President George W. Bush began his State of the Union address by reminding the nation that it is at war with a ruthless and dangerous enemy. In past years, he had defined the enemy generically as "terrorism." This year, the President named a specific enemy that has used terrorism as a tactic: radical Islam. That movement, he said, is "the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death."
Rather than focus narrowly on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network, President Bush sketched the problem broadly, as it should be, because "bin Ladenism" surely will threaten Americans long after bin Laden has been captured or killed. This evolution in thinking is important because it places greater weight on the war of ideas, which the U.S. government had neglected in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. The President recognized the importance of the ideological struggle, saying, "Ultimately the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear."
He stressed promoting democracy and liberty as a long-term antidote to radical Islam and terrorism. Now that he has articulated this vision, it will be up to the U.S. government to put it into operational terms that will promote American national interests and ideals. In particular, it will be necessary to rethink the narrow focus on elections and the disregard of ideology and respect for the rule of law that led the Administration to underestimate the ability of Hamas, a radical Islamic party with a long history of terrorism, to use the recent Palestinian elections to advance its anti-democratic agenda.
The President spoke about Iraq in the context of the struggle against radical Islam, noting that bin Laden's aim is to seize Iraq and use it as a base to export his radical ideology and terrorism. The President made clear that he has a strategy for victory in Iraq, not an exit strategy: "We are in this fight to win, and we are winning." He warned that abandoning Iraq would not lead to peace, but to greater threats from terrorists: "There is no peace in retreat, and there is no honor in retreat."
President Bush stated that American troops would gradually withdraw as the Iraqi government grows more capable of defending itself and the Iraqi people from terrorist and insurgent attacks. But he made clear that decisions about a drawdown of American troops would be made by the Pentagon, not by "politicians in Washington." He acknowledged that the war in Iraq is a difficult situation that has forced his administration to adapt its policies to the reality on the ground. And he sought to restore bipartisanship to an increasingly polarized debate on Iraq in an election year by saying that "we have benefited from responsible criticism and counsel by members of Congress from both parties." But "Hindsight alone is not wisdom and second-guessing is not a strategy." This is a challenge to Democrats to come up with their own strategy for advancing U.S. national interests in Iraq and defeating Islamic radicalism, rather than continuing to carp at the Administration's strategy without providing a realistic alternative.
James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.