Farewell to the man in the arena

Farewell to the man in the arena

By Christian Brose

And there you have it folks. Curtains for the Bush presidency.

No big surprises tonight. And nothing that will be much remembered either I’m afraid — no evocations to "steer clear of permanent alliances," no warnings of a "military-industrial complex." Instead, we had some talking points on administration achievments. The obligatory clarion call to resist isolationism and protectionism. And oh God help me: the hackneyed and trite use of decent people as stage props routine. This is nothing personal against Bush or his scribes; it’s just an old saw of mine as a former speechwriter. Note to Obama: ban that rhetorical device forever.

Seriously, though, this was a speech about one thing: 9/11 and protecting America. The key part was this: "As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did." Those two little lines do a lot of work, and not all of it did Bush intend.

Say what you will about the president and the past eight years, and we can say a lot, no one — no one — thought on September 11, 2001 that Bush would be able to stand up in front of the nation in 2009 and say in his farewell address that America had not suffered another attack. This is clearly the one yardstick by which Bush measures himself and his presidency, and even his harshest critics must give credit where credit is due on that point.

Yes, yes — perhaps it had everything to do with events beyond Bush’s control. Perhaps there’s been no attack more in spite of Bush than because of him. Perhaps the terrorists got lazy. Perhaps they’re just lying in wait. Yes, perhaps.

What I have always struggled with in my own appraisal of Bush is, on the one hand, the fact that he has succeeded in keeping the U.S. homeland safe from another terrorist attack on his watch, but on the other hand, my strong belief that he has misconceived and miscast the "war on terror" in a way, I think, that has not just been unfortunate but counterproductive — from the rhetoric he uses to describe it to the worst moral outrages that have been committed in its name. This has led to a great degree of cognitive dissonance in my own mind, especially having worked in the government these past four years.

Here is Bush last night:

The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder. The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.

I have little to quibble with in the descriptions; it’s the comparison that bothers me. And the reference is clear. Here is President Harry Truman speaking to Congress on March 12, 1947:

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

There was a time after 9/11 when America needed a president who saw the people who had just attacked us as a world-conquering, ideological counterweight to American liberalism. And Bush answered that call. Now, more than seven years on, we need to insist — without compromising one bit of our post-9/11 seriousness, vigilance, or willingness to defend ourselves — that by raising al-Qaeda and company to our level, we are only degrading ourselves while painting them as the very thing they aspire to be. Our enemy in this confrontation is a deviant bunch of bitter-enders, whose only ideas about organizing society have been rejected everywhere — everywhere — they’ve been forced on people. The sooner we start treating them as such the better. Bush could never accept that, let alone do it.

Others, however, can. And today, David Miliband offered a glimpse of what should come next. This, ironically, was the real speech of the day:

The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines asa simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists or good andevil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groupswith little in common, and the more we magnify the sense of threat. We should expose their claim to a compelling and overarching explanation and narrative as the lie that it is.

Miliband even spoke of his strategy as "disaggregation," which is exactly the term Dave Kilcullen uses in this article, leading me to wonder who really wrote this speech. Either way, this is where Obama should pick up intellectually and policywise, but he should do so with all of the vigilance and single-mindedness of his predecessor. And as for Bush, well, his performance tonight reminded me of another unpopular American president, who in his own farewell to the nation chose to quote Teddy Roosevelt’s description of the "man in the arena,"

whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.