Dutch Are Unimpressed by Bush Speech

I’d like to follow up Tuesday’s treatment of the French press’ reaction to President Bush’s speech of last Sunday evening on Iraq and Afghanistan with a look at the Dutch press. Remember that the Dutch were rather more supportive of America’s drive for war with Iraq last spring than were the French/Germans/Belgians. Plus, the Dutch are already there on occupation, with a battalion-plus down south in the British sector, and have been since July. So did Bush’s address fall on more sympathetic ears in Holland? Nah – although at least there were fewer adjectives like “infantile” trotted out.

(For those of you who don’t feel like “going below the fold” to “More…”, tomorrow my ambition is to get reactions to the stabbing of the deceased Swedish foreign minister and euro advocate (that is, the common currency) Anna Lindh from my “Sweden-surrogate” – i.e. the Danish press. There might very well be something there to write about, or there might not: latest reports indicate that her attacker was merely your random lunatic, with no particular axe to grind (unfortunate choice of metaphor?) concerning the referendum on adopting the euro that will (or is supposed to) occur in Sweden on Sunday.)

First, quickly, De Telegraaf, the tabloid-style newspaper that everyone tells me I should take seriously. (But I only pay attention to it because it’s the most-popular Dutch paper, except perhaps for the pair of free newsdailies available in the Netherlands.) “Quickly,” because while De Telegraaf‘s analysis piece puts forward an intriguing headline (Weinig nieuws onder de zon in rede Bush, or “Little New Under the Sun in Bush’s Speech”), there’s little new under the sun in the following article. Bush didn’t pronounce much that was new, other than “we’ll do/spend what it takes” and the amount of the (interim) bill for the American taxpayer. Yup, that’s for sure, but is that all you can say? You might as well just go back to tracking Crown Princess Máxima’s every move with your paparazzi.

Much better is the NRC Handelsblad’s treatment, with its starting sentence “To admit what everyone [already] knows is always a thankless job for a politician.” But that was Bush’s task with his speech – i.e. to admit that the Coalition occupation of Iraq is in trouble – in which he also achieved the notable accomplishment of presenting a radical about-face (namely, the necessity to turn to the UN for help) under the serene cover of “business-as-usual” in Iraq. The NRC also comments on the obvious “presenting-the-bill” aspect, but with the neat observation that Bush never had had to present this “bill,” up to this point, because his administration had always been able to repeatedly request, in a basically non-public way, supplemental appropriations for Iraq as needed – you know, a few billion dollars here, a few billions there, and sooner or later it starts to add up to real money. That is probably still possible, in administrative terms, but Bush simply judged that political considerations now dictate the explicit presentation of an $87 billion “bill.” And he knows that he’ll get that money from the Congress. (Again: interim bill, as even that amount of money will clearly not carry the Americans through the end-game in Iraq, whatever that might look like. The NRC fails to grasp this point, just as De Telegraaf did. But Trouw picks it up – see below.)

The NRC also has an interesting riff on Bush’s linking Iraq in his speech with the September 11 attacks and the War on Terrorism generally. One big problem in the War on Terrorism has always been: Where is the bad guys’ address? That address initially appeared to be in Afghanistan, so the US took care of that (although it seems that war is now being un-won, with the Taliban back in-country and terrorist base camps still there and just across the Pakistani border. But Pakistan is an ally, you understand; plus, they have nuclear weapons.) Naturally, even after the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan terrorism did not cease so, for rhetorical purposes, i.e. in order to give us a new place full of bad guys to hit, Iraq was deemed as good a place as any for that new address – in fact, a better place than most, given the Bush administration’s various motivations for getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That objective evidence would seem to indicate that Hussein has had little to do with al-Qaeda, and nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, is completely beside the point. And anyway, recent polls show that 70% of Americans do believe in a link between Iraq and September 11, and (especially as a presidential election campaign starts to heat up) what 70% of Americans believe – no matter its relationship to what philosophers might like to call “the Truth” – constitutes a reality on its own that cannot be ignored. I also like the NRC‘s further observation that Washington is still not sure who is behind all these unpleasant incidents happening in Iraq all the time – the bombings, shootings, sabotage, attacks on oil pipelines. Is it al-Qaeda, is it remnants of the Baath regime, is it fanatic Muslim fundamentalists from the outside? It actually doesn’t matter: the label “terrorist” has now been stretched enough to apply handily to them all, and indeed to anyone in the other camp than you, and be done with it. No need for careful thinking and careful distinctions, which just make some people’s heads start to ache anyway.

