By JOHN HALL
Like it or loathe it, President Bush’s speech from the Oval Office on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks may be one of the handful of addresses that historians consult about his presidency.
This anniversary address has become his political gospel and national-security doctrine joined into one. It has come to define him even more than the traditional source material like his State of the Union speeches and even his two inaugural addresses and Republican acceptance speeches at the national conventions.
Bush now says he is leading nothing less than a "struggle for civilization." It is a fight "to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations," not only in the West but in the Middle East.
As expected, Bush called for national unity. But he did so in just one sentence at the end of the speech, without the standard "come, let us reason together" floral decorations around it.
His unity message was that his express train is loading up for the battlefront and the country can get on board to fight radical Islam or be left at the station, to be at the mercy of nuke-wielding jihadists.
His threat assessments were loaded with menace.
"We face an enemy determined to bring death and suffering into our homes," he said. They "remain determined to attack America and kill our citizens."
On this one day, with images of planes flying into the Twin Towers and the ashen faces of survivors clutching American flags, no one could take exception to these statements or call them exaggerations. But it was his next leap — linking the outcome of the Iraq war to the destiny of the United States and the world — where he is encountering difficulty.
He tried to use the words of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to show that radical Islam regards Iraq as crucial to the outcome of its worldwide jihad against the United States. If they are not defeated, they will use Iraq as a springboard for attacks against the West.
Al Qaeda has, indeed, declared Iraq as a major front in their war. And yet battlefront reports and U.S. command and intelligence say the Iraq war has degenerated into something much more complicated.
This has now become a battle between Muslim sects, primarily Sunni terrorists and Shiite militias. Al Qaeda attacks had fallen off lately but may soon get worse, particularly in western provinces where a vacuum has been created by the removal of U.S. forces to help secure Baghdad.
Between the lines of Bush’s speech were unmistakable barbs at his critics who want a change in an Iraq strategy that they regard as careening downhill.
He invoked the names of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, noting that the struggles they undertook were so long and difficult that neither lived to see the victories. The unspoken message was that their successors in the Democratic Party aren’t worthy of them.
Implicitly, Bush also seemed to be questioning whether the current American generation _ which has reduced his approval ratings below 40 percent in some polls before he embarked on his round of speeches to rally the nation _ was equal to those who fought World War II and the Cold War. If the United States falters, it will "leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons," said Bush.
Bush’s original justification for the Iraq war was to remove weapons of mass destruction, including possible nuclear weapons, from Iraq. None was found. Presumably, he is now talking about Iran, which is a military problem several orders of magnitude higher in difficulty and danger than Iraq.
Besides a little collective guilt directed at Democrats, Bush’s speech had an edge to it of a public shaming of doubters of all denomination. These presumably include a small but growing list of Republicans in Congress who have decided they can’t stand for re-election without advocating some kind of change in Bush’s no-end-in-sight strategy.
Some of the Republicans could be helped by an expected jump in the polls for Bush as a result of his September media blitz. Whether it will last long enough to help his faltering presidency is the big question.
(John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. E-mail to jhall(at)mediageneral.com.)