angry is neither here nor there; it should, however, irritate all real Americans, whose sense of common decency and modesty must be offended by such hubristic ravings.
This year’s State of the Union Address, even more than that of 2002, shows that the President and his national security team have not grasped the main lesson of the tragedy of September 11. The danger to ordinary Americans will remain with us as long as the United States remains committed to an unrestrained projection of her power everywhere in the world. Instead of realizing that the threat to America exists because of the policy of global hegemony, Mr. Bush persists in the view that this hegemony is the divinely ordained, morally obligatory, open-ended, and self-justifying global mandate of the United States. As long as that remains so, the terrorist threat to America will be unlimited and permanent.