Bush braces America for war

In State of Union address, president vows to give U.N. new evidence on Iraq

`Crucial hours may lie ahead'

Bush says tax-cut plan would bring relief, put nation on path to growth

January 29, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At a tense moment in his presidency, George W. Bush braced the nation last night for a looming war against Iraq and vowed to deliver new evidence to the United Nations that Saddam Hussein is concealing deadly weapons and has links to terrorist groups.

In a solemn hourlong State of the Union address, Bush accused Hussein of showing "utter contempt" toward U.N. weapons inspectors, deceiving them and blocking their work. He said his administration would return to the United Nations on Feb. 5 to ask members to review Hussein's "defiance of the world."

Yet even as he held out a glimmer of hope for diplomacy, Bush sounded very much the wartime leader. He alerted U.S. forces massing in the Persian Gulf region that "crucial hours may lie ahead."

The president also confronted the other major challenge his administration faces: a stubbornly weak economy. He promoted his $670 billion tax-cut plan, which he said would help energize the economy immediately. And he laid out a host of other domestic proposals, notably one to reform Medicare and provide a prescription drug benefit for some seniors.

Before a television audience of millions, the president offered no compelling new evidence that Iraq poses an immediate threat to the United States. But he said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would release fresh information in the coming days, for the United Nations and the world, about the perils posed by Iraq. Critics in the United States and many leaders around the world have been asking for such evidence for months.

Bush spoke ominously about the Iraqi leader, saying that Hussein "aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida."

"He could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own," Bush said. "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."

Suggesting that Powell and other officials would soon illustrate Hussein's connection to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, a senior Bush administration official said last night: "We'll deal with al-Qaida and Iraq over the next few days."

Bush spoke on a night of historic significance, with the United States on the verge of attacking another country without decisive support from the American public or the rest of the world. The president made clear that he is prepared, if necessary, to wage war without substantial international support.

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

The president, whose public approval ratings have dropped steadily from their once-lofty levels, faced a daunting task: to convince Americans - and an international audience - that the danger of Iraq's weaponry is so grave and so urgent that Hussein must be confronted now. Many U.S. allies insist that U.N. inspectors in Iraq be given more time. Bush sought to explain why there is no time to wait.

But while the Iraq crisis seemed to dominate the night, Bush also had to grapple with Americans' economic hardships. The president claimed credit for bringing the nation out of recession last year by proposing a tax cut shortly after taking office that, he said, put more money in the hands of consumers.

Bush argued that his proposed $670 billion tax-cut plan could bring fresh help, giving a boost to small businesses as well as average families, and putting the nation on a path toward sustained growth within a few years.

"After recession, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals and stock market declines, our economy is recovering - yet it is not growing fast enough or strongly enough," he said.

A year after the president stood in the same chamber enjoying sky-high approval ratings and the public's confidence that he could produce a vigorous recovery, the economy is still in the doldrums and most voters are beginning to hold Bush accountable. Many opinion polls show that barely 45 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the economy, just slightly higher than his father's approval ratings on the economy at the same time in his presidency, before the elder Bush lost his bid for re-election.

Surveys also show that most Americans believe that Bush's tax cut plan would mostly benefit the wealthy. Democrats have attacked the proposal, saying that it would do little to stimulate the economy and would swell federal budget deficits for years.

White House aides have said that the Republican takeover of the Senate gives the president's policies a far better chance of passage. But at the same time, Democrats have viewed Bush's falling approval ratings as a green light to begin challenging him more openly.

In his party's formal response to the speech, Gov. Gary Locke of Washington state, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said last night that, "in too many ways, our country is headed in the wrong direction."

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