The parlous state of the union

Posted: Feb 03, 2003 12:00 AM
There was public discussion, a few days before his State of the Union speech, on whether the president should begin with his domestic agenda or move straight to the foreign challenge. The journalistic imperative is: Go with what is most important. The theatrical imperative says: Save the third act for the third act. The president did the right thing. If he had begun with his heroic strophes on America's resolution, it would have been difficult to go on to talk about protecting the redwood trees and providing free false teeth.

But when he did get to the foreign question, Mr. Bush was compelling in his analysis and in his rhetoric. He was, however, caught up in problems that his own analysis exposes. The first of these:

  • He tells us that Saddam Hussein has materials "sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin," described as "enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure."

  • He tells us that Saddam has "upward of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents," and that only 16 of these have been uncovered.

  • He tells us that Iraq has "several mobile biological weapons labs," and that there is "no evidence" that these have been destroyed.

    So, how is it proposed that our 150,000-man army is to protect the Mideast, let alone U.S. soldiers, from the fury of such weaponry? The president told the country persuasively that Hussein can have no motive in mind other than terror and conquest. If these weapons exist and are deployable, how are we preparing for their contingent use in war? Surely we are not dispatching our army into predictable toxic death?

    And the second difficulty:

  • The enemy has for 12 years cultivated its definitive weaponry. It has sought the components of nuclear destructive power from everywhere, including South Africa. "Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks, to build and keep weapons of mass destruction."

  • The United Nations has repeatedly called on Saddam Hussein to disarm. Repeatedly, Saddam has engaged not in disarmament, but in deceit.

  • "Before September 11, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained."

    Who was it who did not believe that he could be "contained"? Not our own leaders. Because they did very little about it. Why did it require Sept. 11 to establish the offensive capability of the terrorists? The president now tells us that "chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained." And that "it would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."

    If we have known with progressive certainty over 12 years that Saddam Hussein is creating these weapons and that he is not cooperating in any venture in disarmament, why have we not moved against him sooner? "In two years, America has gone from a sense of invulnerability to an awareness of peril." Why did we not rail against that sense of invulnerability two years ago?

    It is too easy simply to blame Clinton for it. Yet the Republican platform in the year 2000, and the Bush presidential campaign, did not focus on the overwhelming need to move against Saddam Hussein. Indeed, there are still many people, to say nothing of sovereign nations, who are disbelieving on the link between Saddam and the terrorists. Why didn't Mr. Bush, in his very first State of the Union address, highlight the need to do what on Tuesday night he insists is the manifest duty of the United States -- to disarm Saddam?

    There were words spoken of great weight and pathos, as when he told of victory never being free from sorrow, and of dreading the days of mourning that always come. President Bush spoke convincingly of the great historic mandate of the hour, but offered scant advice on how to defend the liberators on the scene from the terminal fury of Saddam; and no explanation for the torpor of 12 years.

    But George W. Bush revealed himself to be a fit leader in this crisis. He showed a mastery of the relevant questions, and the self-confidence to tell the world that the United States is prepared to "lead a coalition to disarm him." Saddam Hussein can't understand English, but somebody there must have told him at about dawn on Wednesday, Iraq time, that his days are numbered.