Given the state of the world, I expect that the president’s speech tonight will garner more viewers than it normally would. To the average viewer, the president’s State of the Union address can come across as a drawn out pep rally in the halls of Congress. No doubt much of the commentary over President Biden’s speech will focus on the war in Ukraine, COVID restrictions, and Democrats’ prospects in the midterm elections. In that sense, the speech will likely operate primarily as theater for the punditry, another must-watch episode for America’s politics-obsessed commentariat.
Yet in between bursts of praise for the country, party, and themselves, many of our previous presidents used the opportunity afforded by their annual message to articulate guiding principles for American conduct abroad. James Monroe, for example, issued his eponymous doctrine declaring the Western Hemisphere off-limits for European colonization in the 1823 Annual Message to Congress. 81 years later, Theodore Roosevelt asserted that the United States possessed the rights of “an international police power” to punish “chronic wrongdoing” and ensure “progress in stable and just civilization” across Latin America in his Fourth Annual Message. While these speeches are known for their verbosity, they also occasionally forecast the path the United States will soon chart in the world.
Today marks an opportunity to reconsider one such State of the Union, one that I contend contains valuable lessons for our current moment. Twenty years ago, George W. Bush delivered his 2002 State of the Union address to a nation still hurting, mourning, and outraged at the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Coming roughly one month after the United States declared victory over the Taliban in Kabul, Bush’s speech outlined the full scope of the still-nascent War on Terror. As he declared, “While the most visible military action is in Afghanistan, America is acting elsewhere… My hope is that all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.”
Bush, however, went a step beyond merely hoping that other nations would follow Washington’s lead. “Some nations will be timid in the face of terror,” he said, “And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.” Having proclaimed his administration’s willingness to pursue a unilateral agenda, Bush then launched into the paragraphs for which this speech is remembered. He accused North Korea, Iran, and especially Iraq of having “something to hide from the civilized world. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world… these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” His rhetoric conflated the threats posed by these “rogue” states and transnational terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, which brought the logic of his argument to a head. Faced with such a threat, “the price of indifference would be catastrophic.” Indeed, because “time is not on our side” he warned, “America will do what is necessary to ensure our Nation’s security.” Lest his point be lost, he summarized his case in no uncertain terms: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” 14 months later the United States and the “coalition of the willing” went to war with Iraq under the exact rationale outlined in this speech: to stop Saddam Hussein’s regime from arming terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech launched the United States down a path that practically all Americans now regret. Whether measured by the loss of human life, the damage to national unity, the U.S. military casualties, or the amount of money spent fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, it is nigh impossible to argue that the “freedom agenda” was a worthwhile endeavor. The Bush administration is consequently synonymous with foreign policy failure.
Evidence that Americans blame Bush for the disasters of the War on Terror can be found not only in his historically low approval rating when he left office, but also in the way subsequent elections played out. Barrack Obama derided Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential race for having supported the Iraq invasion; Obama attacked Mitt Romney in 2012 for wanting to keep troops in the Middle East; and Donald Trump, never to be outdone, called for Bush to be impeached in 2008 and memorably declared the War on Terror “a big, fat mistake” to Jeb Bush’s face on his way to seizing the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. If a president’s decision is so toxic that its supporters lose three straight elections, it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out what people think. Indeed, a Business Insider poll found that Americans blamed Bush more than any other figure for the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan just last year, nearly two decades after the war started. Seen in this light, the “Axis of Evil” address ranks among the most unfortunate moments in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Overall, then, it seems fair to say that the blame for the War on Terror and the related disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan are commonly pinned on Bush. And while this instinct is certainly understandable, it is also incomplete. Blaming Bush for the calamities of the freedom agenda allows the rest of the nation to avoid culpability in these conflicts, fashioning a scapegoat that obscures the role of political discourse and public opinion in creating the conditions that led to these decisions.
While Bush certainly deserves a fair amount of blame, the conventional wisdom of “Bush lied, people died” exculpates the failures of an entire political culture—both K Street and Main Street—that strongly supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq prior to the 9/11 attacks. If responsibility for the devastation caused by the War on Terror rests with Bush, then it is only fair to note that he followed a political consensus established not only before the Iraq invasion or September 11, but his entire presidency. There are two points of evidence that demonstrate the need to look to at the wider context, which show why we should locate the origins of (and thus the responsibility for) the freedom agenda beyond the Bush administration alone.
First, the rhetoric of freedom, democracy promotion, and a global war against terrorism in Bush’s “Axis of Evil” address recapitulated precedents found in prior presidential utterances. One need not look to Reagan or to Bush’s father to find similarities; there are numerous threads that illustrate how Bush built on the rhetorical symbolism of his immediate predecessor. Bill Clinton often described the United States as the Middle East’s guardian, and he used this picture to make sense of his administration’s sanctions of Iran and military actions taken against Hussein’s regime in Iraq. After the Operation Desert Fox airstrikes, for instance, Clinton exulted in how U.S. troops “have stood down Iraq’s threat to the security of the Persian Gulf,” depicting the region as a ward of the United States. These actions, as he told another audience, were part of a larger mission of “standing up for freedom” to make the world “a safer, more peaceful place for our children in the 21st century.” By “fighting for freedom in the Persian Gulf,” Clinton proclaimed in a 1995 address before the British Parliament, “we can create a future even more true to our ideals than all our glorious past.” The notion of an expansive American obligation to advance freedom in the Middle East was a standard feature of Clinton’s presidential rhetoric, which makes the arguments found in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union appear less novel.