Back to the influence of the presidential campaign: the NRC ascribes a decisive influence to it when it comes to the President’s thinking on Iraq, which sounds reasonable enough in the Karl Rove White House. That’s why Bush is finally taking the step he has resisted for so long, which must be distasteful for him and for many in his administration, and is going to the UN to ask for help. Iraq must be a “success” by next year, no matter what has to be done to make it so. The paper also labels as mere electioneering the reaction of some Congressional Democrats to Bush’s request for that $87 billion, namely that that means his planned tax cuts should be scrapped. Call me a Democrat, but that strikes me as a perfectly reasonable proposal – for anyone who can add and subtract, and has any familiarity with double-entry bookkeeping – and not “electioneering.”

Then we have Trouw‘s analysis, which is also very good: Bush grijpt naar vertrouwd recept, or “Bush Reaches for the Tried-and-True Recipe” (or “Prescription,” if you like). What’s that “tried-and-true recipe”? It’s the linking of Iraq to the War on Terror in general, and the September 11 attacks in particular, that we already mentioned. It’s just an added bonus that the timing placed Bush’s speech just a few days before the second anniversary of those attacks; it rather seems that, whatever the time of year might be, just invoke them, just link what it is you want to them, and that’s the “open sesame” to getting what you want. And Trouw also notes how Bush tried in his speech to disguise a very real change in policy (i.e. going to the UN, whether that turns out to be successful or not) under “business-as-usual” rhetoric.

Check out these insights, though: Trouw drags Bush’s speech back to its roots in the 1960s! Consider the “we will do what is necessary, we will pay what is necessary”; surely that echoes the “pay any price, bear any burden” rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address! But even more sinister, that old saw the “domino theory” has now been resurrected in Bush’s claim that we need to fight terrorism at it’s “central front” – i.e. Iraq – or otherwise we’ll find ourselves fighting it “in our streets and in our cities.” Can’t you just see the phantasm of Vietnam there, lurking in the background?

And then a perspective we first saw with our French analysts: What Bush did not say. He did not discuss WMD, Trouw notes. Yup; don’t you have anything else to say than that? In fact, Trouw does. The American people, through their Congress, are certainly ready to give the President the money he asked for, and probably more, but what they want is a plan, a “road map” for favorable developments that are now supposed to happen there, towards which this gigantic sum of money is to be spent. Bush gave no plan; the only “road map” operative in the Middle East these days is the one that was supposed to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table, but which is now falling apart. (Trouw also notes that Bush did not talk about that; writer Frank Kools speculates that Bush is not so worried about what happens between the Israelis and Palestinians. Everybody fails to solve that problem – every one of Bush’s predecessors has failed, so the American people are not likely to punish him if he fails, too. With Iraq, of course, the situation is very different.)

Finally, as Trouw notes very perspicaciously (although the New York Times also touched on this point in its analysis), another thing Bush did not say is that he did not ask for help from other nations in Iraq. What he did was assert that other nations had the responsibility to come to the United States’ aid in Iraq. That’s a very different thing; and, while it is something that is no doubt easier for the President to bring himself to say, it is also something that is less likely to convince other countries to actually offer the sort of help America needs there. It’s a subtle point – still, you know all the foreign diplomatic chancelleries were listening to the speech carefully for all its subtleties – but it will be a useful one to keep in the back of our minds in the coming weeks as we see just how successful American diplomacy is in gaining that help.

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