Bush's wartime glow brightens GOP hopes

February 04, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush has opened a can of worms with his seeming declaration of war (sooner or later) on what he called in his State of the Union address "the axis of evil" - North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Close on the heels of negative overseas reaction from allies and foes alike to Mr. Bush's explicit targeting of the three rogue states known to have been seeking weapons of mass destruction, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rushed to clarify that the president was "not sending a signal that military action is imminent."

At the same time, while saying the United States will be "deliberate," Mr. Bush's observation that "time is not on our side" and he "will not wait on events while dangers gather" clearly suggested an intention to take pre-emptive action before any of the three can use those weapons against America.

The question is whether he really meant to alert the nation to an impending wider war or was simply firing a warning shot across the bows of the three totalitarian regimes long listed by the U.S. government as incubators of global terrorism.

The determination to combat the development of weapons of mass destruction has been expressed by Mr. Bush ever since his Sept. 20 speech to Congress in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. But his singling out of North Korea, Iran and Iraq and his description of "tens of thousands" of trained terrorists as "ticking time bombs" ascribed a greater urgency to responding to the threat.

In the same way, his disclosure that in Afghanistan "we have found diagrams of American nuclear plants and public water facilities ... and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world" injected yet another incentive for action, while probably raising anxiety at home.

Some administration officials were quick to say afterward, however, that only "simple drawings" were found. Others emphasized they knew of no new plans to move against the mass destruction weapons, in the three named countries or elsewhere.

The president's tough words come in the context of an internal struggle in his administration between those who say he must not risk dissolution of the international coalition he has carefully crafted by expanding the terrorist target and hard-liners who want him to do just that. His speech suggests that the latter have the upper hand.

But short of pre-emptive action, there are political considerations that argue for Mr. Bush to make statements that condition the country to see him as a wartime president over the long run, rather than as a fireman putting out a blaze, as in his father's successful ouster of Iraq from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf war.

The president obviously does not forget that the senior George Bush's glory as a wartime leader quickly vanished when that war ended, and that recession at home, to which he seemed to many not to respond, was instrumental in his failure to win a second term.

This president, also in the face of a recession, is riding high in public popularity as a wartime leader, and he and his political strategists are well aware that the Democrats' best present hope to take control of Congress in November is to direct voters' concentration away from the war and onto the economic situation.

Recent polls have indicated, indeed, that domestic concerns are beginning to take clear precedence with voters over conduct of the war, now that the Taliban have been driven from power in Afghanistan and this country thankfully has not had another Sept. 11. So Mr. Bush's firm message that the war on terrorism includes ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction in "evil" hands also serves the political purpose of reinforcing and extending his role as a wartime president.

None of this is to say that Mr. Bush does not have a steely determination to achieve the objective stated against biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. His somber demeanor over a 48-minute delivery before national television effectively conveyed that firm will.

But his decision to devote the overwhelming part of his State of the Union speech to the state of the war, with only generalizations about his domestic agenda, demonstrated as well which aspect of his presidency he most wants the voters to consider in evaluating him, and the Republican Party, in November.

Jules Witcover writes from the Washington bureau of The Sun.

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