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SUMMARY: State of the Union address might have been President Bush's best opportunity to set the record straight.

President Bush passed a perfect opportunity to set the record straight in Tuesday's State of the Union address. That's a shame.

Bush centered his address to Congress and the nation on a positive assessment of the war in Iraq and a forceful assertion of the righteousness of that cause. His case is one that many Americans find compelling. Saddam Hussein was a dangerous, murderous tyrant. Without him, the people of Iraq have cause to hope for a better future. Regime change in Iraq could, indeed, serve as a first step toward a better, more America-friendly Middle East. If the liberation of Iraq ends well, America may enjoy greater security than might have been the case had we left Saddam Hussein unmolested.

However, the reasons the president now gives for fighting this war are not the same as those used a year earlier to justify launching the war. The discrepancy is too important to ignore.

Tuesday's address provided a logical and easy opportunity for Bush to say what needed to be said. That is, something like: "We believed, based on our best reading of the information available, that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that his hatred of the United States made him a clear and present danger to our national security. It now appears that our intelligence was incorrect. We've found no such weapons. Happily, in the course of addressing what we sincerely believed was an imminent threat to America, we have ousted a ruthless dictator and are now helping the long-oppressed people of Iraq rebuild their country, secure their freedom and set out on the road to prosperity."

What Bush could have said is that the reason for this war proved mistaken, but the outcome is beneficial.

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Would such a statement cost the president any public support among those who endorse the war? It's unlikely. It's not as if anyone's still expecting the discovery of large stockpiles of nerve gas and powdered anthrax. Would stating what seems so obvious give his political opponents any better ammunition than they find aplenty in last year's State of the Union address? No. If anything, setting the record straight would diffuse criticism.

Unfortunately, all we got Tuesday was his speechwriter's ridiculously worded reference to a report that "identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." Please!

Acknowledging reality wouldn't change anything in regard to the war and America's obligation to see it through. But setting things straight would strengthen the president's credibility. He'll have other opportunities, no doubt, but none better than the one he sidestepped Tuesday night.

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