Over His Head
Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, is a Michigan-based writer and blogger at democracyarsenal.org.
President Bush’s fifth State of the Union looked as if it had gotten some pretty radical surgery in the late editing stages, with much of the ballyhooed domestic agenda cut back to platitudes and the president left with what, now, must be most familiar—a national security address with its twin rallying cries of freedom and fear.
How ironic that Bush may, as his term winds down, become as much a foreign policy president as his dad—and without much of the enjoyment for it that Bush 41 had.
But we digress.
The showpiece of these remarks was an appeal to the Iranian people, “over the heads of their leaders:"
And tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our Nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.
What a pity, as Lee Feinstein points out, that we didn’t try this when there was a reformist government and a strong citizen movement for change in Iran to talk to.
However, “going over their heads” provides a nice metaphor for this speech as a whole. I believe much of the rhetoric will go over the heads of its American audience but not, unfortunately, others around the world.
It begins by addressing itself to the tremendous threat posed by American isolationists. Now, I don’t often agree with Charles Krauthammer, but I happened to look at a 2004 speech in which he said that isolationism was dead, that its last exponent was Pat Buchanan, and what’d it get him? West Palm Beach. Alternately, one could look at last November’s Pew/CFR poll in which 42 percent of respondents said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other nations get along as best they can”—on par with public sentiment at the end of Vietnam.
So is the president complaining about 42 percent of the public? He spoke past a similarly large number of Americans who voice support for an immediate or proximate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. So here, and in all the familiar Iraq language that follows, he spoke over the heads of most Americans—and the Iraqis who polls this week show are equally divided and uncertain about the U.S. presence in their country—to that elusive percentage of former supporters who have dropped away but might, if we say the words “victory” and “freedom” enough times, be induced to come back.
And speaking of freedom, Mr. President, “democracies replace resentment with hope.” Is that what just happened in the Palestinian vote? Is that why we gave Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas so little support before the elections, because the elections alone would give Palestinians plenty of hope? That one is over my head.
What didn’t go over anyone’s head, because it wasn’t there:
Major long-term security challenges on par with Iran, especially North Korea but also Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan?).
Any kind of plan, even a fake rhetorical plan, for dealing with the challenges posed by trade to our own economy on the one hand, and the poor economies that need fair trade to grow—more than they need U.S. aid dollars—on the other.
Any recognition of the obscene violence and betrayal of Darfur, before which we might blanch, just a little, to talk about the march of freedom.
Rather, I would guess that these absences were missed by very few among our global audience.
What is more, I would guess that the president’s global vision will, in fact, have sailed over the heads of most of his American audience—not because we are ignorant or indifferent, but because we have heard these words before, and we are looking instead for practical answers to the deaths of our own men and women, of Iraqi civilians and Sudanese children; to the dwindling of our manufacturing exports and the failure of the world’s poorest places to gain any ground; and to the perplexity verging into dislike with which we are now viewed around the world.
And perhaps the president is prophetic, because history suggests that our national perplexity will flow not toward new activism—but toward our old friend isolationism, after all.