Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2003 / 28 Shevat 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Waiting for war | I was wondering how George W. Bush would describe this uncertain state of the Union, for all now seems in abeyance until the hurly-burly's done, the war lost and won.

Every wait for war is different, as is every war. Some wars come by awful, almost accidental miscalculation -- like the First World War -- and some only at the end of a long chain of violations, like the Second. Some wars envelop nations like, yes, a quagmire, as in Vietnam. Others are waged largely from afar -- like Kosovo -- and others require as much patience as power, like Afghanistan and what is soon to be remembered as the First Gulf War.

This coming war has about it an almost palpable sense of inevitability. This era's menace has had what the United Nations called his Last Opportunity to disarm, but of course he wants another. He always will. When it does indeed prove to have been his last chance, the war will be on. Until then, the world waits, the economy slogs along, and decisions are put off.

How, I wondered, would the president describe such a state of political, military, and moral suspension? He found the words at the outset: "This year we gather in this chamber deeply aware of decisive days that lay ahead."

That awareness should move the nation to act; the danger is that it will induce only paralysis, a kind of perpetual waiting in a state of neither war nor peace. As the president noted, a peace "lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all." And he reminded all those who would listen, "The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others." Decision time is almost here.

In the meantime, W. had to get through a lot of business at home, which composed the lackluster part of his speech. He touched on all the predictable bases for a free-market, pro-life Republican. For example: Of course we need to speed up tax cuts that Congress already has approved in order to get this sluggish economy moving again. Then he threw in some fillips -- like government support for a futuristic hydrogen-fueled car -- that will not win over his critics or engage his friends. All these programs took half the speech but seemed to take three-quarters of it.

The president's proposals didn't impress so much as the man himself, who came through despite all the political rhetoric.

How describe the decent, determined man who could be glimpsed when the oratory parted? The closest I can come is to say that, at his best, W. reminds me of the old Texas -- the Texas of the little towns strung out along the endless highways out West rather than the tourist destinations on Padre Island. It's the Texas of plain Fort Worth rather than glossy Dallas. I know that the old Texas still exists, but it was surprising to see that this president could still convey it over television -- a medium that tends to cosmeticize, if not falsify, everything it touches.

Despite his dyslexic slips, this president's natural dignity comes through on these occasions, and it inspires trust. That trust will be a great national asset in the trying days just ahead, as was the presence of Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell at this State of the Union address -- two remarkably different and remarkably valuable public servants. As they unite forces and policies to meet the coming test ahead, they will be even more useful.

When the president got to the part of his speech the country and the world had been waiting for, he began with the facts, detailing the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq's ever scheming dictator has never accounted for -- the tons of nerve gas and mustard gas, the tons of agents that can be used for making other poison gases, like sarin. Plus Saddam's biological arsenal: thousands of liters of anthrax and botulinum toxin. Plus Saddam's attempts to put together his own nuclear weapon. The president's conclusion: "It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons and lay those weapons out for the world to see and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened."

And nothing like this is likely to happen, which makes the coming days and weeks crucial. His critics demand a smoking gun, but the problem with waiting till one is found is that a smoking gun has just been fired. It will be too late.

In the halls of Congress, the listeners Tuesday night were doing their usual jack-in-the-box number, rising and applauding when the president got to some part of his speech they liked, sitting on their hands when he proposed something they didn't. But out in the country, across what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the dark, rolling fields of the Republic, people understood. And were waiting.

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