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Analysis: Bush faces big test Tuesday

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI White House Correspondent   |   Jan. 27, 2003 at 5:40 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- (Editor's note: This is the second in a series of reports leading up to President Bush's State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday.)

When President George W. Bush mounts the podium in the House of Representatives Tuesday night to give his annual State of the Union address, he'll do so with a legacy of his first such appearance hanging heavy over the nation.

Iraq, North Korea, and Iran -- each in its own way -- are living up to the "Axis of Evil" label he bestowed upon them a year ago.

Iraq, which through U.S. pressure allowed international weapons inspectors to return to the country, now frustrates the United States with what the administration sees as hide-and-seek games of deception over the weapons of mass destruction that Washington insists it has, but has so far failed to convincingly and irrefutably prove.

North Korea -- bellicose and belligerent as ever -- says the axis label is proof of Washington's aggressive military intent, and is set to resume nuclear warhead production unless it's bought off with a formal non-aggression pact and a robust aid package.

Iran, the quietist of the three, is continuing to pursue the construction of nuclear facilities -- with Russian help -- that the United States suspects may be part of a quest for nuclear power status.

All three are seen as having the potential -- if they have not done so already -- of passing on weapons technology to terrorist groups, given their strong anti-Americanism.

"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," Bush said last year. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States.

"In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."

But the costs of engagement are considerable.

The costs of transporting more than 60,000 troops to the Gulf to double the ranks of U.S. military personnel already there are monumental when the deployment of aircraft and ships are added in.

The exact figure is not available, but it is believed to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

If it comes to war with Iraq, the price tag for American taxpayers is expected to exceed the $60 billion spent on the 43-day 1991 conflict. In 1991, coalition members shouldered much of the cost; Bush's current "coalition of the willing" seems mainly limited to Britain and a few smaller countries without the resources to significantly contribute to the war chest.

But there are other costs as well in an Iraq conflict that the Bush administration will need to consider: the risk of further alienating Arab allies and the Arab man in the street, who so far see the looming conflict as proof of U.S. bullying and avarice for oil; and further estrangement from European allies, worried by what they see as a go-it-alone administration.

Whether it comes to war, the conflict with Iraq is already affecting the economy, with stocks going up or down on the latest news about the standoff.

"We've got one of the most challenging periods in recent history, in which we have four tasks we are dealing with simultaneously -- al Qaida and terrorism, Iraq, North Korea, and relations with the rest of the world and the growing anti-Americanism we're seeing in it," Sandy Berger, national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, told United Press International.

"A lot pivots on Iraq and whether we can build a broad coalition. Saddam Hussein is a threat and must be confronted," but U.S. action must be "seen as a result of Saddam Hussein's intransigence and not American impatience," he said.

The Bush administration's relations with European allies have been shaky from the start. Other leaders doubted his foreign policy abilities, and were dismayed by the United States' refusal to go along with the Kyoto global warming treaty, its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court accord, and its scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, negotiated in the 1970s with the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Lawrence Korb, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Defense Department official under President Reagan, sees many of the problems facing Bush as the fruit of seeds he planted.

"I would say that Bush, first of all, got carried away with what the Greeks call hubris last January," he said. "He broadened it from a war against terrorism with a global reach to a war against evil. Then if you look at his West Point speech, his National Security Strategy in September, we weren't only going to wipe out evil, we were going to create democracy.

"That's humble foreign policy?" he asked, harking back to Bush's campaign statements. "It's chaotic ... he hasn't made up his mind where he wants to go on foreign policy."

Korb says Bush's change of direction is symptomatic of siding at various times with one or the other of competing groups in the administration: the more unilateralist and confrontational faction of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the more multilateralist, cooperative faction of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In his West Point speech, Bush highlighted the necessity of the United States sometimes taking pre-emptive, unilateral military action against terrorist and rogue states, which threaten the United States.

It created an uproar among Democrats and European allies, who had become more accustomed to the multilateral approach of Clinton.

Pre-emption, however, was only three paragraphs in the 31-page National Strategy document and was in the context of terrorism and rogue nations.

Berger pointed out that even Clinton acted unilaterally when needed. In 1996, he sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits to counter Beijing's saber rattling, and in 1998 ordered an attack on Iraq with cruise missiles for barring weapons inspectors.

Bush has pursued a diplomatic approach with North Korea over its violating and then scrapping a 1994 agreement with Washington to abandon its plutonium-producing nuclear program. A no-negotiations, no-inducement policy has since given way to the offer of talks and possible resumption of aid amid pressure from Japan and South Korea, as Pyongyang became more belligerent in what was believed a game of nuclear brinksmanship to obtain more economic assistance.

Bush, Berger said, was "lurching in the right direction" with North Korea, which represents a more dangerous short-term threat to the United States than Iraq, since there is a danger of "plutonium becoming North Korea's cash crop."

"The end result of that is it (plutonium-based radioactive material or weapons) could end up in New York, Seoul or Moscow."

According to Berger and others, the focus of U.S. policy under Bush stems from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by al Qaida terrorists that killed nearly 3,000 people.

For the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis under President John F. Kennedy, Berger said, "national security has become personal security. People are worried about an outside threat to themselves and their families."

"We are facing a terrorist enemy that continues to be viable," Berger said. "Al Qaida continues to be lethal in terms of threats to my family. That is the No. 1 threat."

Confronting that threat has meant the United States has had to deal with strange bedfellows and turn a blind eye to offensive behavior. It continues to support Saudi Arabia; Pakistan, which has proliferated weapons technology; and Uzbekistan, which is not known for its democratic tendencies.

It has also led to Washington being less engaged in the Middle East peace process and working less closely with Latin America, Berger said.

America, he said, needs to exert its moral leadership more.

The White House has also had to ignore Russian actions in Chechnya against Muslim separatists and China's handling of its minorities. It has also failed to pressure Israel more strongly over its actions in the occupied territories, Korb said.

"I wish it were a pure black and white world, but the fact is that you've got to compromise -- not your principles -- by staging carefully how you act on different things," said Larry Wortzel of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

In the year ahead, Bush will continue to face the challenges brought about by Sept. 11's trauma. The war on terrorism, in all its permutations and tangents, will continue to be pursued. It's what the American public wants, a sentiment backed up by Bush's continuing high marks in public opinion polls on his handling of the war on terrorism. And that is likely what he will say on Jan. 28.

(UPI previously published this report on Jan. 22, 2003)

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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