Bush's condescending message to Iraq.

Watching the war.
April 10 2003 6:57 PM

The Soft Bigotry of Loose Adulation

How do you say "gifted" in Arabic?
How do you say "gifted" in Arabic?

3:55 p.m.: Thursday morning, President Bush greeted the people of Iraq on their TV screens. "You are a good and gifted people," he told them as Arabic script appeared below his face. I don't know Arabic, but I'm sure the translation didn't convey what Bush means by "gifted." He doesn't mean exceptional. He means ethnic.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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If you're black, Hispanic, or a member of some other group often stereotyped as incompetent, you may be familiar with this kind of condescension. It's the way polite white people express their surprise that you aren't stupid. They marvel at how "bright" and "articulate" you are. Instead of treating you the way they'd treat an equally competent white person—say, by ignoring you—they fuss over your every accomplishment. When James Baker and Brent Scowcroft do their jobs, it's a non-story. When Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice do the same jobs, it's a newsmagazine cover.

This is the seventh time Bush has used the word "gifted" during his presidency. Once he was reading from a script at an arts award ceremony. Two other times, he was referring to black people: Bill Cosby and Martin Luther King Sr. On the other four occasions, he was talking about Iraqis or Palestinians. All Iraqis and Palestinians. What, in Bush's eyes, makes Iraqis and Palestinians so gifted? The fact that they can run functioning societies.

Of course, if you're gifted, you're probably talented as well. In Bush's view, Iraqis are talented. So are Hispanics. Chinese are "talented, brilliant, and energetic." Russians have "entrepreneurial talent." Irish-Americans have "industry and talent." Cubans have "determination and talent." According to Vice President Dick Cheney, South Koreans are "a peaceful and talented people." Bush thinks there's "plenty of talent amongst the Palestinians"—so much, in fact, that "if we develop the institutions necessary for the development of a state, that talent will emerge." Maybe then they'll be able to read Bush's road map.

No wonder Bush gave the Iraqis a pep talk. They're underprivileged, at-risk, and challenged. They lack self-esteem. They need to be told that they're capable, despite what others may say. Even Tony Blair is patting them on the back. "You are an inventive, creative people," he told them in a televised message accompanying Bush's remarks. I wonder what the Arabic phrase is for "hand me the remote."

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

7 p.m.: American troops have seized Baghdad. Saddam's henchmen have fled. Iraqis are rejoicing in the streets. Vice President Dick Cheney and other authors of the war plan are crowing we told you so. I've got an I-told-you so, too. But it isn't about winning the war. It's about winning wars without killing thousands of people.

Three weeks ago, based on early reports from Iraq, I suggested that war against repressive regimes no longer necessitates massive casualties. Opponents of the war fired back. Some argued that war was always immoral; others argued that this war was hasty or unjust. All agreed that the immorality of war was based on the immorality of killing. Now that Baghdad has fallen, here's my question to peaceniks: Are you against killing, or are you against war? Because what happened in Iraq suggests you may have to choose.

The precision of military technology is constantly improving. So are the speed and breadth of mass media, which in turn make public relations crucial to military success. As a result, the rate of civilian casualties is declining from war to war. According to the Vietnamese government, 2 million North Vietnamese civilians and 2 million South Vietnamese civilians died in the Vietnam War. Human Rights Watch estimates that in the Persian Gulf War, "the total number of civilians killed directly by allied attacks did not exceed several thousand, with an upper limit of perhaps between 2,500 and 3,000 Iraqi dead." In the Kosovo war, HRW identified "ninety separate incidents involving civilian deaths during the seventy-eight day bombing campaign. Some 500 Yugoslav civilians are known to have died in these incidents."

There are no official civilian death figures for the current war, but estimates in today's newspapers range from 600 to 1,100. That includes people killed or used as shields by Iraqi troops. The number of civilians killed by errant coalition bombs or missiles could be half of that. It could be less; it could be more. Either way, it's well below the figure for the Gulf War and way below the figures for previous wars.