Even more importantly, Clinton also stressed the danger posed by “Islamic fundamentalism,” portraying this phenomenon as a robust security threat worthy of a transnational U.S. military response. As he said at the Third Way Summit in Italy, “the biggest problems to our security in the 21st century and to this whole form of governance will probably not come from rogue states… but from the enemies of nation-states, from terrorists.” When asked about the nature of the terrorist threat, Clinton responded that his administration was developing ways to prosecute “the war against terror” and to respond to “those young men who have bought some apocalyptic version of Islam and politics that together causes them to strap their bodies with bombs and blow themselves to smithereens and kill innocent children.” These words were backed up with action. After Al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Clinton ordered retaliatory strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan in a mission aptly codenamed Operation Infinite Reach. And in a clear antecedent to Bush’s 2002 address, Clinton’s 1997 speech before the United Nations warned the world of “an unholy axis of terrorists” who endangered all nations.
The symbolism and rhetoric of the Clinton administration underscored that “Islamic fundamentalism” posed a security challenge that Americans should worry about. Outlets like Reader’s Digest amplified this message by telling stories of “religious extremists” who were perfectly willing to “cut the throats of schoolgirls for failing to wear the veils prescribed by Islamic fundamentalists.” As A.M. Rosenthal wrote in his article “Why Do We Tolerate Terrorism?” from the February 1997 magazine, “Never has America been so passive about an open threat.”
Second, public opinion polling reveals that a majority of Americans endorsed aggressive U.S. action in the Middle East. Given the tone of Clinton and the press it is perhaps unsurprising that many citizens adopted these attitudes, but the numbers are revealing all the same. When a 1994 survey asked which country posed the biggest threat to the United States, more Americans answered “Iraq” than Russia and China (traditional foes) as well as Japan and Germany (economic dynamos) combined. A poll taken in 1999 found that 49 percent of Americans favored attacking Iraq in an offensive war absent an Iraqi provocation. And in a poll taken ten days after the 9/11 attacks—well before the Bush administration made its spurious case for a connection between Al Qaeda and Baghdad—73(!) percent of respondents supported going to war with Iraq. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that, whatever judgment Bush merits for the Iraq War and the wider War on Terror, he and his team were acting in accordance with the political culture of the United States at the time.
There are many lessons that could be drawn from these findings. But I think perhaps the most relevant ones for our age of division might be (1) that we should be mindful of the pitfalls that can follow from consensus and (2) we should avoid scapegoating individual figures as a way to foreclose more thoughtful reflection on how our politics have become as they are.
Contemporary life, which increasingly takes place online, tends to incentivize outrage, echo chambers, and utter assurance in the rightness one’s own partisan persuasion. As Christians we must battle these tendencies in our own hearts, both for the sake of our witness and for our own sanctification. It is difficult to be “all things to all people” while operating in a tribal mindset; it is likewise inconsistent to say “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” when pointing fingers. The impulse to embrace politics as a team sport must be resisted alongside the vicious logics of scapegoating that have run amok in American culture.
As I grow older, I am increasingly astonished at how difficult it is, per 2 Corinthians 10, to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ. The intellectual calling of the Christian life does not leave much room for the certainties of the present moment, whether cultural or political. And so we must embrace the full wisdom of 1 Peter 3:15-17, to not only conduct ourselves with humility and a gentle spirit but also to stand firm with Christ as our Lord and be willing to suffer for contravening a societal consensus. In political matters this disposition may be costly, but no one ever said the path of a Christ follower is easy. To live not as unwise but as wise entails a degree of skepticism in a democracy, and it also requires praying for our nation’s leaders no matter their political party.
Lastly, we must leave room for God’s providence in forming our political judgments. Commenting on the Book of Job, G.K. Chesterton once stated, “The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” An astonishing amount of political discourse in this country is about finding explanations for the problems (real or perceived) that ail our society. To be sure, we should not shirk from seeking to improve the lives of our fellow citizens. But we should again be mindful that the endless ferment of solution-seeking (and implicit blame attribution) can only get us so far. To leave room for the hand of God at work in our political disputes is to acknowledge that He is the one who is ultimately in control.
There will undoubtedly be many takes on the president’s speech tonight, and perhaps Biden will even announce a new direction for U.S. foreign policy. Regardless, my hope is that you and I will remember the lessons of the past twenty years: may we be circumspect in our judgment, may we avoid the impulse to scapegoat, and may we accept the command to love our (political) enemies.
William J. Clinton, “Remarks in Cleveland, Ohio, at the White House Conference on Trade and Investment in Central and Eastern Europe,” January 13, 1995, American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-cleveland-ohio-the-white-house-conference-trade-and-investment-central-and-eastern ↑
William J. Clinton, “Remarks Honoring Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the Special Olympics Dinner,” December 17, 1998, American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-honoring-eunice-kennedy-shriver-the-special-olympics-dinner. ↑