George W. Bush Declares a War on Terror| January 29, 2002

In January of 2002, President George W. Bush delivered his first State of the Union address since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Bush addressed a  country still on edge from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  While State of the Union addresses generally communicate the current conditions of the country and the president’s legislative priorities for the coming year, the 2002 State of the Union was unusual for its almost exclusive emphasis on foreign policy and terrorism.  Ultimately, the address launched a seemingly limitless War on Terror and designated specific  “rogue” states as an “axis of evil” — America’s new enemy for the twenty-first century.  Moreover, the address stoked the fires of patriotism, making it difficult to question and challenge government policies and actions on the world stage.  The 2002 State of the Union was Bush’s first State of the Union address; he soared into the address with an extraordinarily high popularity rating, over eighty percent.  The television appearance bolstered the view of Bush as a strong and confident commander-in-chief, and contributed to American perceptions of a successful leader.


Stunning the world on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon using three commercial airliners, with a fourth aircraft crashing in Pennsylvania following an attempt by passengers to thwart the terrorists.  Following the attack, on September 14, the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists, a Senate joint resolution, targeted those terrorists responsible for the attack.  As a result, the United States engaged in a war with Afghanistan’s Taliban government, which was harboring Al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.  The war in Afghanistan launched the first stage of a Global War on Terror.  In February 2003, the Bush administration would release its National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, building upon Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.   


Following the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush administration launched a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda group, and its leader Osama bin Laden.  More than four months after the attacks, the Bush administration used the State of the Union address to make its case for a broader war on terror.  The speech was unique in its exclusive focus on foreign policy but consistent with other State of the Union addresses in its emphasis on three main areas: public rumination on American values, assessment of the current challenges before the country, and policy prescriptions.  

The seriousness of the moment and the unity of the nation behind the president is evident from watching the address.  On camera, Bush appears calm but determined.  He is the consoler-in-chief, sharing an emotional remembrance of the victims lost on September 11, and the commander-in-chief, rallying American patriotism and nationalism.  The television appearance allowed Bush to emotionally connect directly with the American people, and reassure them.  The president appeared unruffled after months of anxiety, and avoided verbal stumbles and gaffes that were generally characteristic of his speeches.  His appearance displayed to audiences around the world a confident leader in the home of democracy, supported by a united Congress. 

The television cameras also highlighted special guests, which added to the emotional appeal of the address.  The guests included the interim leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, sending a message to the world about America’s commitment to Afghanistan.  The audience also included the wife of the first U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan, rallying the public to righteousness of American military action against terrorism.  In addition, Hermis Moutardier and and Christina Jones, flight attendants on the failed shoe bomber attack on American Airlines flight 63 in December 2001, were present, stressing the heroism of everyday Americans against terrorism.  These images added to the emotional appeal of the speech, yet are absent in the text.  Bush used these special guests, and others, to connect directly with the the American people and accentuated Bush’s passion and determination in confronting the terrorist threat.

In his remarks, President Bush first focused on the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and American resilience. Describing the events as a tragedy, Bush emphasized the successes of the American military in attacking terrorism and defending American values.  Declaring that “we are winning the war against terror,” Bush depicted the fight as a struggle for justice, the rule of law, and American values.

Second, Bush acknowledged and laid out the challenges ahead.  He called upon all countries to join together to “eliminate terrorist parasites.”  Most notably, he argued that the greatest threat facing the world was the marriage of state-sponsored terrorism with WMDs.  Bush asserted that “states like [Iraq, Iran, and North Korea], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”  This language— “axis of evil” — expanded the Bush administration’s reach, claiming for the president extensive power to fight a wider “Global War on Terror.”

Lastly, Bush laid out a three-pronged strategy for confronting terrorism and state sponsors of terrorism.  First, working with allies the administration would pursue a strategy of denial aimed at preventing the terrorists and their state sponsors from acquiring the “materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.”   Second, military force would remain central to the war on terror; noting that the war “is well begun, but it is only begun,” Bush opened a window to a never-ending war on terror.  Finally, “free markets and free trade and free societies” would defeat terrorism by demonstrating the power of American values and American ideals.

Bush’s State of the Union address in 2002 declared America’s prosecution of a war on terror that continued well into the twenty-first century. After September 11, 2001, Bush’s approval rating reached nearly ninety percent.  It remained high going into the State of the Union address, and hovered above sixty percent into 2003.  Following the address, the Republican Party was seen as leading on key foreign policy issues.  Despite being the incumbent party in the White House, usually a disadvantage for the president’s party in congressional midterm elections, the Republican Party gained in both chambers of Congress in November, 2002.  National unity was strong after the address; the Democratic response to the State of the Union, given by Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri, emphasized its importance and encouraged bipartisanship.  But soon this would change, as the address also began a steady drumbeat to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.      


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