Bush's stand is risky, lonely

Speech: Estranged from world opinion, the president puts American lives, prestige and his leadership on the line in an ultimatum to Hussein.

News Analysis

Deadline For Hussein

March 18, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

As President Bush prepared the country and the world for imminent war in the Persian Gulf, his tone last night was measured, almost matter-of-fact. But his message was somber, and at times chilling.

Bush said the coming invasion of Iraq, now almost certainly just hours away, could increase the risk of a terrorist strike on the United States and its citizens. But to wait any longer to overthrow Saddam Hussein, he said, would be "suicide."

The president's words reflected as well his contempt for those countries that frustrated the American effort to pass a new anti-Iraq resolution in the United Nations - to the great embarrassment of Bush and with a resulting blow to U.S. leadership and prestige.

Countries that oppose immediate military action against Hussein lack "will," "resolve" and "fortitude," Bush indicated. He avoided direct mention of those that blocked his U.N. push - among them France, Germany and Russia - but he compared their opposition to the appeasers of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

"Instead of drifting along toward tragedy, we will set a course toward safety," Bush said. "Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed."

Demands

Bush's speech was remarkable in many respects, including his demand that the leader of another nation, Hussein, and his sons abandon the country they rule within 48 hours.

Bush also gave explicit orders to the Iraqi military, in remarks the U.S. government said were beamed in Arabic into that country, urging them not to resist the American invaders of their nation and warning that they could be tried for war crimes if they use weapons of mass destruction.

The president has repeatedly risen to the occasion at crucial moments since Sept. 11, 2001. But he is usually at his best before a live audience. Last night, facing a solitary television lens set up in a corridor in the White House, he seemed far less commanding.

But his stiff demeanor was hardly the point, particularly in view of the enormous stakes involved in his move to war.

Bush is risking almost everything - including the lives of American servicemen and women and Iraqi citizens, as well as his presidency, and his administration's damaged world image - on a conflict that much of the world regards as unnecessary at this moment.

The president repeated his by-now-familiar case for war last night, including his desire to end the suffering of the Iraqi people. He also revived a theme the administration had largely abandoned in recent months.

Bush raised the dire threat that Hussein could "one day" provide nuclear weapons to terrorists - and "kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other."

The administration had been forced to drop that line because of a lack of evidence that Iraq has a nuclear program and the findings of U.N. atomic inspectors. Proponents of continued inspections have contended that Hussein would be unable to develop them so long as inspectors remained on the job.

`Certainty of sacrifice'

Bush is counting heavily on a quick and successful war, though he did not speak last night to the issue of how long fighting might take. That question, and others, are likely to be addressed when the invasion is launched and Bush again speaks to the nation, this time from the Oval Office, quite possibly later this week.

Bush did acknowledge that "war has no certainty, except the certainty of sacrifice."

What is certain, however, is that diplomacy has collapsed and the start of hostilities is imminent.

Finally answering the question of when the war would start prompted a big rally on Wall Street yesterday - precisely the sort of reaction that the Bush administration is hoping for. The sluggish business climate of recent months has been blamed in large part on the threat of a war in Iraq, and some economists believe a short, successful war will give the economy a badly needed boost.

Many questions remain

As Bush steels the nation for the most contentious - and riskiest - U.S. military venture since Vietnam, there are many uncertainties that remain. Among them: the possibility that Iraq's oilfields will be set ablaze, which could have severe consequences for world energy supplies and prices, and which Bush explicitly warned against last night.

But the biggest questions involve Iraq's future after Hussein, which no one can possibly know, and which the administration has had little to say about publicly. Bush did not address the issue last night. He did say that the United States "will work to advance liberty and peace" in the Mideast, a goal that, he conceded with considerable understatement, "will not be achieved overnight."

Divided opinions

Bush's war plans have divided the American public, but domestic opposition is not a serious problem for the president at the moment.

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