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Bush Bangs the Drum Proudly

By Richard S. Dunham Moments after President Bush finished his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, Commerce Secretary Don Evans wheeled around from his front-row seat, gazed up at his old Midland (Tex.) friend Laura Bush seated in the First Lady's box above him, and gave her a thumbs-up. With a smile, she nodded back at him.

That's likely to be the reaction of most Americans -- if not of most Europeans -- to what was billed as one of the most important speeches of George W. Bush's political career. Under intense pressure to explain the rationale for threatening war with Iraq, Bush delivered a crowd-pleaser of an address, at least as far as the U.S. domestic audience is concerned.

His fourth nationally televised address to Congress will be remembered for its scathing indictment of Saddam Hussein and the graphic imagery Bush employed to demonize the Iraqi dictator. Yet, the President's discussion of domestic policy -- half the speech -- was mediocre at best and will probably be quickly forgotten in the weeks ahead.

HOT AND COOL. Rather than back down amid international criticism that his phrase "axis of evil" had put the country on an inexorable road to war, Bush proudly barreled down that road. After reciting a gruesome list of Iraqi human rights abuses, from torture to rape, Bush declared: "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning."

The personal invective aimed at Saddam reinforced what Americans already knew: Bush thinks the dictator is a very bad person. But the President didn't limit himself to ad hominem attacks and inflammatory rhetoric. He used cool logic to explain to the doubters among Americans why he has concluded that the Iraqi leader is hiding weapons of mass destruction.

After describing the chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities Saddam was known to have possessed in years past, Bush four times repeated variations on a theme: "He has not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them." Only a conspiracy theorist who believes that U.S. intelligence services willfully manufacture evidence could believe that Saddam is innocent of evasion.

"NO LONGER A PROBLEM"? Whether these violations are reasonable cause for war is a debate for another day and another place in the weeks ahead. What Bush did on Jan. 28 was start the drumbeat for war. The next step on the road to military action is Feb. 5, when the President promises that Secretary of State Colin Powell will reveal more previously secret evidence gathered by American intelligence.

While Bush may win American public approval in the short term, he likely reinforced the view overseas of himself as a swaggering unilateralist. In particular, his "put-it-this-way" pronouncement that many al Qaeda operatives "are no longer a problem for the United States and our friends and allies" is likely to elicit frowns in Western Europe about his cowboy Presidency.

In comparison, the domestic-policy section of Bush's speech was downright Clintonian: a laundry list of issues that were quickly glossed over with little use of transition or rhetorical flourishes. The economics section was surprisingly weak. It consisted largely of slogans, platitudes, and a few partisan jabs. Faced with a stimulus plan that most Americans view as a giveaway to the wealthy, Bush said very little that will change anybody's mind.

Tax cuts (a phrase he studiously avoided) weren't the centerpiece of this State of the Union. Iraq was. And long after the Bush tax cut of 2003 grinds its way through the congressional sausage factory, this speech will be remembered for the President's declaration that the state of the union won't be secure until Saddam is gone. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

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