For me, and I suspect for other Americans who did watch, it was a glorious moment. President Bush appeared determined to do what is necessary to protect America, but only consistent with our values. American values have always included the belief that war must have a moral component. Might does not make right, as Sen. Ted Kennedy said. Grandiose new doctrines of pre-emption and invitations for single-bullet regime change could easily be confused with bullying: Swagger loudly and carry a really, really huge stick is an unattractive foreign policy, to say the least. Americans believe we fight just wars against aggressors who threaten us or other innocent allied nations.
Through the long months post-Afghanistan, various administration officials offered their sometimes weirdly warring, partial, incomplete and occasionally appalling justifications for war with Iraq. Like many Americans, I withheld judgment, waiting for the president to speak for himself and our nation: Why Iraq? Why now?
Bush framed the casus belli with devastating clarity: "Eleven years ago, as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi regime was required to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, to cease all development of such weapons and to stop all support for terrorist groups. The Iraqi regime has violated all of those obligations." Even today, Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons that violate the terms of that treaty; he is rebuilding weapons facilities, assembling new squads of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, and continuing to seek nuclear weapons, all clear treaty violations.
Saddam Hussein cannot assert an international or moral right to invade his neighbors, go down to ignominious defeat, sign a truce, repeatedly break the terms, and then try to hide behind the sanctity of his borders. Military action in Iraq would not be a new war, but a resumption of the Gulf War after a failed truce.
But even if it's a just war, is it the war that needs to be fought just now? Al Gore, among other critics, charges that war with Iraq will distract us from the larger war against terrorism. "To the contrary," said President Bush, "confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror."
Skeptics dismiss the idea of cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaida, saying bin Laden's troops despise the secular Iraqi regime. Skeptics miss the point. At some point in the last decade, international Islamicists began to cut deals with various Arab and Muslim nation-states: tacit support from governments in exchange for directing violence outward, toward Israel, Europe and now America.
Interrupting this kind of tacit state support for terrorism, which often leaves little or no fingerprints, requires a change in the balance of power in the minds of dictators across the Middle East. They have to decide that it is in their own corrupt, dictatorial self-interest to stay far away from Islamicist terror, that it is better to anger al-Qaida than the United States of America.
But with victory comes hope, not only for America but for the tortured, abandoned people of Iraq, according to Bush: "People everywhere prefer freedom to slavery, prosperity to squalor, self-government to the rule of terror and torture."
As another great American once said, "Gentlemen may cry peace! Peace! But there is no peace. The war is actually begun." That was Patrick Henry, speaking of war with Great Britain. But right now only Iraq is fighting.