A state of dis-union
'In two years, America has gone from…bitter division in small matters to calm unity in great causes.'
Thus, did President George W Bush commend his second State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
Yet, the sideways sweep at the petty scandals that plagued the closing years of the Clinton presidency should not obscure us from the fact that if America truly does have a 'great' cause today, then it is not one of its own calling. And Bush's grand talk about the challenges that 'we will not pass along…to…other generations' seemed at odds with the rather piecemeal substance of his speech.
Over 40 years previously, another US president, John F Kennedy, committed his nation to 'landing a man on the moon and returning him safely', within the decade. Ridding the world of tinpot dictators and 'a scattered network of killers', or fighting AIDS, do not quite capture a similar sense of ambition. Neither does a 'Healthy Forests Initiative' or hydrogen-powered cars by 2020.
It is also the case that there has been little evidence of 'calm' in the pursuit of Saddam Hussein. Keeping the coalition together, within the American administration alone, has been more like herding cats than a case of providing clarity and direction from the front of the pack. Confusion has prevailed, precisely because the cause is unclear, let alone the means to achieve it. Evidence and principle have been distinct by their absence.
In fact, Bush's 'great cause' seems to be to identify one last demon or absolute in the world, against which Western leaders can then define themselves. 'If this is not evil', he impugned, 'then evil has no meaning'. But in equating the Iraqi leader with 'the ambitions of Hitlerism', he effectively conceded to the kind of historical relativism that has allowed a politically correct cultural elite to prevail in America, as well as elsewhere.
As has been indicated elsewhere on spiked, in the absence of winning this domestic battle for values, it is unlikely that any decisive, long-term victories will be achievable elsewhere, whether they be in the war on terror or any other conflict. In this sense, Bush's exhortation to the Iraqi people that 'your enemy is ruling your country' could be focused somewhat more closely to home. No matter how technically superior the Americans and their allies may be, in the end it will be willpower rather than firepower that wins through. In this respect, avoiding the argument for what the war is for at home is tantamount to running away from the enemy.
The British media, preoccupied with the pros and cons of war with Iraq, has been keen to believe that Bush's great challenges are the international ones that preoccupy Tony Blair and his government. But a glance at the US papers reveals quite different priorities, more domestically focused. These are less major new challenges or great causes than self-help initiatives designed to help America limp along.
On a positive note, Bush pointed to the need to rid the healthcare system of 'excessive litigation' - but, chiming with the therapeutic ethos of our times, the US president went on to urge his people to become 'mentors' to the disadvantaged and to 'transform America, one heart and one soul at a time'. 'The miracle of recovery is possible', he continued, addressing himself to the multitude with drug addiction, 'and' - then sounding more like a spokesman for the UK National Lottery - 'it could be you'.
A diminished sense of expectations and low horizons characterised the whole address. That the president of the undisputed superpower talks of the need for small businesses to put up signs saying 'Help Wanted' somehow sums up the scope of American ambition today.