President Bush, acknowledging "the work of building a new Iraq is hard," sought to use his election-year State of the Union address to portray his Iraq policy as part of a broader success story that has put dictators and rogue states around the world on notice.
Under the rubric of "the offense against terror," the president placed the Iraq war with a wide array of issues -- from North Korea's nuclear ambitions to Libya's decade-long effort to win the lifting of U.S. sanctions. For instance, the president claimed credit for Libya's decision to strike a deal to give up its weapons programs, suggesting that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was frightened by what happened to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Much of the president's language was also designed to shift the focus away from the uncertain and messy effort to re-create Iraqi sovereignty and away from the search for Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. The success of his presidency, his aides said, depends in large part on whether the campaign in Iraq is a success -- and whether it is seen as a success by the American people.
"He says he's comfortable with the direction of his administration and continues to pursue it," said Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He's not going to deviate, fall back, chicken out, waver or quiver. He's absolutely determined to go in this direction."
But several other experts said some of the president's rhetoric exceeded the reality on the ground, and would do little to restore the administration's credibility with allies angered by the administration's decision to go to war. Bush did not mention the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is especially important to European and Arab allies, or Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who has long eluded capture.
A year ago, Bush all but declared war against Iraq in his State of the Union address, strongly suggesting a vast arsenal of banned weapons would be found in the country. Last night, however, he shifted his rhetoric, talking not about actual weapons but about the danger of Hussein's "programs" aimed at developing them. Many senior U.S. officials also suggested last year that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators, not mired in a deadly conflict with insurgents. Last night, Bush acknowledged a "serious, continuing danger" in Iraq.
Bush defended the war, saying that "had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day." Bush said officials were still "seeking all the facts" about Iraq's weapons programs but noted that weapons searchers had already identified "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Some foreign policy specialists said that Bush's phrase was essentially a way of saying searchers found only plans -- not actual weapons. "It rings kind of hollow," said Flynt L. Leverett, who until last year was a staff member on Bush's National Security Council specializing in Middle East issues. "He can't say, 'I took us to war on a false pretense.'"
"He completely shirked any responsibility for misjudging the Iraqi WMD programs," said Joseph Circincione, director of the non-proliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The major problem of the president is that nothing that he said about the Iraqi programs a year ago has turned out to be true and he tried to avoid this with some clever phrases and merging the WMD issue with the liberation of Iraq and the war on terrorism."
The Libya case increasingly has become a central feature of White House rhetoric on the war on terrorism, with administration aides saying that Libya reached out to the Americans and the British on the eve of the Iraq war. Other experts, however, point out that for the past decade Libya had been trying to reform and reintegrate with Europe. Gaddafi turned away from the radical Arab nationalism of the 1970s and 1980s.
Moreover, much of the diplomatic groundwork was laid by the Clinton administration, which offered Libya's needy government a diplomatic carrot if it agreed to accept responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, end its support of terrorism and surrender weapons of mass destruction. "It's a process that has been actively underway for at least five years," said one U.S. official yesterday. "Iraq probably only had a little to do with it."
In one section of the speech, Bush answered charges from his critics, especially Democrats, that the administration has spoiled relations with allies by adopting a go-it-alone policy. Bush named 17 countries that have provided troops in Iraq.
But the vast majority of the troops are American -- and support for the war was limited even in countries where leaders supported it.
"He talked about the objections of a few when it's fair to say that in most of the countries that supported us in Iraq, the majority of the people actually opposed what he was going. So he was disingenuous on the issue of allies," said Geoffrey Kemp, Reagan's national security council director for Middle East policy and senior fellow at the Nixon Center.
Mead was struck by Bush's determination to stick to the course he has set, even in the face of difficulties. "It's very interesting that he continues to point to the success of democratic reform in Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of the new democratic policy he wants to follow in the Middle East," he said. "He's nailing the colors of the U.S. ever harder to those masts. Suppose it doesn't work?"