Bush Calls Iraq Imminent Threat
A somber and steely President Bush, speaking to a skeptical world Tuesday in his State of the Union address, provided a forceful and detailed denunciation of Iraq, promising new evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime poses an imminent danger to the world and demanding the United Nations convene in just one week to consider the threat.
But the president made clear his decision whether to attack Iraq would not hinge on U.N. approval.
“All free nations have a stake in preventing sudden and catastrophic attack. We are asking them to join us, and many are doing so,” the president said. “Yet the course of this nation does not depend on the decision of others.”
Calls have mounted in recent weeks for the president to make a better case for going to war. In response, Bush argued that use of force is not only justified but necessary, and that the threat is not only real but imminent.
“If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late,” Bush said. “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”
Bush said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will travel to the United Nations on Feb. 5 armed with new intelligence that he will share with the Security Council.
The president provided a few new intelligence details himself. He accused Iraq of running a kind of covert operation against the U.N. inspectors now at work to verify the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction -- sanitizing inspection sites before their arrival, moving documents around and spying on the inspectors to thwart their efforts. Iraq ran a similar operation in the 1990s, but it was the first such allegation that it is happening again.
Bush also alleged that not only are Iraqi agents intimidating weapons scientists, they are posing as scientists to deceive U.N. inspectors. He repeated in detail previous charges that Hussein has failed to account for tons of deadly chemical and biological weapons and tortured and killed his own people into submission. And he reprised the theological language that has discomfited some allies.
“If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning,” Bush said.
Ever since Bush first challenged the United Nations in September to confront Iraq, the administration has feared the world body could become mired in an inspections program without clear successes or failures. As a result, the president’s attempt to accelerate U.N. deliberations appeared aimed at avoiding that fate and bringing the matter to a head sooner than many members would like.
Response to the speech was effusive in the chamber packed with lawmakers from both houses of Congress, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and carefully chosen guests. The hourlong speech was interrupted by applause 73 times.
But afterward, some said the speech failed to end the debate on whether to go to war.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he would introduce a resolution today that would require Bush to come back to Congress and present “convincing evidence of an imminent threat” before U.S. troops are sent to war with Iraq. Congress approved a resolution last fall authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq, and that measure did not require a second review.
“Much has changed in the many months since Congress last debated war with Iraq,” Kennedy said. “Another vote is necessary if the time has come for war.”
Some Republicans agreed that the president has more work to do to persuade voters and allies.
“In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important for President Bush to continue his dialogue with the American people and our allies regarding the threat that Iraq poses,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
The first half of the speech hopscotched through the president’s domestic policy proposals. Bush reiterated his plans for $670 billion in tax cuts to spur growth and create jobs. He urged Medicare reform to rein in costs and make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. And he outlined new initiatives on the environment and AIDS.
The president also proposed forming a new center to merge and analyze all information about threats against the nation. Called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, it would bring together intelligence collected domestically and overseas, and ensure that information is shared among the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.
The objective, officials said, is to fix one of the most critical problems spotlighted by the Sept. 11 attacks: a failure by the CIA, the FBI and other agencies to share information and connect intelligence “dots.”
Experts said the success of the proposal will depend on whether the new center truly has authority to view raw intelligence from across the spy community and direct resources and operatives. Existing counter-terrorism centers at the CIA and FBI “always have to negotiate” for resources and cooperation, a congressional aide said.
The proposed center would report to CIA Director George J. Tenet. It’s not clear whether it would replace or augment a similar unit that was to have been part of the new Homeland Security Department.
In addition, the president outlined:
An effort to create nonpolluting, hydrogen-based fuel cells to power automobiles and homes, reducing dependence on foreign oil. Bush said he wanted $1.2 billion for the new Freedom Fuel initiative, but at least some of that money was included in a previously announced hydrogen-powered-auto plan.
A new effort to recruit and train mentors for the children of prison inmates and disadvantaged junior high school students. Bush proposed spending $450 million on the plan over three years in an effort to reach 1 million youths.
A $600-million boost in drug treatment spending, aimed at serving 300,000 additional Americans over the next three years.
A plan, called Project Bio- shield, to create and produce vaccines and treatments for potential agents of bioterrorism, such as anthrax, the Ebola virus and plague. He proposed spending $6 billion over 10 years.
