WASHINGTON – President Bush worked to tighten his case against the man he called "the dictator of Iraq" in his State of the Union address, hoping to dispel growing war skepticism among Americans and top allies. Yet even as Bush spoke, a new flare-up of fighting in Afghanistan served as a vivid reminder of troubles elsewhere.
In stark terms, Bush cataloged U.S. estimates of Saddam Hussein's inventory of lethal weapons, accused him of actively undermining the work of U.N. inspectors and insisted that ties exist between the Iraqi leader and Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network.
Bush also offered to provide new evidence of Saddam's treachery to the United Nations next week. "We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him," he asserted.
The president's presentation failed to sway administration critics who say he has yet to make a strong case for going to war at this time, particularly in the absence of U.N. support.
"President Bush failed to demonstrate that there is an immediate threat from Iraq to us or our allies," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., cited a "widening credibility gap" between the president and the American public. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., demanded a new vote in Congress, which last fall voted overwhelmingly to grant Bush Iraq war authority.
Republicans voiced admiration. "The State of the Union is a shot heard around the world, but this one more so," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
A year after Bush linked Iraq, Iran and North Korea in an "axis of evil," the president offered an addendum to that attention-grabbing phrase: "Different threats require different strategies." His remarks appeared to be an answer to critics who have complained that he is pursuing a military course on Iraq but a diplomatic one with North Korea.
The new fighting in Afghanistan underscored that unfinished business remains in the broader war on terrorism.
Bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar remain at large. Anti-American warlords continue to operate in the Afghan countryside. And in neighboring Pakistan, outlawed Islamic extremist organizations are setting up new camps under new names.
Furthermore, the new fighting in Afghanistan raised anew the issue of whether the United States could battle on two fronts -- or even three, if trouble rises out of control in North Korea.
It was all part of a swirling, difficult mix of international and domestic problems that confronted Bush for his annual benchmark speech.
The Pentagon has worried for some time that anti-American elements in Afghanistan would step up their activity if the United States were to go to war with Iraq, hoping to force the United States to split its attention and resources. In fact, in recent days, the U.S. military has been coming under increasing attack.
In the latest episode, U.S. and Afghan forces battled rebels in southeastern Afghanistan in the largest-scale fighting in 10 months. At least 18 rebels were killed in the fighting that included up to 350 troops on the American side, the U.S. military said.
"The war goes on, and we are winning," Bush said. "We have the terrorists on the run, and we are keeping them on the run."
The State of the Union speech came as polls showed Bush's approval ratings slipping into the 50s, down from about 90 percent right after the Sept. 11 attacks. They also showed growing skepticism toward going to war with Iraq without the blessing of the United Nations and toward Bush's stewardship of the sputtering U.S. economy. All this made his selling job on Iraq even harder.
Wayne Fields, an expert on political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said Bush's recounting of Saddam's violations over the past 12 years and alleged atrocities against his own people "was a fairly compelling narrative."
"I think he did that effectively," said Fields. "But I'm not sure there was enough there beyond the narrative" to explain to the American people why going to war might be necessary.
This point in a president's first term is usually a time to consolidate gains and frame re-election issues. Bush clearly was doing that, devoting the first half of his State of the Union to domestic subjects. But the possibility of war with Iraq still dominated attention -- and Bush reserved for Saddam his most intense, emotional words.
"The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving," Bush said. "The gravest danger facing America and the world ... is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. ... America and the world will not be blackmailed," he said.
"Iraq has become the foreign-policy equivalent of the Bush tax cut," said Ivo Daalder, a national security aide in the Clinton White House who is now with the Brookings Institution. He suggested Bush was pushing it as a cure-all for all the nation's foreign policy challenges, just as he was suggesting his tax cut proposals would cure the economy's ills.