Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The caveats behind the stagecraft

Politically speaking, President Bush’s latest round of war-on-terror speechifying has already accomplished his goal of goosing his poll numbers northward (as most recently evidenced here), thereby boosting the spirits of incumbent Republican congressmen who have been fearing a debacle in the November elections. Bush’s speech yesterday at the United Nations will probably help as well, since there’s no greater political advertisement for the GOP than to have the commander-in-chief extolling the virtues of freedom on worldwide TV.

Fortunately for Bush and his party, powerful stagecraft generally trumps the caveats of factual reality. Most voters won’t stop to examine all the nuances. But a close look at the Bush speech prompts the conclusion that the president isn’t nearly the master of Middle East events and moral arbiter that his stagecraft sought to convey. For instance:

1. Bush took a shot at the totalitarian leaders of Iran, declaring that America “will stand with the moderates and reformers” in the Middle East. Left unmentioned was the fact that the America-backed elections in Iraq have actually been a boon to those totalitarian leaders in Iran – because now, with old foe Saddam Hussein gone, they have a lot more leverage, thanks to the alliances they have formed with their Shiite brethren in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. In fact, Iraqi prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has already met with the Iranian leaders, and asked for their help in quelling the violence in Iraq.

2. Bush urged United Nations members to help him stop the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons; he asked, “will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?” Nobody wants that kind of future, of course. But his clout with the UN, and his push for international support, has been undercut by the war in Iraq, which the UN refused to endorse. As a Fox News correspondent told Bush at a press conference last Friday, “I wonder how much that (push for support) is frustrated by two things: the war in Iraq and world criticism of that; and the Iraqi prime minister going to Iran and basically challenging your administration’s claim that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs.”

3. Bush appealed directly to Muslims in the Middle East, insisting that Americans “respect Islam,” and that he isn’t waging a war on Islam, no matter what kind of “propaganda” they might be hearing. Left unmentioned was the fact that, until very recently, Bush was talking incessantly about our war against “Islamic-fascism” (his latest reframing of the war on terror), and apparently the term was ticking off Muslims.

So now Bush isn’t using it anymore. Washington columnist Morton Kondracke broke the story this week in subscriber-only Roll Call: “In a controversial move within the administration, (undersecretary of State for public diplomacy Karen) Hughes and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seem to have persuaded Bush – temporarily at least – to drop the label ‘Islamic-fascism’ from his speeches; diplomats say that Muslims hear it as an attack on their religion, thereby validating the extremists’ false charge that the U.S. is at war with Islam.” (I guess this means that Rick Santorum and other GOP senators should excise the term from their autumn campaign speeches.)

4. Bush assailed the Iranian leaders by directly appealing to the Iranian people, saying, “You deserve an opportunity to determine your own future…The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons.” Yet moments later, regarding the nuclear pursuit, Bush said that “we’re working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis.”

The contradiction is clear: On the one hand, the Bush team is saying that it wants to negotiate a diplomatic solution with the Iranian leaders; on the other hand, it’s asking the Iranian people to rise up and “determine your own future.” This reflects the longstanding, and unresolved, internal Bush administration debate between those who want regime change and the diplomatists who don’t see it as feasible. But since Bush gave voice to both camps in his speech, it left the impression that he expects the Iranian leaders to sit down and talk business with the Americans who want them to be overthrown.

5. At one point, while Bush was sharing his dream of “a world beyond terror,” he cited a famed UN document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and lauded it as “the foundation of freedom and justice and peace in the world.” Yet this same document declares that everybody deserves that “a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him,” as well as “a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.” And this document, with a bow to the Geneva Conventions, also bans “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

These are precisely the kinds of guarantees that the Bush administration is seeking to compromise in its current negotiations with Congress. Regardless of whether the White House has a good case for undercutting the UN document, the fact remains that many in Bush’s worldwide audience are not nearly as receptive as the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

6. Meanwhile, the UN isn’t helping matters much. Key Security Council members, such as France, Russia, and China, have no interest in imposing sanctions on Iran. They’ve got money tied up in Iran; China alone reportedly has done $8 billion worth of business with Iran since January. But some conservatives with no love for the UN are now blaming Bush for failing to get tough with the international body.

Ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum – one of the authors of the 2002 “axis of evil” phrase – wrote yesterday that Bush’s speech “marks the final fizzling out of his Iran policy of the past three years…Did the president call on the Security Council to reconsider (its refusal to impose sanctions)? Did he challenge the Iranian bomb program before the world? He did not. He said nothing about it.”

Will any of these caveats to the Bush speech reverse his uptick in the national polls? Not likely. A persuasive counter-message from the Democrats might help slow the GOP’s rise, but don’t hold your breath. It’s tough to win an argument with stagecraft.