Tuesday night’s State of the Union was a little over 5,000 words — long by President George W. Bush’s standards. The first half of the speech was devoted to four domestic issues: economic growth, health care, environment/energy, and the “compassion agenda.”
In the second half, the president addressed issues of war and peace. In particular, he began to make the case that a war against Saddam Hussein should be seen as necessary, just, and winnable.
“The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons,” Bush said. “These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror, and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to their terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation.”
Speaking in a style that was both somber and intimate, he reminded his audience that Saddam agreed to disarm 12 years ago when he “faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost.” Since then, however, Saddam has “systematically violated that agreement… Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead his utter contempt for the United Nations, and for the opinion of the world.”
These are not new arguments, but much of the American public has yet to absorb them, and there are more than a few on both the Left and the Buchananite Right who dispute them. For that reason, Bush was correct to repeat and defend them in a speech that went through only six drafts. “The president knew from the start what he wanted to say,” a senior administration official told me.
Bush also began to make the long-overdue case for the liberation of the Iraqi people. “Tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country — your enemy is ruling your country. “
While just about everyone gives lip service to the fact that Saddam is a brutal Islamo-fascist dictator, there is little appreciation for what that means to the average Iraqi Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni.
Bush began to explain: “This dictator, who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons, has already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured. Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape.”
In addition, the president began to publicly consider Saddam’s ideology and ambitions. Bush understands that Saddam aspires to become nothing less than a 21st-century Saladin (the Kurdish Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders in 1187), and that he can accomplish that goal only with weapons of mass destruction. That is why Saddam has so stubbornly refused to give up those weapons, and why despite the troops on his borders and the jets in his skies, Saddam still “is not disarming; to the contrary, he is deceiving.”
Those who had hoped the president would produce a “smoking gun” will be disappointed. But a “smoking gun” is the wrong metaphor. Instead, Bush listed some of the ways — e.g. anthrax, botulinum toxin, sarin, and VX nerve agents — in which Saddam is loading a gun under the very noses of the UN inspectors. “It would take just one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known,” Bush noted.
And, as my senior administration official said Tuesday: “This is not the Iraq speech.” Rather, this SOTU address was meant to be part of a campaign that will crescendo over the days ahead. “If we have to make the final speech to change minds,” said the official, “we have the material to do that.” I understood that remark to mean that when you hear such a speech, you’ll know that D-Day is nigh.
In the meantime, Bush said he would ask the U.N. Security Council to convene to “consider the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world. We will consult. But if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, we will act for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world.”
Once again, Bush is putting the monkey where it belongs — on the U.N.’s back. Will the members of the Security Council fecklessly deny the undeniable? Will they demonstrate — not for the first time — the U.N.’s irrelevance and impotence by acknowledging Saddam’s perfidy but nevertheless urging a policy of inaction and appeasement, a policy they know the United States will reject?
Finally: Will Bush’s remarks move the polls? Actually, his numbers are stronger than some members of the media might have led you to believe — especially in regard to Iraq and the war on terrorism. For example a Newsweek poll taken 1/16-1/17 asked: “Would you support using military force against Iraq, or not?” Fully 63 percent said yes; only 31% were opposed. Recent polls by Pew, CBS, and CNN/Time have come up with similar results.
Twelve years ago, on the eve of the Gulf War, the measurement of willingness to go to war was 44 percent in favor, 47 percent opposed. Two weeks after the conflict began the numbers were 71 percent in favor, 26 percent opposed.
In other words, even before his SOTU, Bush had more than enough domestic support to take on Saddam’s regime. No doubt he strengthened that support when he memorably said: “We strive for peace. And sometimes peace must be defended. A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats, is no peace at all. If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause and by just means — sparing, in every way we can, the innocent. And if war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military — and we will prevail.”
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.