America loves to see someone who’s been beaten down and knocked around stand his ground and fight back.
I didn’t expect to see George Bush do that, not with the unapologetic confidence I saw last night. I even started out disgusted by the feel-good bipartisanship and the sugar-coating.
A balanced budget and an end to earmarks. Fine. I feel good, for as long as that lasts.
The promise of health care and social security debates, with proposals that will be dead on arrival. You could see the Democrats, even when they weren’t applauding, licking their chops at the prospect.
The overdue commitment to reduce oil usage, but with those little jabs about clean coal and boosting domestic oil production…. That’s when I began to think, maybe this guy has a little fight left in him. A House-warming gift of a brief nod to climate change … hey, the world gets hot, the world gets cold, the world gets hot again, that’s what it does. Whatever.
There was only one issue that mattered last night. It wasn’t any of the ones the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Boston Globe and the Associated Press tried to tell you were the big issues for a president on the ropes and ready to give in.
But let’s let this great American orator, finally coming into his own, with quiet confidence and determination even in lonely leadership so deep into this war, tell it himself:
“For all of us in this room, there is no higher responsibility than to protect the people of this country from danger. Five years have come and gone since we saw the scenes and felt the sorrow that the terrorists can cause … We know with certainty that the horrors of that September morning were just a glimpse of what the terrorists intend for us — unless we stop them …
“Our success in this war is often measured by the things that did not happen … Every success against the terrorists is a reminder of the shoreless ambitions of this enemy. The evil that inspired and rejoiced in 9/11 is still at work in the world. And so long as that’s the case, America is still a nation at war.
“In the mind of the terrorist, this war began well before September the 11th, and will not end until their radical vision is fulfilled … Take almost any principle of civilization, and their goal is the opposite. They preach with threats, instruct with bullets and bombs, and promise paradise for the murder of the innocent.
“Our enemies are quite explicit about their intentions … By killing and terrorizing Americans, they want to force our country to retreat from the world and abandon the cause of liberty … Listen to this warning from the late terrorist Zarqawi: ‘We will sacrifice our blood and bodies to put an end to your dreams, and what is coming is even worse.’ Osama bin Laden declared: ‘Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us.’
“These men are not given to idle words … “
Sunni Al Qaeda and Taliban, Iranian-sponsored Shiite death squads and Hezbollah. From Lebanon to Afghanistan. One election after another in 2005, met by fierce reaction and bloody terrorism in 2006.
“This war is more than a clash of arms — it is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our nation is in the balance. To prevail, we must remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred … So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates and reformers and brave voices for democracy. The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security, we must.”
Of the outbreak of sectarian violence that exploded in 2006,
“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we’re in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.
“Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq, because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.
“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.
“For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is the greatest ally — their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens, new recruits, new resources, and an even greater determination to harm America. To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September the 11th and invite tragedy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq and to spare the American people from this danger.
“Whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work. And I ask you to support our troops in the field, and those on their way.”
And at that moment, no matter what they said about it later, Bush had them. They all applauded, many of them against their will. They had no choice. Because he was right.
Is this the end of the debate on Iraq, or efforts to seize defeat? No way. But the case has been laid out as clearly it can be, and the president has made it clear he will not give an inch on only issue of the evening that mattered at all. The one issue without which none of the others matter a damn.
At last, at long last, we’re building the Army, 92,000 more troops in five years, and everyone applauded. Thank God. We’re building a Civilian Reserve Corps, a brilliant idea to expand our military capacity, if it survives Congress. It could be the beginning, at last, of a war footing for our nation in what Bush correctly called a “generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others.”
Is America ready to hear this call to arms? Today, we can be confident that it can happen, it is possible, despite the insistence of Congress that it not happen. Every bit of the speech and every political ploy will be picked over and picked apart today. The disparagement, the invitations to despair and calls for abandonment of Iraq will be fired up again.
But George Bush, unbowed, showed he is still the president of the United States, and showed us it is still possible to believe in the value of sacrifice and success against adversity, and gave us a glimpse of the greatness of our own nation. He introduced us several great Americans, Dikembe Mutombo, Sgt. Tom Rieman among them, and then he introduced us to Wesley Autrey. A man who left his two young daughters on the platform and jumped into the path of a train to save a stranger three weeks ago.
“He insists he’s not a hero. He says: ‘We got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms. We have got to show each other some love.’ There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey.”
Something wonderful, and something worth fighting for.
Jules Crittenden is an editor and columnist for the Boston Herald.
Crittenden’s web page is at Forward Movement.