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"Playing Politics" with the War By: Andrew Ferguson
Bloomberg | Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Not that we're keeping count, but here's another thing that 9/11 didn't change: politicians still like anniversaries almost as much as journalists do.

So President George W. Bush took to the airwaves last night to mark the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- a day, Bush said, on which ``our nation saw the face of evil.''

Bush's speech was made for TV, a medium that by design defeats every attempt at subtlety or complexity, so he couldn't offer much more than a sketch of his thinking five years after the attacks. Fortunately, though, last night's address capped a sequence of speeches over the last two weeks in which Bush delivered a full-throated and fleshed-out defense of his administration's response to the war on terrorism.

The speeches deserve to be read. They demand to be argued about. For when you scrape away the occasional domestic pandering -- even Bush's admirers should cringe at his boast before a veterans group on Aug. 31 that ``in my first four years as president, we increased the funding for veterans more than the previous administration did in eight years, and since then, we've increased it even more'' -- you'll find an argument that demands to be taken seriously.

Triumph to Disaster

Making such arguments is what a democratic leader is supposed to do, and it's what Bush neglected to do for almost two years as the Iraq war slipped from evident triumph to incipient disaster. Now Bush has set out a series of assertions about the nature of the war on terrorism that are often directly contrary to the views of his political adversaries.

First, while acknowledging that terrorists ``take inspiration from different sources,'' Bush says they form a single, unitary enemy.

This was once the common view, but it isn't now. Bush's critics point out that Islamic terrorists are separated, in the words of a recent editorial in the vaguely hawkish Washington Post, by ``enormous differences'' and ``in Iraq, al-Qaeda is literally at war with proxies of Iran, which in turn is a sworn enemy of the Taliban.''

Bush argues that what unites these seemingly disparate entities isn't merely means but ends: the belief that together they possess ``the right of a self-appointed few to impose their fanatical views on all the rest.'' For this reason, Bush in these recent speeches compares 21st-century terrorists to the totalitarians of the last century, Communists and fascists.

More Than Semantic

Again, Bush's assertion is challenged by political opponents who see the comparison to fascism as over-dramatic and far- fetched. The differences here are more than semantic. If the enemy is inspired not just by a crude will to power but by a culture and an ideology, a compelling view of how the world should work, then our response should be cultural and ideological, too.

With unfortunate Madison Avenue overtones, Bush calls his ideological strategy ``the freedom agenda.''

``America has committed its influence in the world to advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism,'' Bush says, and not even the most rabid Bush-hater would object to the goal.

But Bush has gone much farther in putting that commitment into practice. Bush explains his desire to impose a democratic government in Iraq as a seamless extension of the war on terrorism. It is also, at least theoretically, a fusion of starry-eyed idealism and hard-headed realism: a belief in mankind's universal desire for freedom combined with the demonstrably pacifying effects of successful self-government.

``Democracies don't attack each other or threaten the peace,'' he says. His gamble is that a democratic Middle East won't either.

Signs of Failure

Bush has made these arguments before, but never in such a systematic and sustained manner, and never under such unfavorable circumstances. The ``freedom agenda'' that he believes follows inevitably from his understanding of terrorism shows every sign of failing.

As Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean put it on ``Fox News Sunday'' last weekend: ``We have not pursued the war on terror with the vigor that we should have because we've gotten bogged down in this civil war in Iraq.''

Bush anticipated this ``diversion'' argument as well. ``That would come as news to Osama bin Laden, who proclaimed that the `third world war is raging' in Iraq,'' Bush said in the Aug. 31 speech. ``We should all agree that the battle for Iraq is now central to the ideological struggle of the 21st Century.''

Playing Politics

But of course we don't all agree. And that's where politics comes in. In response to this impressive series of speeches, Bush's political opponents accuse him of ``playing politics.''

``We think there's a lot of politics in the president's speeches,'' Dean said on Sunday.

We should hope so. It is one of the terrible ironies of U.S. democracy that the term ``politics'' -- which is, after all, the process by which free people govern themselves -- should have become a dirty word.

Bush has a belief about what the war means and how it should be fought. His political opponents have a different view. The two sides need to engage and argue, and then the public, with congressional elections this fall, will weigh in as well.

That's politics -- yet another thing that the attacks of 9/11 didn't change. We should be grateful they didn't.

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