Presidential News Conference: Prime Time, Ex Cathedra

President Bush’s authority to speak for the American people – even those of us who do not trust him – comes from the constitution. But after watching his structured (only the listed were called) news conference and considering the events of the last two weeks, I began wondering where he gets his authority to speak for the people of Iraq.

Granted, as he put it, “The people of our country are united behind our men and women in uniform,” and that the Vietnam analogy does them a disservice. These are not the times for comparisons or fine distinctions. We do not recognize the difference between supporting individuals and condemning what they do. So the president’s dicta mean the American people stand behind the collateral killing of Iraqi civilians — as in the siege of Fallujah.

But he went on to say on behalf of the Iraqi people: “They want strong protections for individual rights; they want their independence; and they want their freedom.” At the same time, he said, “They do want us there to help with security.” So, in the Iraqi mind, security preempts freedom.

I’d feel a lot better about this proposition if it came from an Iraqi leader, but there are none. At least none, to use the president’s term, who are “acceptable.” So Al-Sadr is excluded. He may have brought a few thousand Iraqis raging to the streets in support of theocracy, where individual rights are subordinate to religious law. He may have unified Sunnis and Shias in the cause of ridding Iraq of the Americans. But he is, the president said, a gangster under indictment.

In a time of finer distinctions, it might be said that Al-Sadr is not entirely bereft of American ideals. The insurgency was sparked, after all, by the repression of his newspaper. The explanation by the Coalition (Americans) was that the paper called upon people to assemble – also a first amendment right (if peaceable). But, the president said, they are thugs (and therefore not peaceable).
By contrast, as the president put it, we Americans are committed to a “deep belief that people want to be free and that free societies are peaceful societies.” Ours, for example.

He said, “I believe that freedom is the deepest need of every human soul, and, if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.” Like ours.

The president and his people, by the way, never define freedom. In their moral certainty they do not ask, as scholars of American democracy have from the beginning, whether equality is more important to Americans than freedom, and so forth.

The important thing is this: “So long as I’m the President, I will press for freedom. I believe so strongly in the power of freedom. You know why I do? Because I’ve seen freedom work right here in our own country.” Like, the firewall between the FBI and CIA that worked to prevent domestic surveillance, I suppose.

“I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country’s gift to the world,” he said. “Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom,” said the most powerful human, adding:

“We have an obligation to work toward a more free world. That’s our obligation. That is what we have been called to do, as far as I’m concerned.”

OK. So he began his prime time news conference speaking for the American people. Then he spoke for the Iraqi people. And in the end he spoke for the people of the entire world. His authority in the first instance is the democratic right of elected office. His authority to speak for the Iraqi people is the imperial right of conquest. And now we can see that his authority to speak for the people of the world comes from God.