In his annual State of the Union address to the nation -- and indeed the world -- President Bush took a page out of his predecessor Bill Clinton's campaign playbook and led off with the economy. "Our first goal is clear: we must have an economy that grows fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job," said Bush.
That was expected, and the reality is that the president didn't truly have a choice. He only had to look at the experience of his own father 12 years earlier who, despite astronomically high approval ratings in the wake of victory in the 1991 Gulf War, lost his bid for re-election because of economic recession.
Moreover, outside the Washington "beltway" where politicos, pundits, and bureaucrats live, eat, and breathe the minutiae of policy and politics, the average American -- from worker bee to CEO -- is most concerned about the economy. What matters to them is whether they will continue to have a job, be able to put a roof over their heads, and feed and clothe their families.
To jump-start the stalled economy, President Bush argued in favor of his proposed tax cuts: "Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place." But reducing taxes are just one part of the equation. The other equally important part is "to show some spending discipline in Washington, D.C."
Yet despite that admonishment, the president offered no blueprint for reducing government spending, and instead proposed 20 new or expanded initiatives, including $1.2 billion for the automobile industry, $450 million for mentors, $15 billion for AIDS in Africa, and $400 billion for Medicare. He did not herald the elimination of a single federal program or a single reduction in spending for any program. Indeed, at a time of sharply rising deficits and new needs for defense against the threat of terrorism, he proposed creating a massive new entitlement program: prescription drugs for the elderly.
Bush also threw a few bones to the left side of the aisle in Congress. His Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa clearly is meant to appeal to those who advocate U.S. humanitarian intervention around the world. And his proposal to develop hydrogen-powered cars is a nod to environmentalists. Meanwhile, to keep his conservative and religious base happy, the president called for a ban against all human cloning and an end to partial-birth abortion.
All this, however, was simply prelude to what this State of the Union speech was all about: Iraq. The approach to Iraq was via al Qaeda and the war on terrorism, which provided the basis for the president's case against the Saddam Hussein regime: "The gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons."
It was powerful, but familiar, rhetoric. A year ago, Bush said: "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes [the "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea] pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists." This year, he said: "These regimes could use such weapons [chemical, biological, and nuclear] for blackmail, terror, and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to terrorist allies."
The mantra is revealing. Quite simply, this is the president's case for military action against Iraq. Everything else -- U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, weapons inspections, Saddam's brutal oppression of his own people -- is just window-dressing. It comes down to the simple belief that Saddam will give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, in particular al Qaeda.
But there is scant evidence to support that belief. To be sure, Saddam and certain terrorist groups share a common hatred for the United States. However, that is hardly an overwhelming incentive for Iraq to hand over weapons of mass destruction, especially if it knows that it would be at the top of the suspect list and the target of overwhelming retaliation. Indeed, the lesson of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is that such an association is a certain prescription for regime change.
Yet Iraq has had more than a decade to pass off its chemical and biological weapons to Palestinian terror groups to use against Israel -- a country Iraq hates as much as the United States -- and has not done so. On the contrary, Saddam trusts only a few very loyal officers with such weapons.
More puzzling is George W. Bush's assertion that "different threats require different strategies." A year ago, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were lumped together as an "axis of evil" that the United States would confront. Now, the U.S. approach in Iran -- a country that "represses its people, pursues weapons of mass destruction, and supports terror" -- is to support the Iranian people's "aspirations to live in freedom."
If this is contradictory, U.S. policy towards North Korea is reminiscent of a theatre of the absurd. The regime in Pyongyang has declared that it possesses nuclear weapons, is taking actions that would allow it to build more weapons in relatively short order, and has kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors. The U.S. response? To work with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia "to find a peaceful solution."
Of course, the presidential spin is that we "must learn the lessons of the Korean peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq." Here, the administration seems oblivious to the real lesson that the North Koreans have learned: the incentive of an aspiring power is to acquire nuclear weapons, not to turn away from nuclear ambitions. Certainly, this can't be lost on Iran and any other nation that might be inducted into the "axis of evil." Indeed, U.S. policy towards Iraq may do more to spur proliferation than to dissuade it.
Regardless of whether President Bush's case persuades the American public or his reluctant overseas allies, one thing seems clear: Saddam's days are numbered. For the first time, Bush indicated that there is a timetable. "The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on 5 February to consider the facts of Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world." The consensus seems to be that all the required U.S. military troops and equipment will be in place around Iraq by mid-February. It would appear that a $15 billion deal has been struck to allow America's military to operate out of Turkey. The tone and tenor of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the one voice of restraint within the administration, has shifted nearly 180°. Even the Russian president, Vladimir Putin has opened the door to supporting a U.S.-led war by saying that "Russia may change its position."
If all these factors are put together, they point to one inescapable conclusion: war.