What Bush didn't say

He didn't compare his war strategy to its real predecessor: The War on Drugs. And he made no offers of building an international coalition.

By Bruce Shapiro

Published September 21, 2001 2:37PM (EDT)

When President Bush walked out of the Capitol after his speech Thursday night, he left behind him bipartisan huzzahs, a new terrorism czar and a list of demands for the Taliban. Yet paradoxically, he also left behind a war on terrorism even more murky than it was when he entered the building an hour earlier.

From his first shaken television appearance hours after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks a week ago, Bush has seemed to promise a swift and definitive and violent reply. Standing atop the rubble in New York, he shouted into a bullhorn that the perpetrators of the attack would feel America's sting; earlier this week he declared presumed mastermind Osama Bin-Laden "wanted dead or alive"; in Congress he offered a high-oratorical version of the same John Wayne promise: either "we bring our enemies to justice, or we will bring justice to our enemies."

But the remarkable reality of Bush's speech Thursday night was just how far he backpedaled from that promise of easy vindication of the dead. He devoted much of the speech to explaining what his new world policy is not: "not one battle but a lengthy campaign," not a war for territory like Iraq, not a sanitized air war like Kosovo, not even a war with a pre-defined enemy but against any mafia or state "sponsoring, sheltering or supplying terrorists."

Bush stated his goals so broadly because, despite his rhetoric of the last days, he faces a crisis that defies military solution. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld admitted as much at a press conference Wednesday in which he described the difficulty of finding suitable targets for air strikes in already-devastated Afghanistan, or waging a ground war in a rural mountain land that in a century's time defeated the best efforts of the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Instead, Bush defined the crisis so broadly Thursday night as to defy effective measurement even of success or failure.

Indeed, while he made reference to the great ideological conflicts of recent decades -- calling the bombers "the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century" -- the past century, the new strategy described by Bush is really more heir to the war on drugs than to World War II or the Cold War. Like the war on drugs, Bush's new campaign means taking on conspiratorial actors rooted in some of the world's most impoverished economies. Like the drug war, it means parsing out -- or more likely looking away from -- the morphing, corrupt relationship between transnational criminals and governments, some of which happen to be key American allies. For the drug war's Colombia, substitute Taliban-friendly Pakistan, or perhaps Saudi Arabia, deeply implicated in the funding of militant Islamic networks worldwide.

And like the War on Drugs, Bush's new campaign carries a domestic "homeland security" component which many Americans may find far from congenial. As recently as the early 1980s, the label "terrorism" was applied with a broad brush to justify FBI spying on a broad range of American dissidents. Attorney General Ashcroft's demand for sweeping new power to detain immigrant "terrorist suspects" without charge and virtually without appeal has already been compared with the Palmer Raids of 1919, when hundreds of immigrant radicals were arrested and deported. But it is also frighteningly reminiscent of the draconian anti-terrorist laws passed by Great Britain during the Irish Republican Army campaign of the 1970s -- where secret courts and arrests without evidence led to numerous cases of wrongful imprisonment, including the Guilford Four whose story was told in brutal detail in the film "In the Name of the Father."

If Bush left his goals vague it is also because his administration and advisors are still warring internally. On one side are those who, like former Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Paul Wolfowitz, call for putting an assortment of nations out of business no matter what it takes: essentially, sending America to war with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan all at once. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- until last week the most marginalized member of the Cabinet -- clearly favors more limited and precise action aimed specifically at bin Laden's mafia.

And alongside that debate is an even bigger question, left completely unanswered in Bush's speech and yet arguably key to the whole enterprise: whether he is willing to abandon the blunt policy of American unilateralism which has so far guided the Bush administration every step of the way. Bush showered praise on Great Britain's Tony Blair and applauded the sympathy displayed for America in Seoul and Cairo. At the same time, this president who spurned the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, who has fought establishment of an International Criminal Court, who angered even close allies with his missile defense plan, made no mention in his speech Thursday of the United Nations.

It was an omission all the more notable because recent years have brought a steady stream of transnational cooperation in the prosecutions of mass murderers. "Modern democracies have perfectly adequate justice systems for dealing with terrorists," says William Schabas, a leading international law scholar and director of the Irish Center for Human Rights in Galway. "We track them down, catch them, bring them to trial and impose fit punishment. That is what the United States and the United Kingdom did with those responsible for the Lockerbie crash, and for the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It is what the U.N. is doing for those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda." Indeed, says Schabas, "How much more healthy it is for democracy that Milosevic be judged by an international court rather than murdered by a cruise missile aimed at his home."

The possibility of such cooperation seemed far from the president's mind Thursday night. The president's speech was clearly designed to mark for Americans a new era of global struggle -- but to the rest of the world, it also says that even after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon this is a president who goes it alone.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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