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The world has been quietly watching US President George Bush lately to see if he has lost his nerve. The continued deadly attacks in Iraq, a fumbled response to a natural disaster, and the failure to gain traction for his major domestic agenda item (reforming Social Security) have all given the impression of a presidency on the rocks.
Friends and foes alike have been on the lookout for signs of recovery or its alternatives muddling and collapse. If recovery is in the offing, months from now its seeds will likely be traced back to a remarkable speech Bush gave yesterday to the National Endowment for Democracy.
In one of the most coherent and determined outlines of his foreign policy given in the last four years, Bush laid out the goals, means, scope and enemies in the current war.
"The images and experience of September the 11th are unique for Americans," Bush said. "Yet the evil of that morning has reappeared on other days, in other places in Mombasa, and Casablanca, and Riyadh, and Jakarta, and Istanbul, and Madrid, and Beslan, and Taba, and Netanya, and Baghdad and elsewhere Yet while the killers choose their victims indiscriminately, their attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane."
Significantly, this description refuses to pretend that the jihad against Israel is disconnected from the global war. But then Bush went even further to correct a previous tendency to speak amorphously about terrorists and "evildoers" as the enemy, without saying who they are and what they believe.
"Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam," he said.
Though Bush is rightly at pains not to declare Islam or Muslims as the enemy, he is also right to more bluntly state what is as blindingly obvious as it assiduously avoided: that the enemy is wholly concentrated in, and a subset of, the Muslim world.
Equally important, Bush spelled out the goals of the global jihad: to evict the West from the Middle East and to take over countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan. In the final stage, the Islamists "believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people and to blackmail our government into isolation."
All of this might have been enough moral clarity for one speech. But Bush pressed on, laying out a three-part strategy for the war that is not new for him but seemed to have been diluted or forgotten.
The first two parts, hunting down terrorist organizations and denying "weapons of mass destruction to outlaw regimes," are, in principle, uncontroversial.
With the third part, Bush seems to be returning to what appeared to be the heart of his post-9/11 Doctrine: "We're determined to deny radical groups the support and sanctuary of outlaw regimes. State sponsors like Syria and Iran have a long history of collaboration with terrorists, and they deserve no patience from the victims of terror. The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them the civilized world must hold those regimes to account."
Bush's description of the war, its stakes, and what is needed to win it is cogent and undeniable. What is incredible is how alone he seems, both among the nations and in his own country, in seeing the world this way. Yet at least Bush himself has returned to saying what must be said. What remains to be seen is whether he can take what is now seen as a voice in the wilderness and transform it into an effective blueprint for action.