Declarations of war and war aims are intimately connected. They intersect in a place that most Americans today don't appreciate, except in the rare moments when they glimpse it. That place is the lost realm of political rhetoric.
Rhetoric, as the Greeks and Romans defined it, was the art of speaking clearly, persuasively, and artfully. Rhetoric could inspire people to take risks, face the unknown, trust in the speaker to guide them. Rhetoric took some natural ability, but it also demanded considerable training, practice, and discipline. The great Greek orator Demosthenes originally had no natural ability: he stammered, struggled to make himself clear, rushed through phrases that needed time to hear and digest. Under Aristotle's tutelage, Demosthenes practiced hard, famously stuffing his mouth full of rocks so that he forced himself to be heard clearly.
Of course, having a pleasant voice or good penmanship isn't enough to speak or write well. Having something to say is the foundation of rhetoric. Focusing on the key points; building understanding; choosing words carefully; saying just enough to persuade, but not so much that you bore and confuse the audience--all of these skills are as challenging to master as speaking with a mouthful of stones.
Although sometimes people joke at corporate mission statements, since they often have little to do with what managers and employees actually do, the people who write these statements instantly appreciate the importance of choosing your words carefully. When a company that manufactures cars decides to write its mission statement, the executives agonize over the words that are supposed to win over the employees, the shareholders, and the customers. Crafting a formal declaration of war poses the same challenges, and the stakes, needless to say, are much greater.
When a nation goes to war, the statements a leader makes matter greatly to the citizens asked to fight, the allies asked to support you, and the enemies asked to submit. Whether you draft an official announcement of hostilities, or you speak a few casual words into a microphone and quickly leave the podium, you have declared war. You can find in yourself rhetorical gifts you didn't know you had, or you can toss off a few words about danger, struggle, and inevitable victory over something, somehow. How you, as a leader, face this rhetorical responsibility is, of course, the difference often between great leaders and miserable failures.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln gave himself a great deal of wiggle room on the question of whether the abolition of slavery was the necessary outcome of the war with the South. Given the political realities of the moment, and Lincoln's own insecurities about being a newly-elected President in the darkest of circumstances, we shouldn't be surprised that he didn't display as much rhetorical brilliance as he did in the second inaugural or the Gettysburg Address. He did, however, end this lesser speech with an uplifting sentence:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
In the rest of the speech, Lincoln was saying, "Restoration of the Union is primary." He ended the speech talking about "the better angels of our nature," an effective prod to the collective conscience on the national sin of slavery.
When other leaders needed to declare the goal of fighting, the pressures of the moment gave birth to equally stirring words. Though the Cold War had no formal declaration, Kennedy's inaugural adress, defined a new phase of this struggle in the following passage:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
No one who reads or hears these words can forget them. The rest of the speech flows from this passage. Kennedy defines a new battlefield, the twilight struggle with that generation's terrorists and guerrillas. His speech depicts what victory will be, how each person can contribute ("ask not what your country can do for you..."), and why it's worth bearing the necessary burdens. "Will you join that historic effort?" was an irresistable invitation for an idealistic generation, some of whom joined the Peace Corp, and others who went to fight in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
When a nation goes to war, therefore, the declaration provides more of an opportunity than a constraint. The opportunity only comes once, at the beginning of the conflict. Once the brutal realities set in, further attempts at explanation will be lost in the noise, confusion, and carnage. The price of war--in dollars, lives, the maiming of bodies, the mutilation of souls--will overshadow the landscape of events. The chance to justify that price, to explain why the world after the war will be better than the one before it, will be lost.
Of course, in any democratic society, there is one other important reason for leaders to make a clear declaration of war: those words become the standard by which we hold elected leaders accountable. Democratic responsibility isn't possible otherwise.
Rhetoric isn't mere words. Rhetoric invokes the moral power needed to do great things, or defeat great threats. The words that commit the nation to a particular course of action simultaneously free it from its natural immobility.
Needless to say, the people responsible for explaining the actions of the Bush Administration are not great rhetoricians. Bush himself seems largely unconcerned with the words he speaks. He may not be, as most people describe him, someone who's clumsy with words. Instead, he may be indifferent to the words he speaks. His signature unwillingness to speak very often, or speak where his statements might be challenged, gives the impression that public speaking is a chore he'd just as soon get out of the way as quickly as possible. Words spray out of his mouth, he turns, and leaves.
Bush's indifference to words has a predictable outcome: in spite of dramatic events, his entire Administration is memorable for its lack of memorable words. The one phrase that stands out, the axis of evil, is noteworth only for how irrelevant and inaccurate it is. After al-Qaeda terrorists--a shadowy force beholden to no one, slipping through and around the cracks in global society--attacked the United States, Bush denounced the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. If these three countries were an axis of evil, they weren't driving al Qaeda. Bin Laden went where he wanted, accepted support from whomever would give it, and killed anyone whom he hated.
What then was the evil around which this alleged axis turned? Was it support for terrorists? The determination to build weapons of mass destruction? The torture and execution of innocents? Bush and the people who crafted his words--Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and others--could never say. Instead, they spoke vaguely about a particular brand of evil one day, and discarded it the next if it proved inconvenient (such as when no one could find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). The next statement was as quickly cobbled together as the first, with even less sincerity and persuasiveness as an automobile company's mission statement.
Bush has supporters who believe in him. The emphasis for many however, is belief in Bush, not in the results of his actions. The communion of values or religious faith that they feel Bush, or the gesture (not the outcome) of "doing something about terrorists," are the important political measures for this group. What matters less, it seems, are the consequences of American military action abroad, or police action at home.
On 9/11, Americans felt that the dam of history had broken. They were terrified what would happen, now that the barriers against a hostile world had crumbled. The words Bush spoke at that moment would make the critical difference between a fear of being drowned by forces they couldn't fight, and a confidence that the new tide of history would lift the nation off its comfortable moorings and propel it into a different but perhaps better future. Rhetoric--which should have been refined and codified in a declaration of war--could have directed a political and spiritual river propelling the entire country, not washing over an already dedicated segment of true believers.
Instead, Bush had nothing memorable to say, except to describe a conspiracy of nations that had nothing to do with al Qaeda terrorists--a conspiracy, in fact, that didn't even exist. (Since words do matter, the term axis, of course, implies the formal alliance of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. The more sinisterly-phrased "axis of evil" consisted of three nations, not allied with one another at all, whose opinions of one another ranged from indifference to hatred.)
What Bush gave the country, and to an equal extent the world, was an unconvincing dribble of words. Once this weak rivulet encountered resistance in one direction, it tried a different course. If that, too, was blocked, it found a third direction, or it went nowhere at all. Meanwhile, the American people were ready to fight shadowy enemies, make the necessary sacrifices to defeat them, and in the process, embrace a new national mission. When touched by the words unleashed by the dam of history, Americans weren't moved by river of powerful rhetoric. Instead, they were drenched by random streams of gibberish.
Reviewing history's catastrophes, everyone naturally looks for some kind of original sin, a fundamental mistake that made all subsequent calamities possible. In my case, looking back on the chain of events since 9/11, the weakness of that chain starts with Bush's unwillingness to accept rhetorical responsibility. Failing to declare war, if invading Afghanistan and Iraq was the only way to prevent another 9/11, evaded a Constitutional duty, betrayed his contempt for the American public, undermined democratic accountability, and lost an historical opportunity. Words and actions, politics and war--one cannot succeed without the other.