With God on our Side: reading the State of the Union

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
30 January 2003

There are many flaws and dangers in George Bush’s State of the Union address, as considered by Charles Peña and Paul Rogers in their accompanying articles. But what kind of a speech was it? Watching the president, hearing his tone and emphasis, I was struck by the subtext to be found in the bold-type passages below:

‘Once again, this nation and all our friends are all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility.’

‘In all these efforts, however, America’s purpose is more than to follow a process – it is to achieve a result: the end of terrible threats to the civilized world. All free nations have a stake in preventing sudden and catastrophic attacks. And we’re asking them to join us, and many are doing so. Yet the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.’

‘The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity. We do not know – we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.’

‘All that stands…’ ‘The hopes of all mankind…’ ‘the end of terrible threats…’ ‘God’s gift to humanity…’ – Bush’s messianism is muffled by gestures toward argument, hints of evidence, repeated boilerplate. But the messianism shines forth. Here’s an old, regressive theme – God on our side. The federalist, collective-security side of the American foreign policy tradition runs alongside, panting to catch up, but it’s frail – an old dog in which Bush has no confidence. The coalition references (‘all our friends’) are forced, de rigueur, half-hearted. Everyone knows what they mean – and what they don’t mean.

Along the way, Bush asks a question and neglects a plausible answer: ‘Year after year,’ he said, ‘Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate, or attack.’ Deterrence is the other, most plausible answer. How quickly they forget the theory of deterrence when it is somebody else doing the deterring! Messianism wants to short-circuit deterrence. Messianism makes right.

In the days and subsequent speeches to come, we will or won’t hear of hitherto undisclosed evidence that Saddam Hussein has been developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In the speech, the only new reference is to British intelligence about uranium purchases in Africa – no details supplied. We need to hear more about this. But so far, the case that prevention (misleadingly called ‘pre-emption’) serves legitimate US security interests is as unmade as ever. Chemical and biological weapons are no threat to the United States – unless the US goes to war, in which case not only American and allied troops are at risk, but Saddam/Samson might go for broke with terror attacks on American territory, bringing out precisely the scenario that Bush maintains he is going to war to prevent.

Since Bush gives no serious consideration to the strongest arguments against war, it’s pretty plain that the messianic component has prevailed.

Consequences be damned! Calculation be discarded! God’s on our side, and the devil take the hindmost. Thus does he invite the rapt enlistment of the American population singing ‘Onward Christian soldiers’.

On which subject, at this writing, the polls are inconclusive. Reports the Associated Press: ‘By 2–1, speech watchers polled by CNN–USA–Gallup and ABC News said Bush made a convincing case about the need for the US to take military action against Iraq.’ On the other hand, in the ABC News poll: ‘More than six in ten of the overall population supported military action against Iraq after the speech, but fewer than half, 46 per cent, support it if the United Nations is opposed.’ CBS News ‘found those who watched the speech were equally split between taking military action soon and giving the United Nations more time.’

Multilateralism ain’t dead yet. The trumpet may be certain, but the country, however impressed it may be by the sense of inevitability that Bush has (almost literally) drummed up, is still not spellbound. The preacher has preached. Not all the congregation is yet converted, and many may still respond like citizens.

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