George Bush got one thing right in his speech Monday night -- that "many Americans have raised legitimate questions" about his mad rush to war with Iraq.
But he continues to misunderstand what the American people and the rest of the world want in this debate over war -- credible evidence, not speculation and lies; defensible claims, not leaps of illogic; and a response to the growing skepticism about his administration's motivations.
Take Bush's assertion that if Iraq could "produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." Yes, that's likely true, but it is the equivalent of saying, "If Iraq had a nuclear weapon, it would have a nuclear weapon." Creating the other components of a nuclear bomb would be relatively easy; it is the fissile material that is the issue.
Or consider Bush's claim that "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists." Yes, he could. But if for the sake of argument we accept the claim that Hussein has stocks of usable weapons, would he give them away? Bush reminded us that Saddam Hussein is a power-hungry dictator who seeks total control. Is it likely such a fellow is going to turn over powerful weapons to an outside group that he can't control? Especially given that Saddam is a secular nationalist and the outside group is rooted in a fanatical theology? Is that how someone trying to hold onto power is likely to act?
Bush at least acknowledged that we know little about Saddam's nuclear capability, but he lied about why. Bush claimed that Iraq barred the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998. In fact, the inspectors, along with those from the U.N. Special Commission, were withdrawn by their agencies -- not expelled by Iraq -- in December 1998 when it became clear the Clinton administration was going to bomb Iraq (as it did) and the safety of the inspectors couldn't be guaranteed.
When Bush needed to answer people's legitimate questions, he sidestepped them with cynical attempts to manipulate emotion. To explain why a war is necessary now, he cited the horror of 9/11. "We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people. Our enemies would be no less willing -- in fact, they would be eager -- to use biological or chemical, or a nuclear weapon."
Yes, but the people who committed the atrocities of 9/11 were not agents of Saddam Hussein. The fact that one U.S. enemy used such terrorism does not mean that eveyone who dislikes the United States and its policies is going to do it. In fact, the only two times Hussein has dared to use chemical weapons -- in the war with Iran and against Iraqi Kurds -- occurred in the 1980s when he was an ally of the United States and had our implicit support.
Bush's argument reduces to this: No one can prove that Saddam Hussein is not planning to attack us. And if he had a nuclear weapon, no one can prove he wouldn't use it. And if he used it, it is possible he could destroy us. So, to stop this unknown, unproven, unquantifiable, logic-defying "threat gathering against us," we must go to war or risk seeing a mushroom cloud rise over the United States.
For this, Bush is willing to risk massive civilian casualties, the complete destruction of a people already devastated and impoverished by one war and nearly a dozen years of economic embargo, and a dangerously chaotic postwar world. I cannot prove those events would come to pass, but given the brutal way in which the United States fights wars -- with high-altitude bombing and indiscriminate weapons, the direct targeting of civilian infrastructure, and a consistent lack of concern for civilian deaths -- those results are far more plausible than any of Bush's fearmongering claims.
Bush's tactics won't stop people from raising the obvious: It seems clear that the war plans are not about protecting people, but about projecting power. The transparent goal of a Bush war is to extend and deepen U.S. control over the strategically crucial oil resources of the Middle East. A compliant puppet government in Baghdad will solidify U.S. power in the region, through influence over the flow of oil and the establishment of what would almost certainly become a permanent U.S. base and staging area for other military actions in the area.
Although the TV pundits and political sycophants were quick to gush over Bush's alleged statesmanlike demeanor and careful arguments, the legitimate questions remain. People continue to ask them. And Bush and his administration continue to try to paper over them with emotion, not evidence, and rhetoric, not reason.
Bush has over the past months made clear his contempt for the United Nations and the rest of the world. Monday night he made crystal clear his contempt for the intelligence of the American people as well.
Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet "Citizens of the Empire." He can be reached at email@example.com.