January 21, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security
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.
"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.