Perseverance and Iraq

January 29, 2003

STATE OF THE UNION addresses are known for the rote phrase and the time-worn cliche, but surely last night's was the first to mention mutilation with electric drills and the cutting out of tongues. President Bush gave Saddam Hussein his best verbal shot. He painted the Iraqi dictator in the most lurid of colors - all, undoubtedly, accurate, up to and including the lingering descriptions of torture by Baghdad's police.

But Americans weren't looking for emotion last night. No one in this country disputes that terrible things have been carried out under Saddam Hussein's rule. Americans wanted to hear and understand: Why war, and why now? Mr. Bush gave them very little to work with.

Iraq has compiled biological and chemical agents. The president offered some idea of their extent, and of course this is worrisome.

But Iraq is not the only country with bad people and bad weapons. Mr. Bush himself acknowledged that Iran is also seeking weapons of mass destruction. North Korea? That problem can be solved peacefully, he said. He didn't even mention some of the truly dangerous proliferators - our ally Pakistan, for instance, among them.

No. The drumbeat is Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. The president outlined a worst-case scenario where Iraq could slip nasty weapons to terrorists, who could use those weapons against us or our allies. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops ringing the country and a team of U.N. inspectors inside it, that seems unlikely, but never mind. He made a rather tortured attempt to link Iraq to al-Qaida.

The president then outlined a best-case resolution. "We will bring to the Iraqi people food and medicines and supplies and freedom," he said - just as the United States and its allies did in Afghanistan.

That may well turn out to be the case, if, as Mr. Bush said, "war is forced upon us." And it would be a wonderful achievement. But wait - did he mention Afghanistan? Well, the country that gave rise to the terror network that perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks actually got only one and a half sentences in his speech. Afghanistan, apparently, is old news, but don't tell that to the brave American soldiers who spent Monday night in a deadly firefight with gunmen loyal to an especially fanatical warlord there. And Osama bin Laden? He's history, too - not even worth a mention.

The point is, the real business is still not finished, and Mr. Bush shows every sign of being obsessed with Iraq. Islamist terrorist cells are operating worldwide. The one place they haven't shown up is Iraq, except in the Kurdish regions not under Saddam Hussein's control. Is something wrong with this picture?

"Our war against terror is a contest of will, in which perseverance is power." That was Mr. Bush's best line, a memorable one. He should remember, though, that perseverance suggests at the same time patience, fortitude, craftiness, clear-headedness.

Right now, American policy on Iraq exhibits none of those.

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