Washington, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his third State of the Union speech last night, U.S. President George W. Bush vigorously defended the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism.
"Since we last met in this chamber, combat forces of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Poland, and other countries enforced the demands of the United Nations, ended the rule of Saddam Hussein and [the] people of Iraq are free."
Bush dismissed suggestions that Washington should have sought broader international support before invading Iraq to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein: "America has sought international support for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and we have gained much support. There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country," he said.
"For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place."
The annual State of the Union speech is arguably the most important public address the U.S. president delivers to the nation each year. Bush's previous two State of the Union speeches are noteworthy for remarks they contained that later proved to be controversial.
In January 2002, his first State of the Union after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, Bush set a strongly adversarial tone for the coming months when he identified Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil."
Last year, he said that information existed showing that Baghdad had recently sought nuclear-weapons material in Niger, an assertion by British intelligence officials that was later shown to be untrue.
But last night, Bush offered no new foreign-policy initiatives or controversial statements. He also did not mention the weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found in Iraq and which were the primary reason cited for going to war.
Instead, Bush said the Iraqi people are now free from tyranny and torture and cited Iraq's former weapons "programs" as a real threat. "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance around the world. Iraq's torture chambers would still be filled with victims, terrified and innocent. The killing fields of Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of men and women and children vanished into the sand, would still be known only to the killers. For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place," he said.
In the audience for Bush's speech was Adnan Pachachi, the current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Addressing Pachachi, Bush said: "America stands with you and the Iraqi people as you build a free and peaceful nation." Bush spoke the day after the opposition Democrats held their first state-by-state vote for selecting a candidate to run against him in November's election. U.S. Senator John Kerry, who won the first vote in the state of Iowa, is a war hero seen by some as a real threat to Bush's re-election hopes.
But Bush sought to make the case that given the massive decisions made by his administration on issues of war and peace and the dangers that continue to threaten the country, now is not the time to change leaders. "We've not come all this way, through tragedy and trial and war, only to falter and leave our work unfinished."
Bush said it is tempting to think America is safe since there have been no attacks in the U.S. since September 2001, but he said that would be a false assumption: "Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11, 2001 -- over two years -- without an attack on American soil. And it is tempting to believe the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting -- and false."
The president said the United States would continue to stand up to countries that harbor or support terrorists and aspire to attain weapons of mass destruction. He said terrorists are still plotting to attack the United States, and that fact justifies his aggressive stand against Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan in what he called a "forward strategy for freedom" in the Islamic world.
He said that strategy is paying off. Bush cited Libya, which has agreed to give up pursuing weapons of mass destruction in exchange for normal relations with the West. Libya entered into secret negotiations on that issue just a week before the United States invaded Iraq last March. Bush said the timing was no coincidence and was due to American resolve in Iraq and elsewhere.
"Nine months of intense negotiations involving Great Britain and the United States succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not. And one reason is clear. For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible. And no one can now doubt the word of America," he said.
Bush reiterated that by bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, an example of reform is being set for other Islamic countries that will quell the despair and desperation that drive some Muslims to terrorism.
Though experts say Afghanistan remains dangerous and instable, Bush insisted that the American-led removal of the Taliban there has given new hope to the country: "The first to see our determination were the Taliban, who made Afghanistan the primary training base of Al-Qaeda killers. As of this month, that country has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening and health-care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are in school."
Bush also said the United States and the international community continue to insist that Iran and North Korea halt moves to develop nuclear weapons. He reiterated that Washington will not tolerate the world's most dangerous weapons falling into the hands of its most dangerous regimes.
While interrupted repeatedly by applause, Bush's speech was later attacked by Democrats who say his aggressive foreign policy is a radical departure from American tradition. California's Nancy Pelosi is the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.
"The president led us into the Iraq war on the basis of unproven assertions without evidence. He embraced a radical doctrine of pre-emptive war unprecedented in our history. And he failed to build a true international coalition. Therefore, American taxpayers are bearing almost all the cost, a colossal $120 billion and rising."
Bush spent much of the latter part of his speech defending a series of sweeping tax cuts, saying they have helped fuel an economic rebound in recent months.
But Democrats also criticized Bush on the economy, saying the tax cuts have helped the rich but hurt the middle class and poor. When Bush trumpeted reform of the health-care system as a major victory for senior citizens, many Republicans stood up and applauded. But television cameras panned to veteran Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, who stayed in his seat and shook his head in disagreement.
In a nod to social conservatives, a key part of his electoral base, Bush said he would support a constitutional amendment that would, in effect, ban same-sex marriages if the courts struck down a law saying marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Republican strategists hope to use such social "wedge issues" to drive attention away from issues such as the economy and the reconstruction of Iraq and push independent voters toward Bush in November's election.
Recent polls show the country nearly as evenly divided as it was in 2000, when former Vice President Al Gore narrowly lost to Bush after a controversial vote in Florida.