At least one key element of Bush’s address appeared to reflect a change of heart -- as well as the influence of new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a transplant surgeon who regularly travels to Africa on medical missions, and Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor. Bush proposed the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which he said would include $15 billion in new funds to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
The president focused the second half of his speech on building a firmer argument for using force against Iraq, comparing the threat from Hussein to that posed by dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
“Throughout the 20th century, small groups of men seized control of great nations, built armies and arsenals and set out to dominate the weak and intimidate the world. In each case, their ambitions of cruelty and murder had no limit,” Bush said. “In each case, the ambitions of Hitlerism, militarism and communism were defeated by the will of free peoples, by the strength of great alliances, and by the might of the United States of America.
“Now, in this century, the ideology of power and domination has appeared again, and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror. Once again, this nation and our friends are all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility.”
Powell plans to share sensitive intelligence evidence -- including photographs -- with the Security Council, U.S. intelligence sources said. The sources said the photographs and intercepted communications show a concerted Iraqi effort to remove evidence from sites and hide it from weapons inspectors.
They would not elaborate on what has been removed, or from where, but the sources said that a series of photographs shot over the past two years shows dump trucks converted to rocket launchers and special vehicles believed to be equipped to transport chemical or biological weapons material.
The enhanced effort to show the administration’s intelligence hand is a change of tactic for the president. Just a week ago, an impatient Bush disparaged key allies who want to delay war with Iraq as having learned nothing from Hussein’s past.
“This looks like a rerun of a bad movie, and I’m not interested in watching it,” Bush told reporters in off-the-cuff remarks.
By contrast, Bush’s demeanor during the speech was patient and forceful as he tried to persuade a skeptical American public and openly critical allies that America’s goal is to defend the civilized world.
“Today, the gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons,” Bush said. “These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to their terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation.
“A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all,” Bush warned.
A year ago, Bush angered enemies and allies alike by lumping together Iraq, Iran and North Korea in an “axis of evil.” In Tuesday’s speech, he tried to repair some of that damage -- encouraging the democracy movement in Iran, and spelling out the differences between Iraq and North Korea.
“Different threats require different strategies,” he said.
In particular, he used the example of North Korea, which already has material for several nuclear weapons and engages in nuclear brinkmanship, as a warning on Iraq.
“Our nation and the world must learn the lessons of the Korean peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq,” he said.
Despite the efforts of White House aides to draw attention to the president’s domestic agenda, in the final version it took a back seat to matters of war and peace. Perhaps to compensate, Bush is scheduled to fly to Grand Rapids, Mich., today to promote his domestic agenda, including his plan to restructure Medicare.
Many Democrats used the occasion to assail Bush’s policies. Their approach stood in stark contrast to last year’s State of the Union address, when Democrats were at pains to support Bush’s foreign policy and struggling to find vulnerabilities in his domestic policies.
“The American public is growing increasingly uneasy with an administration that has failed to articulate a compelling case for why we should short-circuit the ongoing inspections process in Iraq for a unilateralist war,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “They are equally uneasy with an administration that seems to have no coherent plan on how to extricate us from the current economic recession.”
The official Democratic response to Bush was delivered by Gov. Gary Locke of Washington -- a departure from the usual practice of having a member of Congress give the opposition party response. Locke’s selection was a tip of the party’s hat to the fact that, in the 2002 elections, Democrats’ pickup of three governorships was a rare bright spot in otherwise disappointing election returns.
Some Democrats ridiculed Bush for omitting any reference to the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorists, considered to be still at large, more than 16 months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It’s apparently Osama bin Forgotten at this point,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).
Security around the Capitol was tight. About 1,000 law officers were patrolling Capitol Hill, roughly four times the routine force. Officers from local police departments supplemented the U.S. Capitol Police. Law enforcement aircraft were patrolling the skies.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Edwin Chen, Janet Hook, Nick Anderson, Greg Miller, Bob Drogin, Sonni Efron, Vicki Kemper and Elizabeth Levin contributed to this report.
Key points of President Bush’s State of the Union address:
Iraq: Said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell next Wednesday will give the United Nations new evidence of Baghdad’s weapons violations.
Economy: Renewed his call for a $674-billion economic stimulus program, including the elimination of the federal tax on corporate
Medicare: Increased proposed funding for a drug benefit but also tied it to senior citizens’ joining managed-care plans.
Counter-terrorism: Established an intelligence center to analyze
foreign and domestic threats.
AIDS: Proposed spending
$15 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.