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48 Hours

The president addresses the nation; the debate on Iraq ends; and the future of two countries now lies just over the horizon.

10:00 PM, Mar 17, 2003 • By DAVID BROOKS
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I DIDN'T THINK the president was at his best tonight. His reading was not smooth. I'm sure that many French, British, and high-toned American viewers will have their opinion confirmed that George W. Bush simply hasn't read enough books to be president, let alone lead the nation into war.

The speech was simple, unremarkable, and direct; more Karen Hughes, I'm guessing, than Mike Gerson. And that is appropriate. For America is not going to war in a moment of high passion, as we did, say, in December of 1941. We're going to war after a long debate and in a moment of sober judgment. President Bush and the majority of the American people have decided that the risks inherent in not going to war to depose Saddam Hussein exceed the risks of going to war.

Here is what this speech signifies: The debate is over. Over the past 12 years, and especially since September 11, we have had a long argument over what to do with Saddam--and with the regime that has flouted the armistice established after the first Gulf War. That debate has run its course. The past few weeks have been like the fifth day of a family reunion. Everybody was getting on each other's nerves. Nobody was persuading anybody. Arguments were used to pummel, not convert.

Looking back, the outcome of the debate has been remarkable. President Bush was incredibly successful at persuading the American people and incredibly unsuccessful at persuading people in most other countries. Domestically, the president enjoys nearly two-thirds support. That's astounding. Abroad, majorities regard Bush as a greater threat to peace than Saddam. That's also astounding.

The newspapers are now filled with dissections of the Bush administration's diplomatic failures. Nobody writes stories about the administration's incredible domestic accomplishment--bringing the American people around to support the war. It would never occur to most editors to assign such a story. You figure out why.

Why was Bush so good at persuading Americans and so bad at persuading everybody else? There are now books on the subject, but the shortest answer is that someone blew up the World Trade Center. Americans are in a mood to hear Bush's arguments. People in most other countries are still living in the 1990s. Whatever slipups the Bush diplomatic team may or may not have committed, the French, Russians, and Germans were simply not going to be convinced.

A U.N. resolution endorsing force was never going to be there.

So now we stand at an epochal moment. The debate is over. The case has gone to the jury, and the jury is history. Events will soon reveal who was right, Bush or Chirac. The best thing to do today is to review what is at stake.

The future of the United Nations is at stake. The future of the trans-Atlantic alliance is at stake. The political career of George W. Bush is at stake, along with that of many Democrats. (I admired the way Senators Lieberman and Kerry swung behind the president tonight, and was appalled at the way Senator Daschle did not do so this afternoon.)

But there are two nations whose destinies hang in the balance. The first, of course, is Iraq. Will Iraqis enjoy freedom, more of the same tyranny, or a new kind of tyranny? The second is the United States. If the effort to oust Saddam fails, we will be back in the 1970s. We will live in a nation crippled by self-doubt. If we succeed, we will be a nation infused with confidence. We will have done a great thing for the world, and other great things will await.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.