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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

No Retreat

(Reprinted from the issue of February 9, 2006)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo for No RetreatSamuel Alito was finally sworn in as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, just in time to attend President Bush’s State of the Union address. I wonder if he wishes his swearing-in could have waited just one more day so he wouldn’t have been expected to show up.

With all its pomp and circumstance, this annual pseudo-event gives new meaning to the old phrase “empty ritual.” There are times when conviviality requires us to show polite hypocrisy, but the only excuse for this exercise in mass genuflection is that it’s the one night in the year when you can hear a Bush, other than Barbara, speak in complete sentences. The Bush males have to rely on their speechwriters to provide syntax.

(I once heard Mrs. Bush give a perfectly delightful speech. Apparently the gift of articulate utterance has been carried only through the distaff line.)

After an opening tribute to Coretta Scott King, the president began with yet another warning against the grave sin of “isolationism,” saying we must avoid “retreating within our borders.” This confirmed my apprehension that we were in for a bad night, uncomplicated by rationality. The peculiar thing is that this sin, which owes its name to a moral theologian called Franklin D. Roosevelt, is a sin only for the United States. It used to be known as “neutrality.”

Other countries are expected to stay within their borders, or they are guilty of “aggression”; those who want our own country to stay within its borders are guilty of “isolationism.” When we commit what would otherwise be called “aggression,” it’s called “defending freedom.” When radical Islamists get nuclear weapons, they will be “weapons of mass murder.” And when we have them?

But we were just getting started. For the next hour, the president continued playing head games with my common sense, inducing the awful fear that I’d neglected to take my medication. In bewildering succession, pausing for breath only for his party’s frequent applause, he touched on the topics of optimism, defeatism, terrorism, education, entitlements, Islamic radicalism, oil, tax cuts, Iran, Medicare, democracy, immigrants, nuclear weapons, doctor-patient relationships, New Orleans, cloning, equal opportunity, domestic surveillance, and love, each point buttressed by statistics.

“Drug use among youth is down 19 percent since 2001,” he said, confounding those pessimists who had put it around 17 percent. Various initiatives, most of them bold, were proposed. Near the end of the speech, favorable reference to Abraham Lincoln was made.

In his 1862 State of the Union message, Lincoln had proposed his own bold initiative, a constitutional amendment to encourage “free colored persons” to leave the United States. The do-nothing Congress took no action, however, and now look. Today, opportunities for white youths in basketball are severely limited.

One of Bush’s previous bold initiatives, his proposal to send a man to Mars, was neither repeated by him nor even remembered by the commentators. This just goes to show how very empty these empty rituals are. Their multitudinous bold initiatives, after immediate success as thunderous applause lines, sink without a bubble.

After Bush had finished, the Democratic response was delivered by Virginia’s new governor, Timothy Kaine, who barely a month after taking office is already being spoken of as a future presidential candidate.

As an orator, however, Kaine appears unlikely to dominate the next edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. If he ever becomes president, don’t expect the State of the Union address to become sizzling entertainment.

Meanwhile, in The Weekly Standard, executive editor Fred Barnes praised Bush for having “redefined the right” with his “strong-government conservatism.” I’d prefer to call it Constitution-free conservatism; Read Joe Sobran's columns the day he writes them!Bush has managed to make both Medicare and the Mideast even more chaotic than they already were, saddling posterity with trillions of dollars of additional tax debt.

It seems like rather a nasty trick to play on posterity. But as yet, posterity doesn’t suspect a thing.

Democracy Scores Again

The big news in Washington this week has been the latest shock to Bush’s hopes for democracy in the Mideast. Yes, democracy is spreading, all right, but not quite the way our president expected it to. When he speaks of promoting a “global democratic revolution,” he assumes it will bring benign results, wholly favorable to the United States. How can it fail to bring peace, freedom, and security for all?

Like posterity, Bush is in for some unpleasant surprises.

The radical group Hamas, whose solution to the Palestinian problem would be to get the Jews out of Palestine (every last one of them, and not necessarily by peaceful coaxing), won a huge upset victory in the Palestinian legislative elections.

Condoleezza Rice quickly made it clear that democracy doesn’t mean allowing parties to win when they are committed terrorists and/or refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Having themselves chosen leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon, the Israelis are keenly aware that terrorists can win elections like anyone else. Alas, they forgot to inform Bush of this.

The neocon press corps scolded the Bush administration for failing to foresee the Hamas victory. Its crack intelligence apparatus, it seems, had no inkling that Israel and the United States were so unpopular in the Muslim world.

Still, even the neocons are beginning to realize that extending the War on Terror to Iran, Hamas’s ally, may not be so easy, and that they may have trouble persuading the American public that this would be another “cakewalk” like Iraq.

This one has “unintended consequences” written all over it. Even the usually hawkish Robert Kagan thinks a military attack on Iran right now would be ill-advised, remarking that the Iranian regime may want nuclear weapons because it is “paranoid about its security.” Paranoid? Maybe they suffer from the insane delusion that their enemies have nukes?

But perish the thought that the United States should consider retreating within its borders!

Exceptions to the Rule

Despite their well-earned reputation for mendacity, a friend reminds me that politicians can be startlingly candid — “usually when they don’t realize the microphone is still on.”

If you assume I simply despise Lincoln, you may be interested in the more complex portrait I offer in SOBRANS — finding qualities, admirable and otherwise, even his worshipers usually overlook. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

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