President Bush today outlined an expansive vision of a postwar Iraq, speaking of toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a lesson to other American foes and of turning the country into a model of Middle East democracy and prosperity.
In a nearly hourlong speech here in suburban Atlanta, the president did not mention the diplomacy underway to break a transatlantic rift, or a British-American resolution to be informally circulated at the United Nations next week. Instead, he looked beyond diplomacy and toward a seemingly inevitable war as "this nation's last option."
"If military force becomes necessary to disarm Iraq, this nation, joined by others, will act decisively in a just cause, and we will prevail," Bush said to cheers. "Military action is this nation's last option. And let me tell you what's not an option: Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not an option. Denial and endless delay in the face of growing danger is not an option. Leaving the lives and the security of the American people at the mercy of this dictator and his weapons of mass destruction -- not an option."
At a time when the administration is facing nuclear challenges from North Korea and Iran, Bush spoke of using Hussein's undoing as an example to others. "By defeating this threat, we will show other dictators that the path of aggression will lead to their own ruin," he said.
The president's remarks stepped up an effort begun in recent days to demonstrate to critics the U.S. commitment to rebuilding a postwar Iraq. "A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East," Bush said today. "Instead of threatening its neighbors and harboring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both.
The White House scheduled today's appearance to showcase the administration's tax cut proposals, and Bush devoted a large chunk of his speech to reciting the package's details. But the Iraq situation drew the most intense reaction from the audience and from conservative supporters on Bush's motorcade route here in Newt Gingrich's Cobb County.
Among hundreds of flag-waving well-wishers, support for an Iraq invasion figured prominently. "Give War A Chance," proclaimed one poster, with a photo of Hussein on a map of Iraq in cross hairs. One of the few antiwar demonstrators along the route held a poster saying: "Stop the Terrorists Before They Start a War on Iraq." According to the local Marietta Daily Journal, students at Harrison High School, where Bush spoke, said "it has been made clear to them that protests against Bush and the impending war with Iraq will not be tolerated."
Bush aides said the president's remarks were intended to keep up pressure on the U.N. Security Council and Iraq, but were not meant to signal that the administration had lost hope in U.N. negotiations. A senior official briefing reporters on Air Force One affirmed that introduction of a resolution calling Iraq in violation of last year's resolution "will take place next week" and does not depend on further reports by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. The resolution, which will not be formally introduced until further assessments of Iraqi cooperation are delivered by U.N. weapons inspectors, will declare Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. disarmament demands and open the door to the use of force.
Still, Bush and his aides turned rhetorical emphasis away from the world body and toward the "coalition of the willing" that would join the United States and Britain in ousting Hussein. Asked about Turkey's reluctance to allow use of its territory for bases, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that "if basing is not allowed in Turkey, we have no choice: We will pursue other options."
In Turkey, Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said a vote in parliament on whether to allow tens of thousands of U.S. troops to be based there was unlikely before next week. One senior administration official said Turkey has indicated privately that an answer will be forthcoming Friday.
Fleischer said "scores of nations" would support the operation but acknowledged that Bush was contemplating a largely British-American effort. Asked about other nations making substantial financial or military contributions, Fleischer mentioned Australia, adding: "We have never tried to suggest that any sizable amount of combat forces would come from nations other than the United States [and the] United Kingdom."
Bush said the United States would be joined by "many nations" in its efforts. "America and our allies are called once again to defend the peace against an aggressive tyrant, and we accept this responsibility," he said.
Bush stopped in the Atlanta area on his way to his Texas ranch, where he will play host to Spain's prime minister. On friendly territory here, Bush sought to build momentum for his $670 billion tax cut plan, which has been slow to amass support.
But his visit coincided with new and troublesome economic data. The Commerce Department reported that the U.S. trade deficit last year reached its largest level ever, while the Labor Department found that inflation of wholesale goods last month had its largest increase in 13 years, and that the number of unemployment benefits claims last week hit a seven-week high.
Bush cited a different statistic, a survey of private economists predicting economic growth of 3.3 percent for 2003 -- if Congress passes his tax package. "The economists are basing this prediction on Congress passing tax relief this year," he said. "If Congress doesn't act, there's a risk we won't have economic vitality, the likes of which we all support." Such linkage is not universal. Last week, more than 400 economists, including 10 Nobel laureates, said Bush's plan would not help the economy in the short term.
Bush was introduced by Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), a maverick Democrat who had already committed to supporting the president's tax cut. Miller put his arm around Bush and described him as "one of our bravest, a leader with a good heart and a spine of steel."
Miller is the only Senate Democrat to announce support for the plan, while half a dozen GOP senators have voiced doubts.