Three speeches last week captured President Bush's most telling strengths and weaknesses as he presses the war against Saddam Hussein.
Bush's speech Monday night announcing the imminent approach of combat highlighted his best qualities. Speeches the next day by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spotlighted key blind spots in Bush's thinking -- as did some of the president's own words.
On display in Bush's brisk speech were the qualities that arguably have contributed the most to his successes as president: focus and resolve. In domestic and foreign policy, Bush is clear about his goals and relentless in his pursuit of them.
Iraq is no exception. Bush's focus was evident as he made clear that one conviction, above all, carried him into this war: that after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. cannot allow rogue regimes to develop weapons of mass destruction that they might provide to terrorists.
"The danger is clear," Bush insisted, "using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other."
Having defined the threat, Bush hammered home his determination to attack it. "Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed," he said.
Listening to those words, it's difficult to imagine that Bush ever believed this confrontation could end in any way other than American missiles lighting up the night sky in Baghdad and troops pouring over the Iraqi border. That insight provides a measure of Bush's resolve. He faced almost unprecedented, resistance from other nations on his path to war. Many presidents might have second-guessed their direction when so many other world leaders questioned it. Yet, for better or worse, Bush drove through every obstacle to reach the point he probably envisioned from the outset -- all-out war to depose Hussein.
That tenacity may be what Bush's supporters admire most about him. Yet it carries a cost. It's easy for resolve and focus to bleed into arrogance and myopia.
In the march to war, and even in his speech, Bush displayed all of those traits, good and bad. The resolve that carried him past so many obstacles sometimes devolved into an inability to hear contrary arguments from skeptics. Likewise, he has been so focused on his immediate goal of removing Hussein that he's sometimes failed to fully recognize the implications of his course, for America's relations with the world and elements of his agenda at home.
That's where Blair and McCain come in. Both staunchly support the war with Iraq. But in speeches last week, they pinpointed, in ways Bush has slighted, the broader lessons of this mission -- in Blair's case for international relations, in McCain's for the fierce battle underway in Congress over tax cuts and the federal budget. During the breakdown of negotiations at the United Nations, Blair sometimes seemed the only grown-up left among world leaders. And he showed the same breadth of vision in his stirring speech to the House of Commons on Tuesday, hours before it voted to approve British participation in the war.
Blair was just as focused as Bush on disarming Iraq but showed more genuine interest than Bush in building international cooperation to combat the threats of terrorism and weapons proliferation.
Bush, in his address, was dismissive of nations that resisted the war. "These governments share our assessment of the danger," he said, "but not our resolve to meet it."
Blair recognized that the conflict between the United States and Europe over Iraq draws on deeper currents: Europe's failure to understand how dramatically the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have "changed the psychology of America," and America's failure to recognize the fear in Europe and elsewhere that the U.S. now intends to flex its muscle without much regard for the views of others.
To heal the breach, Blair offered Bush good advice. The best way to reduce resentment of America's preponderant power, he suggested, is to channel that power into an international system of shared responsibilities and common priorities.
Confronting Iraq, Blair argued, should be part of "a larger global agenda," with new initiatives "on poverty and sustainable development, democracy and human rights" and an international effort to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In words that seemed to be aimed at Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, Blair offered the U.S. and Europe a guidepost for reconciliation: "Partners are not servants, but neither are they rivals."
McCain had some equally wise counsel for Bush on the home front. In a statement on the Senate floor, McCain made a point that should be obvious. With the federal budget already groaning under massive deficits and the nation facing unknown costs from the war-- plus the costs of helping rebuild Iraq while strengthening our defenses against terrorist attacks at home -- this is no time for the huge additional tax cuts Bush has proposed.
"No one," McCain said, "can be expected to make an informed decision on fiscal policy at this time ... with the near, mid- and long-term costs of defending this country unknown."
All evidence suggests Bush isn't listening much to Blair or McCain. The White House is still pressing Congress for a tax cut of at least $725 billion. And the administration is drawing plans to maximize American, rather than international, control over a post-Hussein Iraq.
Such obstinacy, amid persuasive criticism, is the flip side of Bush's commitment to defanging Iraq. The rapid progress of U.S. forces through the Iraqi desert seems almost a physical manifestation of Bush's determination to impose his will. But so do the suspicion of America abroad and the mounting deficits at home.
Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.