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 in coming days 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. Bush said his administration would call on the United Nations next week to review Hussein's "defiance of the world." But he already sounded like a wartime leader, telling U.S. forces massing in the Persian Gulf region that "some crucial hours may lie ahead."

The president said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would furnish new evidence of the threat posed by Iraq, something Americans and foreign leaders have been asking the administration to do for months. Bush seemed to preview some of that evidence last night, but did not go much beyond accusations he has made in the past, 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. We will do everything in our power to make sure that day never comes."

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

Bush, whose public approval ratings have dropped steadily from 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. weapons inspectors in Iraq be given more time. Bush had to explain why there is no time to wait.

While foreign policy seemed to dominate the night, Bush also focused on the nation's struggling economy, a challenge that could all but consume a presidency in the absence of a foreign policy crisis. 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 new relief, helping small businesses and 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," Bush said. "Jobs are created when the economy grows. The economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest. And the best, fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place."

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 a majority of voters are beginning to hold Bush accountable.

Much of the early part of Bush's speech focused on the economy, as well as other domestic proposals, such as reforming Medicare, capping jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits and promoting energy efficiency in the country.

Bush saved his most forceful rhetoric for the last part of his speech, when he spoke of Iraq before a House chamber full of lawmakers, Cabinet officials and Supreme Court justices, who remained mostly silent as Bush talked about a possible war.

The president's stance reflects the policy of pre-emption he established after Sept. 11. That policy frees America to strike first against regimes or groups that could threaten the United States or its allies. Bush's policy has alarmed foreign leaders and drawn criticism at home, and last night was a crucial test of whether Bush can justify his approach.

But Bush also spoke at a moment when Americans are alarmed about the struggling economy, fearful about jobs and doubtful that the prosperity and economic vigor of the 1990s will return anytime soon. Mindful that a sour economy alone can topple otherwise successful presidencies, Bush sought last night to convince Americans that he recognizes the nation's economic ills and has the right remedies.

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