When President George W. Bush steps before Congress next Tuesday to deliver his second State of the Union address, he arguably will be the most powerful leader in the world.
He may also be the most powerful president in history save Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the United States had 12 million men and women under arms. Like Roosevelt, Bush's party controls both houses of Congress, and there will be more friendly faces before him than faced his father.
His world power comes not because the United States has moved inexorably to this pinnacle, but because other empires have disappeared. So even though Roosevelt in 1945 was commander in chief of fleets dominating the oceans from the China Sea to the North Atlantic, in a relative sense, the United States now is more powerful and the gap between it and other countries wider.
The Soviet Empire broke apart nearly 14 years ago, leaving its heirs the rusting vestiges of a deadly intercontinental ballistic missile fleet. The Third Reich, the Empire of Japan, the British Empire have been gone for 50 years or more.
Nevertheless, as Bush prepares his remarks this week, the limitations of that power in a Democracy may be foremost in his mind. As his hero President Ronald Reagan learned in Beirut, Jimmy Carter in Tehran, and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, achieving victory with military force can be illusory.
As Reagan and his father did, Bush chose to send troops to the Middle East. At last report, some 100,000 men and women and several carrier battle groups now surround Iraq and another 50,000 armed service personnel are on the way, set to arrive by mid-February.
This will be enough troops, United Press International and other news agencies report, for the president to take military action against Iraq should he so choose. The British will put 30,000 troops in the region, nearly as many as they sent to the first Gulf War.
Thus this will be subject number one for the State of the Union address. The day before the speech, on Jan. 27, the U.N. weapons inspectors will make their much-anticipated report to the Security Council. They have already said they need more time and they have already said they have found suspicious missile warheads.
Undoubtedly, Bush will have to engage this issue before Congress. A year ago, in his 2002 address, Bush first engaged the Iraq issue 18 paragraphs into his delivery with his now-famous "axis of evil" remarks.
Iraq, North Korea and Iran, he said, constituted "an axis of evil," developing and in the case of North Korea exporting weapons of mass destruction.
Bush said the United States would work closely "with our coalition" to deny these weapons to terrorists, but he hinted that the "coalition" would not bind him.
"I will not wait on events while dangers gather ... the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous nations to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Few Americans around the country would have construed from those few paragraphs that a year hence an American armada would be heading for war in Iraq and that war on the Korean Peninsula could be a possibility.
The "coalition" of which Bush spoke has been over this past year an on-again, off-again thing, never coming together in the face of a real war as it did to support the United States to chase out the Taliban. The president's impatient mantra, often repeated -- "I will not wait on events, while the dangers gather" -- has been stymied by reluctant allies and a dubious nation.
Since Christmas alone, the French have joined the Germans in opposing military action. British public opinion forced Prime Minister Tony Blair to say that the U.N. weapons inspectors needed more time. And Secretary of State Colin Powell, who brought the coalition along by the sheer force of his presence, seemed unlikely to get support next Monday from the Security Council.
Despite literally dozens of Bush speeches all across the country and testimony of administration leaders on Capitol Hill and on television, Americans haven't bought in to an immediate unilateral attack on Iraq. In a Newsweek Poll of 1,002 adults aged 18 and older on Jan. 16 and 17, 60 percent said "it is more important to take more time to achieve U.S. goals without using military force."
Part of the problem for Bush was the unexpected movement of North Korea to center stage. When he called included it in the "axis of evil," North Korea seemed a bit player in the Iraqi drama, though South Korean leaders immediately warned him last February North Korea could be dangerous. Late last year, Korea said it was continuing a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement and later renounced it, calling Bush's "axis of evil" remark threatening in a maneuver widely considered blackmail to compel the West to aid the starving nation.
From the beginning, the Bush administration has downplayed the Korean confrontation. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Jan. 19 that the situation could be dealt with diplomatically. He claims if military force becomes necessary, the United States can both attack Iraq and defend South Korea. There are some who think it is wishful thinking. Though the United States might triumph in the end, North Korea would likely be able to destroy Seoul, the south's capital and population center, and decimate the 37,000 U.S. troops there.
Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who voted for Bush's Iraq resolution, said that in his judgment, "the crisis on the Korean peninsula -- and it is a crisis -- is our most urgent priority."
"The situation in North Korea has gone from bad to worse. They've thrown out the international inspectors and turned off cameras that tracked thousand of canisters of weapons grade plutonium ... Indeed, the very rationale some in the administration cite for regime change in Iraq is emerging as reality in North Korea."
Even Republicans are anxious. Many of them distrust the notion that China will act as the peacemaker in this. With the fastest-growing economy in the world and chafing under its newfound energy, many conservatives fear, China is the nation that put North Korea up to this brinkmanship.
When foreign waters are dark and murky, presidents like to turn to domestic policy. Last year, as House and Senate election campaigns were under way, Bush did the reverse, leading debate to Iraq and keeping American eyes away from the economy and corporate malfeasance. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also focused Americans on their own safety and border security.
Now, the national attention has turned to more traditional issues. Bush's education package got him high marks last year, but now the intrusion that it allows for federal agencies into local school boards is getting attention.
The Democrat's dark horse candidate for president, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, suggested that the idea that local schools should have to relay to the Department of Defense the names of rising seniors, and be compelled to allow the Boy Scouts to use school facilities, show that direction from Washington has gone to far.
The Atlantic Monthly, a liberal magazine, published a special State of the Union issue which criticized the endless prison overcrowding, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, the changing life patterns which are stripping people from the Midwest, and a host of other social difficulties. It made the point that deep, fundamental changes are happening in American life that are not being addressed.
But as the economy has struggled for nearly three straight years, cutting tax revenues and raising state deficits, it is unlikely the states or the federal government can do much about these issues.
Bush offered a recovery package earlier this month based on major tax reductions, some of them favoring the wealthy, that are likely, the critics claim, to accelerate the deficit even further. Even such a staunch ally as Iowa's Sen. Chuck Grassley, who will manage Bush's bill in the Senate, doubts that dropping federal taxes on dividends altogether will survive debate.
The promise of tax breaks has not stabilized the market and even Bush's supporters are divided on whether it will. Dean and other Democrats argue that the 2001 tax cuts did not turn the economy and began the downward spiral away from budget surpluses. They see national budget deficits of $350 billion, and an economy that cannot face more tax cuts or lower interest rates.
The Constitution says: "the president shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
It is really only in 20th century that the presidents went regularly to Capitol Hill to deliver this message. And it has become, in the manner of Washington, as filled with pomp and circumstance as any function here -- from the special guests seated with the First Lady to the president's moving through the crowd of members, pressing the flesh.
In Steven Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," the last century's great Massachusetts senator and orator challenges from his grave: "Neighbor, how stands the Union?" And the right answer in those days, claims Benet, was, "The Union stands as she should, rock bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible." In real life, Webster had the courage to speak out against abolitionists in his own state to try to prevent the breakup of the Union and the Civil War. He was politically punished for his beliefs and left office.
Maybe next week, Bush will help Americans answer Daniel Webster's question.
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