Setting the tone

January 20, 2004|By Madeleine K. Albright and Bill Woodward

PRESIDENT BUSH will go before Congress tonight to deliver his annual State of the Union address. Previously, he has used this forum to label Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil" and to state his case for ousting Saddam Hussein. What can we expect this year?

With the fall balloting in mind, the president is likely to draw an implicit - though not necessarily accurate - distinction between his leadership and that of potential Democratic rivals by stressing his willingness to act independently and pre-emptively against enemies of America.

He will again speak of good and evil and challenge countries and institutions to choose one side or the other. He will refer grandly to his desire to democratize the Middle East. He will trumpet the prospect of free elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he will ask selected members of the U.S. armed forces who have recently returned from overseas to stand and be thanked.

It will almost certainly be a first-rate speech, eloquently written, well received by most Americans and a good launching pad for the November election. But like any such performance, the success of the speech will depend on its ability to focus attention on some facts and not others.

Unlike last year, the president will not devote 11 full paragraphs to describing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. He will cite the number of al-Qaida leaders killed or captured, but not the toll of coalition forces who have died since he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. He will inspire loud cheers by hailing the capture of Mr. Hussein, but will not mention the upgraded security warnings we endured afterward.

He will not admit that the success of his Iraq policy - and therefore much of his entire international strategy - now depends on the goodwill of Shiite Muslim ayatollahs. He will say nothing new about the Middle East peace process. He will praise freedom in glowing terms, but omit mention of the prisoners detained for more than two years at Guantanamo. And he will make no reference to polls showing support for American policies around the world at the lowest levels since at least the Vietnam War.

Interested observers - foreign and domestic - will look beyond the specific list of issues included in the speech to see if they can detect evidence of a change in the administration's approach to the world.

For example, what lesson will the president draw from the war in Iraq? The apparent reality is that, due to poor intelligence and Mr. Hussein's penchant for miscalculation, the United States went to war against a country that posed no imminent security threat. Will the president find a face-saving way to acknowledge this? Or will he insist once again that critics of the war were 100 percent wrong?

Will he thank France and Germany for agreeing to consider forgiving Iraq's foreign debt? Or will he perpetuate the myth that America can succeed in Iraq while sharing neither credit nor control? Will he portray the invasion of Iraq as a precedent for America and a warning to others, or as a one-time affair that can only appropriately be dealt with on its own terms?

And what about rogue states? At a Dec. 12 staff meeting, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said, "I have been charged by the president with making sure that none of the tyrannies in the world are negotiated with. We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it."

A week later, the White House announced with fanfare that Libyan dictator Muammar el Kadafi had agreed to dismantle his WMD programs in return for improved relations. This welcome deal shows the administration's capacity - notwithstanding the vice president's words - to reach practical arrangements with unsavory partners to advance mutual interests. The question is whether the breakthrough will prove an anomaly or a turning point. If the administration can deal pragmatically with Libya, why not North Korea and Iran?

To many observers, the litmus test for the international components of this State of the Union address will be its tone. If the White House is truly satisfied with its record and confident of electoral success, the president's rhetoric will remain what it has been - assertive, confrontational and baldly moralistic.

If the White House has been shaken by the tough sledding in Iraq and the international criticism it has received, we can expect a tone more to the liking of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell - reaching out to allies, emphasizing partnerships and setting realistic rather than utopian goals.

This choice will be significant, not only in terms of what we hear tonight but in the national security policies we will witness throughout the coming year.

Madeleine K. Albright was secretary of state and Bill Woodward was deputy assistant secretary of state for policy planning from 1997 to 2001. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.

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