Interesting Times: Connect the dots

Bush shouldn't be surprised that people don't understand his policy when he doesn't really explain.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Remember the 9/11 Report and how it hung over the 2004 US election like an accusing finger, making Americans wonder whether the deadliest attack ever on the American mainland might have been prevented? "The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise," the report states. "Islamist extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers." Though the report became a political football, Americans seemed to conclude that the inability to comprehend, let alone prevent, an attack on the scale of 9/11 was somewhat understandable. It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, as Americans say. What is harder to understand is how this same public seems to be, after 9/11 and other similar atrocities, lapsing into war-weariness and complacency. President George Bush has been waging an uphill battle to convince Americans that there is indeed a war on, to explain the nature of the enemy, his strategy, and the need to pursue it even if it entails sacrifices. After a series of five speeches on Iraq, a poll last weekend found 60 percent of Americans still believing that Bush has not done enough to explain why the US is in Iraq. A slim majority also does not see the connection between the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism. Though American support for Bush and his policy in Iraq is creeping up, at some level he seems not to be connecting. Why? The stock answer is that he has lost credibility, since he had justified ousting Saddam on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that were not found, and admits to having trusted flawed intelligence. But the missing WMD is not Bush's real problem. Does anyone really need to be convinced that Saddam was a dangerous tyrant? What they don't see is how removing Saddam will prevent further 9/11s. Bush has become increasingly detailed about the threat from militant Islamists in general and al-Qaida in particular. He has rightly likened the stakes in this struggle to two great global conflicts of the last century: World War II and the Cold War. Yet for all his extensive and sometimes even eloquent educational efforts on the war, there is a gaping hole in the middle of his explanations. ALMOST FOUR years ago, in his initial post-9/11 speeches, Bush spoke with what was then termed "moral clarity." Speaking by name of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Bush said in January 2002: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world... The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons... If we stop now - leaving terror camps intact and terror states unchecked - our sense of security would be false and temporary." (emphasis added) American presidents had had tough words to say about terrorism before. What made this and other speeches in this period the core of a new Bush Doctrine is that, for the first time, the task of confronting states and not just terrorist groups became central to defeating the newly-appreciated global enemy. Since the war in Iraq, the words "regime change" have faded from the Bush lexicon. On Sunday, Bush dedicated his first Oval Office address to the nation in two years to foreign policy, but did not mention Iran. In that speech, the old Bush Doctrine morphed into this: "We will defeat the terrorists by capturing and killing them abroad, removing their safe havens, and strengthening new allies like Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight we share." Where are these safe havens? Which states are actively working to defeat the democratic process in Iraq? How are they doing it and what is America doing to stop them? Without answering these questions, Bush is unable to explain either how Iraq fits into a wider policy or why terrorist groups pose a threat on the level of Nazism and Communism. He has left a gaping hole between the micro and macro aspects of his strategy which renders it, and particularly its Iraq component, incoherent. The real reason for the war in Iraq was to kick off the Bush Doctrine in the heart of the Arab world, by driving "terror states," as Bush rightly called them, either out of power or out of the terror business. But if Bush is now skittish about saying this, then why should it be surprising that so many people do not understand what he is doing? The real question now is whether this hole is just on the explanatory, or also on the substantive level. These levels, however, are difficult to separate. Even if the old Bush Doctrine remains intact in the president's mind, his unwillingness to assert it translates into an inability to pursue it. Accordingly, not only does Bush not talk about regime change in Iran, he also has yet to take baby steps toward helping the Iranian people bring this about. He has not, for instance, met with Iranian dissidents, or spoken at length about human rights in Iran. When I asked a senior Western diplomat, who had served in a number of Arab countries, why the Arab states were not more supportive of the new Iraqi government, he dismissed the usual explanation: that these states were Sunni-dominated and feared Shi'ite rule in Iraq. The real reason, he said, was that Iraq's neighbors could see how much influence Iran had gained within Iraqi politics, and were not sure which side would win out in Iraq: Iran or the US. When Bush speaks about the terrorists in Iraq, without mentioning the help they get from Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, it is as if he is sketching the fingers of the enemy without detailing its arms, torso and head. He should not be surprised that Americans still do not see the full picture as long as he continues to resist connecting the dots. [email protected]