The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, May 25, 2004  

Grasping at Jetsam & Flotsam

President George W. Bush last night gave his hyped “major speech” on U.S. strategy in Iraq, addressing the American people, and the world, not from the Oval Office, as I had assumed he would, but from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where he basked in the repeated bouts of applause from a carefully selected audience of nearly 500 military officers.

Why am I not surprised? Scripting and backdrops are crucial elements of all theater, and this administration is nothing if not the theater of the absurd. Why am I also not surprised that no one in the White House gave thought to the notion that traveling to the War College, despite the favorable reception, probably wasn’t a great idea? Although the institution itself isn’t cloaked in massive secrecy, the instruction there isn’t open to the scrutiny of the general public. This is the stuff around which thousands of conspiracies can be woven by disaffected Arabs: “President Bush addresses conclave of hundreds of top U.S. military officers at secret Army training school.”

Despite the president’s attempt to convey confidence and his cloying reassurances to the American public, there lingered under the cool surface an element of desperation. The Bush administration clearly is beyond adrift in Iraq, left merely grasping at the all too familiar jetsam and flotsam its own strategy has scattered in the region. Vague timetables, an obscured agenda, and premature promises of multilateral assistance dominated the speech. It’s really too late for this, isn’t it?

The president’s plan to raze the Abu Ghraib prison, the only new item discussed in the speech, is a purely symbolic gesture. It’s a plan that, in the absence of a systematic transformation of detention and interrogation procedures, along with critical changes in personnel rising up through the Pentagon and including the White House -- encompassing Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and President Bush himself -- and the adoption of applicable international law including the Geneva Conventions, will do nothing to stem the opportunity for humiliation, abuse, and torture of prisoners.

The most deceitful aspect of the speech was the conflagration of terrorism with what would more accurately be described as an insurgency or guerrilla warfare. President Bush used, or misused, the words “terror,” “terrorism,” and “terrorists” 19 times in last night’s speech.

By now it’s almost a maxim that if the president and his cohorts in the administration and the media repeat something often enough, it becomes not only believed but absolutely real to them and to millions of gullible and misinformed Americans. Iraq wasn’t the center of the long struggle against terrorism before the war. If it is now, and I doubt even that, it’s only because the president and his frighteningly misguided cohorts made it so.

[Post-publication addendum: Have you signed the petition?]

[Post-publication addendum: By the way, today’s coverage of the speech in the Philadelphia Inquirer includes a photograph, not reproduced on the paper’s web site, of soon-to-be former Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) almost snuggling with President Bush. There’s something creepy about living in a “battleground state.”]

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