Back With a Roar

George W. Bush is back, big time. In fact with a roar.

He seemed to lie low this summer, but Wednesday he re-emerged to lead the nation and stand for all it has been through this year. He spoke of mourning and memory, of our purpose and our plans. He was inspiriting.

Did you see him with the families of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, and then with the mourners in New York, at Ground Zero? He was a genuine comfort. A genuine one. He understood it was about them and not him, and in each case he gave the families what they signaled they needed. If they wanted to talk he stopped and talked; when they wanted to hug him and weep, he took them in his arms. He was there to serve, to give and to represent. Even now, two years after the previous president, it is still a relief—an enormous relief—to have a president who doesn’t make every event a sickness-tinged drama in which he simulates emotions he does not feel and draws the cameras with the heat of his need, his persona, his never-sated ego. Smarmy bathos is gone. Thanks again, God.

But let’s go to yesterday and Mr. Bush’s speech at the U.N. It was big and it was shrewd in its rhetorical approach. The U.N. expected Mr. Bush to make the case for an invasion of Iraq based on Saddam’s threat to the security of the United States. Mr. Bush didn’t do that. Saddam he said, as if noting the obvious, “has made the case against himself.” Saddam has brazenly and consistently defied the United Nations. Saddam endangers the peace the U.N. member states so understandably desire. Saddam threatens them. But it’s all right: The United States will come to the U.N.’s aid and protect its member states from Saddam.

It was something. And it left the administration’s foes in the audience looking, at the end, as if they were thinking: Man, how do I knock this one down?

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Kofi Annan, it seemed to me, did Mr. Bush a favor when he spoke first, and with great gravity. Mr. Annan was expected to voice strong opposition to independent American action on Iraq, but that was not quite his subject. His subject: regional threats to world peace. Nothing he said was objectionable, and soon enough he was speaking of Saddam’s record of defiance of past U.N. resolutions. He did not explicitly or even implicitly refute what he knew of Bush administration thinking on Iraq. He called for a peaceful resolution to the problem, through United Nations offices.

But it was Mr. Annan’s gravity, his moral seriousness, that provided a platform for the words of the visiting American president.

This is what Mr. Bush said: We in the United Nations have an “urgent duty” to protect lives. The peace of the world must not be disturbed by “the will and the wickedness of any one man.” Yes, our common security is threatened by regional conflicts, but an even greater threat is “outlaw groups and regimes,” those in terror camps and terror cells who wish to fulfill “mad ambitions.” And they will, if Iraq supplies them with the weapons of mass destruction they so desire.

We did not “appease” Iraq when it unlawfully moved against Kuwait in 1990. The U.S., with the U.N., forced Saddam back. He accepted defeat in clear agreements. He has since broken “every pledge.” He promised to stop abusing his people, but he uses “summary execution and torture” against them. “Repression is all pervasive.” He is brutal and sadistic; his means of repression is “a totalitarian state.”

Saddam promised to return prisoners of war from the Gulf War. “He broke his promise.” He is in “direct defiance” of a series of U.N. directives. Saddam said he would stop encouraging terrorism—he didn’t. He said he would stop attempting to assassinate international foes—he hasn’t. He agreed to destroy his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and not develop new ones. “Iraq has broken every aspect of this fundamental pledge.”

The Iraqi “regime” (never “government” in this speech) is developing chemical weapons, and has admitted to a crash nuclear weapons program. It has the infrastructure to build nuclear weapons. If Saddam gets fissile material, he will have them in a year. “There is little doubt about his appetite” for them. He is building long range missiles, and “madly” buying arms for “mad ends.”

Mr. Bush told the U.N.: You know Saddam has defied all requests for cooperation and information, because you have denounced his behavior in the past, and you were right to denounce it.

“The history, the logic and the facts lead to one conclusion,” Mr. Bush said. “Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger.”

Will the U.N. “gamble” the lives of “millions” on mere hopes that Saddam will change? Must we wait to discover he has nuclear weapons “the day he uses one”?

Saddam has given you nothing but “a decade of defiance”; he is a threat to U.N. authority and standing.

If Iraq wants peace, it will reveal and destroy its weapons of mass destruction, it will renounce terrorism, it will refrain from repression, it will release all Gulf War prisoners.

America will work with the U.N. Security Council on the question of Iraq. But “action will be unavoidable” if Iraq does not change. And if it does not, the regime, which has already “lost its legitimacy,” will “lose its power.”

Mr. Bush gave no timetable, but the very force of his words said: Act now, it will be worse if you wait. He did not refer to any possible U.N. actions, such as new demands for weapons inspections or agreements. He left the subject open, but in a way that challenged the U.N. to come up with something as strong as the speech.

And his message was clear. If the U.N. does not feel it can stand up for the very values it represents and was created to advance, the United States itself will step in to defend them for it.

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This was a speech that gave the world a lot to chew on, ponder and face. It was a speech that piled fact upon fact, like a legal dossier. It is a speech that, through its very specificity, requires that those who disagree with Mr. Bush, specifically respond to the facts, and either counter them persuasively or let them stand. It is a speech that will be reprinted in newspapers throughout the world. It is a speech that with clarity and logic makes clear Mr. Bush’s commitment without opening him to charges of cowboyism.

And I think it was a speech that is going to move this story forward. All the world now will have to respond to the text. We will learn much from their responses.

We have already learned something of the unity of Mr. Bush’s said-to-be-fractious cabinet. Leading the applause for the president and sitting most prominently in the U.S. delegation was the secretary of state, Colin Powell, the famous dove. He didn’t look unhappy. One wonders how his support of the speech was secured; one suspects it has to do with the fact that Mr. Bush gave no timetable for action, and left open the possibility of U.N. attempts to improve the situation.

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Chris Matthews asked last night if Mr. Bush was “a cowboy.” He is not. Every Republican president who takes stark and independent American action in the world is called a cowboy, and it’s not the worst thing you could be called. Mr. Bush obviously wants and would be grateful for international support. The sentiment of nations is important. His father demonstrated this when he created the great Gulf War coalition.

But George W. Bush is by nature and habit of mind an American exceptionalist. (In this, and in being called a cowboy, he is like Ronald Reagan.) Mr. Bush believes America is different among nations, invented on the basis of what is, literally, a heavenly idea: God created all men equal, and they must therefore move through the world, through life, with equal rights. We are uniquely blessed, uniquely situated between the oceans, uniquely the natural home of those born elsewhere who yearn to be free. And so we have special responsibilities, and a special role: We lead, and for the good of the world.

Mr. Bush’s leadership this past year has reflected a fully absorbed, and perhaps romantically held, commitment to this ideal. His speech to the U.N. underscored it.

Do I think he “made the case” for U.S. action against Iraq? I think he made a first and serious one but not the final one; I think his words and approach showed an appropriate respect for the opinion of mankind; I think more will, and should, follow. I think this story has not reached its crisis. Something tells me Saddam himself will continue to make the case against his regime. Something tells me that in the end, most all of us are going to give the American president the benefit of the doubts we hold, and back him. Something tells me that in the end we’ll be glad we did, and so will the members of the U.N.