Slate's Politics: Bush's 'War on Terror' Timing

Alex Chadwick talks with Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson about the timing and substance of President Bush's remarks concerning the so-called "war on terror." Bush called the continued occupation of Iraq the "central front" of this war, and warned that leaving the nation unstable would have grave consequences for the Middle East.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And joining us for analysis of the president's speech--more analysis--John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

John, welcome back to the show. And I wonder if you've heard anything about the timing and goals of this speech.

JOHN DICKERSON (Slate): Well, I think Don had it exactly right. The timing is a little off. They wanted to give the speech earlier, but it's also helpful because it sets the stage for this referendum in Iraq on the 15th of October. The White House is happy to be back on offense after having been on defense for a while. And they're doing what we've seen them do before, which is open the aperture, not just talk about Iraq, but talk about a global war on terror and put the day-to-day things Americans are seeing on television into a bigger narrative in the hopes that people won't get bogged down in the twists and turns of each day, but see it as a long epoch-making struggle.

CHADWICK: Indeed. Time and again in the speech, the president would go through a list of other places where terrorists have struck--in Indonesia, in Europe, in Africa--pointing out that, indeed, it is a global war on terrorism. Let's listen to one of his key arguments today that I think was directed really at this country. Here he is talking about why it would be dangerous to withdraw US forces from Iraq prematurely.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now. It's a dangerous illusion, refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources? Having removed a dictator that hated free peoples, we will not stand by as a new set of killers, dedicated to the destruction of our own country, seizes control of Iraq by violence.

CHADWICK: John, how persuasive do you think Americans are going to find that argument? It seems quite pointed to me to the--what I sense is a growing anti-war sentiment in the country.

DICKERSON: You're exactly right. It's aimed right at the anti-war arguments. It's a little bit false, though, because the number of people who want troop withdrawal immediately is still relatively small, although that number is growing. The Americans who have great doubts about the adventure in Iraq are worried about timetables and details and strategy about how to deal with Iraq itself, and the president didn't really deal with that because he was talking about this larger global war. When he got specific, he was really talking about the entire globe. So I think his argument that you just played will be persuasive for people who might have forgotten for a minute or so, but those who are still against him on Iraq will not be convinced.

CHADWICK: You've covered Mr. Bush for years now. I just wonder how you think the presentation of this speech compares with previous important speeches in his presidency?

DICKERSON: We've seen him do this at various turns in the road, sort of sit the country down and have a long conversation about the larger war on terror. So in that sense, it's very familiar. But he's been whipsawed so much recently by events with the hurricanes and his Supreme Court picks and fights over the budget that it was a chance to see him in a slightly more methodical kind of laying out his argument in these very large history-making terms, which is different than what we've seen from him in the last couple of months.

CHADWICK: And he is speaking in, it seemed to me, quite a forceful tone and eloquent.

DICKERSON: Well, that's right. It's the big kind of speech that only presidents can give, and the early reaction from some of his conservative supporters who've been rather angry with him recently was kind of sort of `Way to go, George.' It reminded them in some ways of why they liked him in the first place.

CHADWICK: You were writing in Slate late yesterday and today about the split in the conservative community over his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, really a developing and widening split.

DICKERSON: That's right. He's got trouble with his conservatives. They're angry about the budget. They're angry about Harriet Miers because they feel like they just don't know who she is. And it's--they're angry 'cause there's not much they can do about it. There's a lot of screaming and yelling, and he's going to have to fix that problem.

CHADWICK: Analysis and opinion from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. You can find his column up there at slate.com.

John, thank you again.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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