A war president?

Robert Novak

1/30/2003 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Emotionally and eloquently, George W. Bush in his second State of the Union sounded like a war president. Yet, hours before the address, the White House at the highest level stressed that the president had made no final decision on using U.S. arms to remove Saddam Hussein from power. On the day before the speech, a source officially described as a "Senior Administration Official" insisted that President Bush is undecided "on whether or not to use troops, because this issue can be resolved peacefully." A few minutes later, he repeated himself to me: "Novak thinks (the president) made up his mind on troops. The president wants to make it clear. He hasn't made up his mind on troops." That can be interpreted in two ways. One is that the president, in sending America's military might to the Persian Gulf, has made war inevitable and will declare in a forthcoming second speech to the nation. The alternative interpretation is that Bush still feels that Hussein can be forced from power short of war, unlikely though that seems. The function of the State of the Union was to make clearer to the nation and the world the necessity for a regime change in Baghdad, though that phrase was not used. No new evidence was presented Tuesday night as Bush offered the same thin gruel offered on Capitol Hill last week in a senators-only top secret briefing by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which was widely described as a fiasco. While the senators could ask embarrassing questions behind closed doors, the president was uninterrupted by his cheering listeners. Thus, Bush rhetorically connected the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda without providing a smoking gun. This justification for war implied lack of confidence in the argument that Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction constitute a valid cause for war. The White House promises to bolster that claim with future declassification of secret evidence. "This speech is the beginning of a series of speeches," said the "Senior Administration Official." While acknowledging that the State of the Union "spends a great deal of time on Iraq," he added: "One of these days, there will be an 'Iraq only' speech. And plans change. Who knows what's going to (happen)?" The hesitancy over closing the last door to peace stems from more than a desire to convince a still skeptical American and global audience. Unlike war hawks who view an operation against Iraq as a "cakewalk," Bush recognizes what he described Tuesday night as the "risks and suffering of war." According to the White House, he was moved by his Walter Reed Hospital visit with veterans of Afghanistan, especially a young soldier who lost his leg because of his orders as commander-in-chief. "Committing troops is a difficult, tough decision for the American president," said the "Senior Administration Official." While "it's easy for some to commit them," Bush is "the guy that hugs the mothers and the wives" and knows the "human risk." That is the "difficult part of the job." The president is said to attribute sluggish financial markets and an uncertain economy to war fears. People who "know a heck of a lot more about the markets" than the president "will tell you that is part of the reason why our investment is not as strong as it should be," said the "Senior Administration Official." But it is "not as great a concern as the security of the American people." He called that Bush's "most important job" -- more important than even the economy. The State of the Union covered the full conservative agenda: undiluted tax cuts, faith-based initiatives, control of spending, partial privatization of Social Security, abolition of partial-birth abortion (for the first time in such a speech) and Medicare reform. Even these sweeping proposals, however, paled compared to the president's call to war. Yet, the president holds out the possibility of a peaceful solution. How? Clearly, he has no faith in the inspection process. That leaves only the removal of Saddam Hussein by internal forces in Baghdad. If not, the next Bush speech will end any doubts about him being a war president.