What Bush did not say

Posted: May 26, 2004 12:00 AM
President Bush said a lot of things in the major address he gave this week at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

He said the American people are not interested in empire: "I sent American troops to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power."

He frankly admitted that the fate of Iraq is not ultimately under our control: "I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American."

The violence and the beheadings, he said, reveal "a fanaticism that was not caused by any action of ours and would not be appeased by any concession."

He pointed out the stakes in Iraq, warning that failure would be "an unprecedented terrorist victory" leading to "more bombings, more beheadings and more murders of the innocent around the world." On the other hand, the rise of a "free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology, and give momentum to reformers across the region." It would be, he reminds us, "a victory for the security of America and the civilized world."

One thing that strikes me is how imperiled the president's robust faith in democracy is within that same civilized world he seeks to secure. In Europe, power is retreating from nations to a remote European Union and transnational courts and bureaucracies. Even here, many Americans actively seek to be ruled by non-democratic institutions; they have more faith in the courts or the regulators to make decisions that affect our lives than the democratic process.

When you are repelled, as we all occasionally are, by the ceaseless bombardments of the longest presidential campaign ever, by the sound bites and the talking points and the nasty comments and the relentlessly negative ads, by all the detritus of democracy we are attempting to bequeath to the Iraqi people, consider this: The central advantage of democracy is that in our system, ruthlessly ambitious men seeking power hurl words at one another, not bombs. As the Iraqis can attest, that's no small advantage.

What strikes me most about the president's speech is the truth he did not speak:

Three years after 9/11, there has been not a single major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Who would have dared to predict such a victory that dark day in September 2001? Terrorists still want to sow death and destruction in America, but they have not succeeded. One measure of our new sense of security: Ralph Nader can seek votes by claiming President Bush "exaggerated the threat of al-Qaida."

Why doesn't President Bush try to take more public (and political) credit for three years without a single terrorist attack on U.S. soil? Iraq is now the front line of the war on terror: Some of our soldiers are still dying, but our citizens here at home are not.

I suspect the answer is twofold. Terrorist attacks are taking place elsewhere around the world, in Europe and, of course, within Iraq on a daily basis. To brag to fellow Americans in an election season about the relative safety here might appear to our allies and to Iraqis to be gloating: Are we really that callous or indifferent to the price being paid elsewhere in the war on terror?

But there is a second, and even more important reason for what Bush does not say: This president knows in his gut that, in spite of everything he has done or could do, a second terrorist attack may happen here at any time.

Our current sense of relative safety is, in fact, an illusion, a precious, unexpected and ultimately fragile gift, for which many of us thank God, of course, but also President George W. Bush. Enjoy it while we can.