WASHINGTON--The conventional wisdom is wrong again. It held that George W. Bush would be guided by the unhappy experience of his father. He had watched his father squander his Gulf War popularity during a recession by refusing to energetically attack domestic problems. Father once inadvertently read a cue card that said, ``Message: I care." Son would show that he really does. He would use the political capital gained from the swift and remarkable victory in Afghanistan to press a domestic agenda.
The State of the Union address would mark the pivot. We would get the usual laundry list of domestic programs in which every conceivable constituency gets a piece of the pie, and a passionate I-feel-your-pain statement of caring and empathy.
We didn't. We got the opposite. Bush adequately covered the domestic scene, but by historical standards, his laundry list was remarkable for its brevity.
Instead, he is using his war popularity to seek support for more war--far wider, larger and more risky. The pundits were saying that he (BEG ITAL)had to talk about Enron, (BEG ITAL)had to address the recession, (BEG ITAL)had to refocus on the domestic agenda. They were wrong. The president gave a nod to all of them, then went back to what really moves him: the war.
Which is why this speech, unlike most State of the Union addresses, will be remembered. It was important. It redefined the war.
Until now, the war had been about Sept. 11. The campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda is a campaign of revenge and justice. That campaign is not yet over, but the war, the real war, is not about last Sept. 11. It is about preventing the next Sept. 11--and in particular, a nuclear, chemical or biological Sept. 11.
The joint resolution Congress passed on Sept. 14 simply authorized the use of force against those who perpetrated Sept. 11. This is seriously shortsighted. The point is not finding a miscreant's fingerprints on the World Trade Center. The point is finding the next miscreant's plans for the next World Trade Center.
We have serious enemies with bottomless hatred and, soon, the weapons to match. Whether they were involved in Sept. 11 is irrelevant. We are in a race against time. We have to get to them before they get to us.
Where do we look for them? Bush's three bad guys--North Korea, Iran and Iraq--are ideologically well-chosen. All are heirs to the totalitarianisms of the 20th century. (Hence ``axis of evil." Axis: fascism/nazism. Evil empire: Soviet communism.) North Korea is more Stalinist than Stalin. Iran is the Soviet Union in pre-Gorbachevian foment. And Iraq is Hitlerian Germany, a truly mad police state with external ambitions and a menacing arsenal.
Thank God for North Korea. Mentioning it is the equivalent of strip-searching an 80-year-old Irish nun at airport security: It is our defense against ethnic profiling. Right now, North Korea is too destitute and too isolated to be capable of anything but spasmodic violence. But it has the virtue of being non-Islamic.
The Islamic bad guys, alas, are a far more immediate threat. Iran is a deadly threat--most recently caught trying to establish a terrorist client state by arming and infiltrating Yasser Arafat's Palestine. But Iran is not a ready candidate for the blunt instrument of American power because it is in the grips of a revolution from below. We can best accelerate that revolution by the power of example and success: Overthrowing (BEG ITAL)neighboring radical regimes shows the fragility of dictatorship, challenges the mullahs' mandate from heaven, and thus encourages disaffected Iranians to rise. First, Afghanistan to the east. Next, Iraq to the west.
Which brings us to Iraq. Iraq is what this speech was about. If there was a serious internal debate within the administration over what to do about Iraq, that debate is over. The speech was just short of a declaration of war.
It thus addressed the central war question today: After Afghanistan, where do we go from here? Stage Two, now in progress, is the reaching for low-hanging fruit: searching for terrorists in the Philippines, Bosnia, Somalia; pressuring former bad guys like Yemen (or Sudan?) to repent.
But this is all prologue. Stage Three is overthrowing Saddam. That will require time and planning, during which Stage Two goes forward and gets the headlines. But between this year's State of the Union and next year's, the battle with Iraq will have been joined.
That was the unmistakable message of this astonishingly bold address. This is not a president husbanding political capital. This is a president on a mission. We have not seen that in a very long time.