You could see it in Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s eyes, sitting atop the rostrum behind George W Bush as he gave this week’s State of the Union address. The vacant stare. The idle scratching of her cheek. Even Dick Cheney spent most of the time looking at his feet. They had heard it all before. Everyone had heard it all before.
This week President Bush delivered the annual State of the Union address, and except for a few changes – he called for action against global warming after big business demanded it, he addressed Pelosi as Madame Speaker – most of what he said came as little surprise to most Americans.
He repeated the old uplifting slogans about the power of human freedom to vanquish terrorism; the feel-good, pop-psychology version of all that military equipment that he never bothered to give American soldiers in the first place.
When he looked in the cameras and told the folks at home that “what every terrorist fears most is human freedom.So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates and reformers and brave voices for democracy, you could be forgiven for thinking America was back in the salad days of March 2003.
Back then the plan was to roll into Baghdad to the cheers of adoring crowds, stir up some democracy, and then maybe whip Syria and Iran into shape as an encore.
But the old plan didn’t work out so well, and in his third State of the Union since the war began Bush felt the need to remind his audience that “America is still a nation at war.
After the events of the last few weeks, the war would be hard to forget.
The Bush team’s intransigence has recently been highlighted by the new “surge plan, which was unveiled to a roar of bipartisan outrage, disbelief and criticism on Capitol Hill.
The plan calls for an escalation of the war by sending more than 20,000 new soldiers to Baghdad and Al Anbar province.
This escalation was announced just weeks after the Iraq Study Group, a panel of highly respected elder statesmen from both parties, recommended that America begin withdrawing from Iraq, and open talks with Damascus and Tehran.
It seems an American return to realism is not on the agenda, no matter how many people want it.
The surge has been highly controversial. According to polls conducted by The Washington Post, 61% of the country opposes the plan – including 94% of Democrats – and only 36% think it is a good idea. Just 40% of American think the Iraq war is even worth fighting, and 56% think their country is not winning in Iraq.
Both the President and his new Defense Secretary Robert M Gates have also said they believe that America is losing the war.
Given this, it is unsurprising that a great mood of anger, frustration and helplessness is settling in across many places in the United States.
The President’s cavalier flouting of both the Iraq Study Group and public opinion has inflamed widespread anti-Bush sentiment and given new life to caricatures of the commander-in-chief as a pugnacious child-emperor who does what he wants when he wants, no matter what advice he has received or the possible consequences of his actions.
For many Americans, it feels like their country is trapped in a horrible movie, and they can neither change the plot or the channel.
They vote for the Democrats, they respond to the opinions polls, and occasionally they send an email to their congressman or march in a protest. But for the last four years nothing has stopped this war from grinding ahead.
Watching the State of the Union, I was reminded of spending New Year’s Eve with my family. My middle aged relatives reminisced about the innocence and hope of the Irish Catholic neighborhoods of the Bronx in the early 1960s, and about their heartbreak at the Kennedy assassinations that sat at each end of that decade like bookends.
But despite all that, it was a simpler time then, they say.
“Back then we thought we were the good guys. Said an old family friend. “But now we know better.
Watching Pelosi stare into space and vacantly scratch her cheek, I could not help but wonder how many members of Congress felt the same way.