Posted on February 03, 2003 in Washington Watch

If President George W. Bush’s two speeches this week are any indication, it appears that he, in fact, has his heart set on a military confrontation with Iraq. For weeks now, I’ve argued the opposite. I did not believe that the Administration would go to war for many reasons: the U.S. public, to date, has not been sympathetic to a war unless such an effort has UN support; the absence of allies’ support makes a war logistically, materially, and diplomatically risky; a war will be a costly venture that the failing American economy can not easily afford; and the fact that a U.S. military adventure in the Middle East, at this time and under current conditions, poses grave dangers to and will exacerbate already tense U.S.-Arab relations.

For all these reasons I have argued that the Administration would continue to pressure the Iraqis to disarm, but would stop short of a war. Now I’m not certain.

The State of the Union, and Bush’s follow up address in Grand Rapids, Michigan the next day, put the President in the rather precarious position of preaching that this war is a historical mandate and a religious necessity he feels compelled to carry out.

While the State of the Union (SOTU) address was a formal presentation, his Michigan remarks appeared to be more informal and, therefore, reflective of the President’s personal thoughts. His appearance in Grand Rapids received less attention than the SOTU, but because Bush spoke with such apparent passion and conviction, it is useful to examine his remarks since they may provide some indication as to the President’s state of mind.

In both the State of the Union and the Michigan remarks, September 11 and Al Qaeda only received passing mentions. Osama bin Laden was not mentioned at all! Instead, it appears that the “war on terror” is now seen as merely a segue to the unfinished business of Iraq. As President Bush said:

    “Our might is needed in the world right now to make the world a more peaceful place. The war on terror is not confined strictly to the al Qaeda that we’re chasing. The war on terror extends beyond just a shadowy terrorist network. The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein and his willingness to terrorize himself” (sic).

    “Saddam Hussein has terrorized his own people. He’s terrorized his own neighborhood. He is a danger not only to countries in the region, but as I explained last night, because of al Qaeda connections, because of his history, he’s a danger to the American people. And we’ve got to deal with him. We’ve got to deal with him before it is too late.”

Bush then makes passing mention of the UN and the inspections–both of which are somewhat treated dismissively, to the delight of his supportive Michigan audience. On the UN, the President said, “I wanted the United Nations to be something other than an empty debating society”, while the UN inspectors are described as: “108 inspectors running around a country trying to stumble into something…”

Bush then goes on to state his hope that the conflict can be resolved peacefully. He acknowledges “the terrible price of war”, but observes, “the risks of doing nothing…it’s just not a risk worth taking.”

Finally, Bush notes that “if war is brought to us [by which I presume he means, if the United States is ‘forced’ to go to war”]…we will commit the full force and might of the United States military and for (sic) the name of peace, we will prevail.”

He then proceeds with a stunning conclusion that should be read in full:

    “We will free people. This great, powerful nation is motivated not by power for power’s sake, but because of our values. If everybody matters, if every life counts, then we should hope everybody has the great God’s gift of freedom. We go into Iraq to disarm the country. We will also go in to make sure that those who are hungry are fed, those who need health care will have health care, those youngsters who need education will get education. But most of all, we will uphold our values. And the biggest value we hold dear is the value of freedom. As I said last night, freedom and liberty, they are not America’s gifts to the world. They are God’s gift to humanity. We hold that thought dear to our hearts.

    This is a great nation. America is a strong nation. America is a nation full of people who are compassionate. America is a nation that is willing to serve causes greater than ourselves. There’s no question we face challenges ahead of us—challenges at home, challenges abroad. But as I said last night, history has called the right nation into action. History has called the United States into action, and we will not let history down.”

And so, in the mind of the President, this war is for peace and the promotion of values–not American values, but God’s values. America, in the President’s thinking, is merely God’s agent, or history’s agent–and “we will not let history down.”

It appears that the White House strategy over the next few weeks is to have the President repeat those Michigan remarks in several other locations around the United States. They realize that Bush must work hard to convince the American people, who at this point are far less enthusiastic than their President about the war.

Polls, prior to the SOTU, showed that while 47 percent of Americans expressed support for a war against Iraq, 49 percent were opposed to such a war. The divisions are deep. While Republicans support a war by a 72-24 percent margin, only 29 percent of Democrats support a war, with 67 percent of Democrats in opposition to war. Independents are also largely opposed, with 56 percent opposed and 41 percent supporting a war.

One important reason for this partisan split is the racial and ethnic divide that has come to define the two parties. On the matter of the war against Iraq, more than two-thirds of all African Americans and Hispanics (both largely Democratic communities) are opposed, while the same percentage of white “born again Christians” (largely Republicans) are in favor of a war against Iraq.

It is interesting to note that the polls also show that while a majority believe that the President has made his “case to commit U.S. troops to a war with Iraq” (by a 53 percent to 43 percent margin), they are still opposed to this war. The major reasons given are: lack of international support, fear of loss of life (American and Iraqi) and the future impact a war may have on the United States.

And so, even with his apparent deep, almost religious-like convictions, the President still faces a questioning U.S. public. Much of the heavy lifting to win international support will fall on Secretary of State Colin Powell as he attempts to persuade the UN Security Council next week. But it is Bush who will have to win over the American people. From the Michigan speech, it appears that the President has convinced himself. He sounds like a man on a mission. We’ll see if he can sell it.

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