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The Manichean President
March 8, 2002
By Michael Shannon

I don't recall exactly what it was we were watching. It may have been an old Cagney movie or perhaps a vintage episode of the Little Rascals. But whatever it was, its monochromatic hues were the reason my youngest son turned to me and asked, "Dad, when did the world become color?" Now that he is a bit older and sticks around a little longer when I switch the channel to catch up on the events of the day I half expect him to rephrase the question, "Dad, when did the world become black and white?"

Unlike my son I am old enough to remember when the world was black and white. When it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad. And no matter how bad the bad guys were at least you knew who was who. Perhaps the reassurance that that feeling of predictability lent itself to is why so many have been so receptive to President Bush's declaration that the battlelines of today are equally well marked. When in fact they are anything but.

Before I go a word further let me make perfectly clear my own feelings; I do not question for a moment that the actions of the murdering scum who so viciously attacked the city of my birth were anything other than the manifestation of pure evil. However, to better understand the motivation behind their actions, and even more importantly how to effectively combat their reoccurrence, is a far more complex and complicated process than any clever sloganeering may imply. So while there are many who relish in the fact that we have a President who sees the world in very stark and definitive terms such simplifications are best kept out of the geo/political arena and left where they belong. On the bumpers of cars.

Defining a problem of the magnitude that confronts us in such blunt and straight forward terms as Mr. Bush has chosen to do may play well in soundbites on the 6 oclock news but defining a problem is merely the first step. Formulating and implementing a solution is where the fat hits the fire. Particularly when the problem to be faced is as complex and multifaceted as the one in front of us. Add to that the well defined tendency that what is said in a political context and what is actually done are often two very different things and it is apparent that once the rhetorical smoke has cleared we are still right where we started.

The response to Mr. Bush's pronouncements has been as polarized as the sentiments expressed in it. Domestically is has recieved widespread support. Not only with the populace at large but particularly to the hearts of the Republican right wing. Mr. Bush not only has demonized our new enemy -- a task they themselves performed better than he or any other third party ever could -- he has, with the declaration of a position of such apparent moral certainty, repudiated what has long been reviled by the right; the moral relativism of the left. To the international community, however, this was far more than a rhetorical salvo in a cultural war; to them it sounded like a declaration of the real thing.

So while I too couldn't give a damn what some minister in France has to say about the formulation of American foreign policy, that the implementation of said policy, by definition, has worldwide implications does make such reactions to be expected. So too are the countless questions Mr. Bush's words have led many to ask.

In the weeks that have followed the State of the Union address even Mr. Bush seems to be grasping the reality that it is one thing to characterize the objectives of a strategy in Manichean terms and quite another to actually put it into play. A case in point was clearly evident in Mr. Bush's recent visit to China. Making nice with the Chinese while conveniently downplaying their role in helping to arm two of the three states he has so famously branded as the "axis of evil" does nothing but make already murky waters all the more roiled.

Who exactly the United States is going to engage in battle is only slightly less certain than how such a battle is to be waged. It is undeniable that we have the capability of projecting unprecedented levels of lethal force to practically anywhere on the globe. But to think that we do so without potentially far reaching damage to existing power structures in a way that may come back to haunt us is foolhardy.

Theodore Roosevelt -- a man Mr. Bush has been erroneously compared to by some -- said, "there is no question of America's involvement in world affairs, only whether they be well or ill served." How this current round of American involvement will play out, regardless of the righteouness of its intent, is no less uncertain.

Michael Shannon's email address is

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