U.S. President George W. Bush has promised both guns and butter in his State of the Union address. This year’s speech was a rally for his domestic agenda and an opportunity to steel the nation for the possibility of war against Iraq. Mr. Bush also issued a warning that his patience is reaching its limit. In his most dramatic statement, he declared that the U.S. “does not depend on the decisions of others.” Mr. Bush will find it easier to rally international opinion behind his position if he makes a case for international action. He cannot presume that the world will follow his lead. It will take more than rhetoric to garner international support for an attack on Iraq.
The State of the Union speech is usually an election manifesto. Mr. Bush’s speech was no exception. He spent the first three-quarters of the speech on domestic concerns. He promised tax cuts, health-care reform and a variety of other domestic initiatives. He pledged to secure his country’s future without passing on burdens to future generations.
That pledge will be difficult to honor given Mr. Bush’s desire to cut taxes. The president called for the acceleration of previously designed tax cuts and the introduction of new ones. He has laid out a $674 billion economic plan to get the U.S. economy over its current difficulties. Resistance to the plan is strong, especially when it comes to the centerpiece of the proposal, the elimination of double taxation of dividends. In his speech Mr. Bush said that “we will not pass along our problems . . . to future generations.” The deficit statistics cited by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that is not true.
The call for tax cuts was expected. Some of the other proposals that have become mainstays of the State of the Union speech were not. The biggest surprise was the president’s promise to commit $15 billion over the next five years to help combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. He noted that 30 million people throughout the African continent — including over 3 million children — carry the AIDS virus. More than 4 million people require immediate drug treatment, yet only 50,000 victims receive the medicine they need. This is, as Mr. Bush said, unconscionable in an age of miraculous medicines. The president’s pledge will help turn the tide in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The devastation wrought by man-made terror was the president’s other great concern. He noted progress in the war against international terrorism and declared that civilized society was winning. He said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is an imminent threat to world peace and that trusting the Iraqi leader is not an option. He tried to link that regime to the al-Qaeda network. Ultimately, Mr. Bush declared that the use of force against Iraq is not only justified but necessary.
Mr. Bush’s rhetoric was strong, but his proof was less than compelling. The case for a war against Iraq has not been made. Mr. Bush recognizes that; he said that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell would deliver to the United Nations the evidence that Iraq has deceived the world and that much more must be done if war is to be averted.
Mr. Bush made clear, however, that his administration will not wait if the U.N. does not move. In the most stirring segment of his speech, the president declared that “we will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding. If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” Distinguishing between “a process” and “results,” he said that he would do “whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary.”
The State of the Union speech is always a dramatic moment. It provides more insight into a president’s world view than is perhaps intended. Last year’s speech will always be remembered for the phrase “the axis of evil,” which, though ill-considered, was a perfectly accurate reflection of Mr. Bush’s view of those three countries. This year, that phrase was not used. Instead, Mr. Bush noted that “different threats require different strategies.” He noted the yearnings for freedom of the Iranian people and said that North Korea will only find respect in the world when its regime abandons its nuclear program.
The style and substance of a State of the Union address reveals as much about a president’s character as it does about his program. This year, Mr. Bush again showed how deeply he is guided by faith. His world is divided between good and evil. He is a man who makes moral judgments and acts upon them. He is comfortable in a world of black and white and can be impatient with the compromises and uncertainties of politics. While these qualities say much about the man, it is troubling that they are found in a U.S. president.
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