Foreign policy was front and center in the president's State of the Union speech tonight. His guests were members of the armed forces, and by First Lady Laura Bush's side was the President of the Iraqi governing council. While American presidents in an election year have traditionally spent more time touting their domestic programs, this President's most important accomplishment has been to keep the United States safe from terrorist attacks since September 11. In that sense, it was as much a speech on the State of the War on Terrorism as it was a speech on the State of the Union.
Since that fateful day in September, there have been no attacks on U.S. soil, as Mr. Bush reminded us. This is the accomplishment of which the President can be most proud. The Democratic administration that preceded his did not similarly take the terrorist menace seriously, and the result was ever escalating attacks on American targets through the last decade. "Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people," Mr. Bush said. "Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11, 2001 -- over two years without an attack on American soil -- and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting -- and false."
Two years ago, in his first State of the Union address, President Bush threw down a challenge to the countries that had formed "an axis of evil" in the world, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The phrase was much derided by Mr. Bush's critics both here at home and abroad. It would be appropriate for these same critics to look around the world today after the President's third State of the Union address. Though we continue to face difficulties and dangers in the short term, there can be little doubt that in the long run, the world will be a safer place because of the policies of this President, who has taken the fight to America's enemies, terrorists and rogue dictatorships alike. On September 11, Mr. Bush said, "terrorists declared war on us, and war is what they got."
Taking the long view is exactly what the president has asked the American people to do throughout the war against terrorism. It is not necessarily what we Americans do best, but in this case the American people have risen to the challenge. "We have not come all this way -- through tragedy, and trial, and war -- only to falter and leave our work unfinished. Americans are rising to the tasks of history, and they expect the same of us," the President said.
As Mr. Bush goes into his third year, polls show the majority of Americans are behind his foreign policy and support the intervention in Iraq -- even as U.S. casualties have exceeded 500. Not even the sustained assault of a slew of Democratic presidential candidates has been able to undermine that support. Evidently Americans do agree that some things are worth making sacrifices for. President Bush discussed the extraordinary challenges our country has faced and the historic achievements we have made. "America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them..."
Mr. Bush threw down a gauntlet to his critics, answering criticisms made by Democrats, often very directly. There were no apologies here for any of the policy choices the Bush White House has made. His defense was eloquent, and it was tough.
On weapons of mass destruction and the regimes that produce them -- such as that of Saddam Hussein -- Mr. Bush said that "we refuse to live with danger." He cited Libya as the example of a regime that has learned the lesson of Iraq and acted on it. Libya had a uranium enrichment project for nuclear weapons. After nine months of negotiations, Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhaffi gave up his program, having watched Saddam Hussein crawl out of his hole in Iraq and surrender into American hands.
On the question of unilateralism, Mr. Bush answered his critics by citing a long list of countries that have troops on the ground working with the United States. He did, however, make the important point that there is a distinction between internationalism and slavish acceptance of the rulings of the U.N. Security Council. "America will not seek a permission slip from the United Nations," he said, to act in our national interest. This is, of course, in stark contrast to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who just last week told a radio station that this is precisely what the United States should have had before invading Iraq. (Characteristically, Mr. Dean backtracked on his statement a few days later.)
On bringing democracy to the Middle East, Mr. Bush again stressed that he is very serious about making it happen. Now, it is easy to be skeptical that this grand vision will ever materialize, but there can be no doubt it is a worthy goal, and that the world would certainly be a better place it did. "God has placed in the human heart a desire for freedom," the President said. Instead of a Middle East that is a place of "tyranny and terror," the President's aim is a "democratic peace" in the region. He is doubling the funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, the only program specifically mentioned in this context.
On Iraq, Mr. Bush cited substantial progress, and he reminded us that the United States is indeed safer without Saddam Hussein around -- and his WMD programs of which weapons inspectors have found plentiful evidence. Out of the 55 top cards in the Iraqi deck, 45 have been captured and are in U.S. hands. Iraqis are working side by side with Americans to make their country a better place.
On the Patriot Act, Mr. Bush defended strongly one of the most controversial aspects of the war on terrorism, which will surely become a target in the presidential campaign. Law enforcement needs all the tools it can get to deal with the insidious spread of terror groups within the United States, he said. This is true, yet it is also true that this field will continue to require constant oversight and vigilance against encroachments on Americans' civil liberties.
"We are living in a time of great change," the President said. "Yet some things endure -- courage and compassion, reverence and integrity, respect for differences of faith and race. The values we try to live by never change. And they are instilled in us by fundamental institutions, such as families, and schools, and religious congregations. These institutions -- the unseen pillars of civilization -- must remain strong in America..."
Defending the American homeland without challenging the civil liberties we love will remain one of the President's most difficult challenges.
Helle Dale is Deputy Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.