Bush's Big Speech
It was the one at West Point, not the one on homeland security.
Jun 17, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
PRESIDENT BUSH was dumbfounded. When he visited the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, last week, he was asked by a reporter if he was "moving Iraq to the back burner," given more urgent trouble in the Middle East and South Asia. The president referred the reporter to his commencement address a few days earlier at West Point. "I think you need to read my speech," he said. "I was there, sir," the reporter answered sharply. In that case, Bush said, "I think you need to have listened to my speech."
Every so often a presidential speech excites the Washington press corps and generates extravagant coverage. The West Point address did not. That distinction went to Bush's brief talk to the nation on June 6 proposing a vast, new Department of Homeland Security. The next day, the Washington Post had four front-page stories on the subject, plus tease lines pointing to two more pieces inside the paper. The West Point speech got one story. The problem was few reporters understood the message of the West Point speech or, in the jargon of Bush aides, "broke the code." Yet it was an extraordinarily significant speech, far more so than the TV address.
What was so important about it? A senior White House aide has a one-word answer: "Preemption." This is both a word the president had never used before and a strategic concept he hadn't fully articulated. Bush touched on it in his State of the Union address last January, saying he will not allow terrorists or nations that harbor terrorists to become a threat to America. "I will not stand by as peril grows closer and closer," he said then. The president told aides he wanted to be more "explicit" at West Point, and he was. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," he declared in the speech. Instead, America will take "preemptive action when necessary." Bush didn't single out Iraq by name, but that's the country he believes already threatens to hand weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or to take action itself. So the speech had a message: Flare-ups may occur in other parts of the world, but the United States won't be distracted from the imperative of military action to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Also for the first time, Bush dealt with the war on terrorism on the doctrinal level. The Cold War strategies of deterrence and containment still apply in some instances. "But new threats also require new thinking," he said. "Deterrence--the promise of massive retaliation against nations--means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." Thus, preemption, striking before the enemy does, sooner rather than later.
This was not an idle thought of Bush's that slipped into a speech--quite the contrary. He spent a month and a half honing the West Point remarks. He was handed a draft before he left for Europe on May 22, worked on the speech on Air Force One, then worked more on the long flight home. The president had opportunities to make some of the points in other speeches, but he specifically saved them for West Point and a military milieu. The themes were ones he strongly believes in, an aide said.
Of course White House aides always say something like that. I've never encountered a presidential aide who said a speech consisted of things the president didn't really endorse or only half-heartedly believed in. In Bush's defense, there were antecedents to each of his themes. The insistence on morality in foreign policy is a persistent Bush topic that became all the more timely after Bush spent a week with jaded European leaders. "Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong," he said at West Point. "I disagree." However, this was not a shot prompted by his trip. It was part of the speech beforehand.