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Next Stop: War

The State of the Union highlighted President Bush's religious convictions--and made war in Iraq a near certainty.

12:35 AM, Jan 29, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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SO MUCH OF THE SPEECH was what we've come to expect from George W. Bush. Yet there was a freshness to it, as well as some odd moments. And you can count on this: The war will start soon.

Again distinguishing himself from his unmentioned predecessor, Bush said "we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, and other generations" but instead "confront them with focus, and clarity, and courage." The president was daring, refusing to understand his accomplishments so far as "a good record" and instead declaring it "a good start." He invited Congress to join him in "the next bold steps to serve our fellow citizens."

Bush elaborated those steps (securing lower taxes, affordable health care, and energy independence, and enlisting compassion to solve social problems). I disagree with those who suggest this part of the speech was boring. When Bush called for development of hydrogen-powered cars (which will emit only water), I suspect I wasn't the only one who could see himself behind the wheel of one. (My 17-year-old daughter certainly did.)

And on compassion, did you notice that enthusiastic interjection? "There is," Bush said, "power--wonder-working power--in the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people." It's not unlike Bush to invoke words from a Christian hymn or to use them, as he did here, to push his faith-based initiative. What's interesting is that the old hymn from which "wonder-working power" was plucked is "Power in the Blood." As the title indicates, the hymn hardly locates the power it celebrates in "the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people." Bush, you could say, humanized (indeed Americanized) a power the hymn writer understood as supernatural.

Not that Bush is fooled about the reality of supernatural power. He's redundantly on record about his own faith. And his faith showed through in this State of the Union. At one point Bush, talking about drug recovery programs, said, "The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you." Bush knows "it" once was he, and the solemn expression on his face suggests he was thinking just that as he spoke those words. (Bush has said he had a "drinking problem" in the 1980s that "the power of prayer" overcame.) Strikingly, though again not surprisingly, Bush's faith was made plain at the very end of his speech, when he said, with a humility recalling Lincoln's, "We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history."

As he has before in his speeches, Bush saw America not as a bundle of interests, but a moral cause. We're for human dignity, he said, and so we must confront AIDS overseas and provide for drugs to treat and defeat "a plague of nature." In the next breath Bush said we also must confront "the man-made evil" of international terrorism. That was a strange segue. Some might call AIDS at least in part "man-made," and in any case AIDS and terrorism aren't exactly equivalent problems.

As for the big subject of his speech, defeating the terrorists, Bush showed his usual confidence. "The war goes on, and we are winning." And: "We have the terrorists on the run, and we are keeping them on the run." And, too, there was that steely resolve: "Whatever the duration of this struggle, and whatever the difficulties, we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men--free people will set the course of history." Bush also left no doubt of his commitment to be our sentinel: "Whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people."

Then came, as everyone knew it would, Iraq. Bush soberly stated the threat Saddam Hussein presents to the Middle East and the world. He cited credible authorities as to weapons and materials they believe Saddam possesses. And repeatedly Bush said, "He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them." Bush's unequivocal conclusion about Saddam: "The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving."

That statement was one of three that make me think war is imminent. Bush also related the terrible ways in which Saddam tortures his own people, whereupon he commented: "if this is not evil, then evil has no meaning." That was the second statement, and you could tell Saddam's evil truly infuriates him. The third came just afterwards, when Bush addressed the Iraqi people--absent from the Capitol but oh-so-present--and said, "Your enemy is not surrounding you--your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation."