PRESIDENT BUSH approached his State of the Union address last night facing a critical moment in international affairs, with a war looming in Iraq and another crisis unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. Much of the country -- and the world -- was waiting to hear how he would describe his policy toward dictators Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, members of the "axis of evil" he defined a year ago -- particularly as Mr. Bush had not yet made a concerted effort to explain to Americans and foreign allies why his administration is preparing to launch an invasion of Iraq that will involve painful costs and considerable risks. Yet the State of the Union is never a single-issue affair, and Mr. Bush, after acknowledging the "decisive days that lie ahead," chose to begin with his distinctly less dramatic agenda for the U.S. economy. He devoted half of his address to a rehash of proposals for energy policy, faith-based social programs, hydrogen-powered automobiles and, of course, tax cuts, coupled with a vague sketch of a new plan for including prescription drug coverage in a reformed Medicare. Then he reprised the administration's case against Saddam Hussein but did not expand on it, instead saying that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would brief the United Nations Security Council next week on Iraq's weapons programs and connections with terrorist groups. Along the way, he blithely ignored a connection that ought to be obvious: that there is, or should be, a tradeoff between the huge continuing costs of the war on terrorism and the ability of the government to offer both expensive new social programs and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Mr. Bush promised not to "pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents and other generations," yet that would be the effect of his proposed $670 billion tax cut, which would worsen the already mounting deficit and result in less leeway to deal with a war in Iraq and other looming costs. The gauziness of Mr. Bush's proposal to reform Medicare -- "all seniors should have the choice of a health care plan that provides prescription drugs" -- avoided the serious questions of how that can be achieved, even with the hefty price tag placed on it by the president himself: an additional $400 billion over the next decade. Likewise, the president sidestepped the difficulties facing the Social Security program.

The most striking new proposal was Mr. Bush's welcome pledge to do more to combat the AIDS epidemic. Noting that the cost of rescuing one of the 30 million people in Africa infected with HIV had fallen to less than $300 a year, he asked Congress to appropriate $15 billion over the next five years, including $10 billion in new money, "to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean." Such a commitment, he said, would offer drug treatment to 2 million Africans -- still slight compared with the challenge, but a huge and overdue improvement. Congress should quickly embrace this plan.

When at last he turned to the crises abroad, Mr. Bush restated his administration's approach to North Korea without making any clearer a policy that has appeared mostly muddled in recent weeks. On Iraq, where American soldiers could be fighting and dying in a few weeks' time, Mr. Bush chose to focus once again on Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations' demand for disarmament. He reprised, again, Iraq's failure to account for biological and chemical weapons or materials and its attempts to block or deceive U.N. weapons inspectors. But Mr. Bush revealed little of the intelligence the administration says it has on the Iraqi arsenal, and he said little about what the costs of a war might be, or about the commitment the United States would make to a postwar Iraq. His case against Saddam Hussein was strong; but it left him with much still to do in the coming weeks.