President makes case forcefully, but with nuances, shades of gray

Other issues get attention but yield to focus on Iraq


January 29, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush spoke last night about cutting taxes, reforming Medicare and fighting AIDS in Africa. But it was all just a warm-up to the singular focus of his speech, and the current mission of his presidency: removing Saddam Hussein from power - with or without the world's support.

Bush's forcefully delivered words were either resolute or bellicose, depending on whether the listener agreed with his arguments about the need for regime change in Iraq. In either case, Bush appeared to leave little doubt that an invasion of Iraq was weeks away.

"Some crucial hours may lie ahead," the president said, addressing the tens of thousands of U.S. troops he has ordered into the Persian Gulf region. Some of them were shown on at least one American cable TV channel watching as Bush spoke.

"This nation fights reluctantly, because we know the cost, and we dread the days of mourning that always come," said Bush, who already seemed to be grappling with the burden of sending Americans into battle. He called it "the most profound decision a president can make."

He did not say when any invasion might begin or how long he expected the fighting to last. But he did say that "if war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military. And we will prevail."

Bush was somewhat more nuanced in his presentation last night. Shades of gray replaced some of the black-white contrast of his earlier speeches.

"Different threats require different strategies," he said in describing his administration's approach to the governments he termed an "axis of evil" a year ago: those of North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

At the same time, he sought again to place those countries in the context of the worst evils of the last century, comparing these "outlaw regimes" to "Hitlerism, militarism and communism." And, while declaring that the United States is winning the war against terrorism, Bush described those "outlaw" states as the gravest threat facing America and the world.

Religious overtones

Bush, who hasn't shied away from injecting matters of religious faith into his presidency, threaded religion through his speech.

He spoke, for example, of "the call of history," in describing the possibility of war with Iraq. At another point, he said it was America's "calling" to minister to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, referring to his new relief plan as a "work of mercy."

America, he said, is a "blessed country." He concluded by describing the freedom that the United States aspires to spread around the world as "God's gift to humanity," not America's.

"We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them," Bush said.

Those listening for new evidence justifying immediate action heard mostly familiar arguments. Bush did say he would dispatch Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the United Nations next week with fresh evidence of Iraq's illegal weapons programs and links to terrorist organizations.

He also referred repeatedly to Hussein's history of acquiring materials used to produce chemical and biological weapons, and Iraq's failure to account for those materials or give evidence that they have been destroyed.

In making the case for action soon, Bush made it clear that he believes United Nations inspections won't work and that Hussein is too unstable mentally to to be trusted to act with restraint.

Bush portrayed the effort to disarm Hussein as a duty thrust upon America and its allies as part of their responsibility to defend the world against terrorism. But he made it clear that he was prepared to send U.S. forces into battle with as many allies as possible but with only a few if necessary.

"The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others," he said. "Whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people."

Bush acknowledged that his audience extended beyond the people of the United States. He spoke to the "oppressed people of Iraq" and pledged to liberate them from their enemy, who he said is Hussein, not the U.S. forces surrounding Iraq.

He also implicitly addressed anti-American sentiment around the world and those who believe his focus on Iraq is motivated by America's outsized thirst for oil. Instead, Bush cast the prospective war against Iraq in the context of human rights and said the world's lone superpower has no imperial aims in the Middle East.

The United States, he said, seeks to exercise its might "without conquest" and to "sacrifice for the liberty of strangers."

Critics of Bush's war plan say U.N. inspections are working and that Iraq is unlikely to pose a threat as long as they continue. The critics also warn that invading Iraq could make Americans less secure by generating fresh outrage in the Arab world that could spawn a new generation of terrorists.

Bush's response: "If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late."

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