Wednesday, January 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush in war and peace

IT MAY have been well into the last minutes of the State of the Union address — when President George W. Bush arrived at his destination and began talking of Iraq, terrorism and threats to the peace of the world — that he hit his stride.

The speech rose slowly, traveling through domestic policies and, in some cases such as Bush's contention that his administration has been kind to forests and the environment, making reasonable people scratch their heads.

But at its best, this speech touched on America's call to all people living under tyrants and despots. When Bush said America is prepared to offer liberty to strangers, he recalled the best of what this country has done around the world.

That theme was introduced earlier with a remarkable, $15 billion pledge to send massive relief to Africa and the Caribbean to relieve the suffering of AIDS. A five-year plan, $10 billion in new money with coordination and purpose behind it, can make a difference in the way America has often made the difference to the starving, the ill, the fleeing and the oppressed.

At home, Bush has a tougher sell. His economic-stimulation plan is correct in broad strokes, but limping badly, along with the economy.

The president called for several new programs, which is usual in State of the Union speeches, but he also called for Congress to "show some spending discipline" and limit the growth of controllable spending to 4 percent. That is smart. Spending must be controlled if he is to have any hope of enacting his program of tax cuts, particularly his bold plan to end the double taxation of dividends.

That plan has been attacked on the grounds of fairness, and Bush defended it with a fairness argument. It is eminently fair, he said, to tax company profits once. But if that profit was then paid out, it was unfair to tax it again. Bush repeated his support of individual accounts within Social Security, stressing that American workers will contribute money into accounts "they will own." This is not the year for that, and the president knows it.

The idea of a $1.2 billion government program for research on clean-air cars is a masterstroke of political engineering. It challenges the argument that Bush is all about oil, and it offers that slice of American ingenuity a goal.

Bush did not make the final case for an attack on Iraq. He may yet make that case, or Secretary of State Colin Powell may begin to make it at the U.N. next week. But despite the demonizing of Saddam Hussein's regime and the litany of evils that all the world acknowledges, the question remains: Where is the threat that gives urgency to the military mission?

The longer threat to contain Saddam is real, but the immediacy to act in the next few months is an argument not yet fully made.


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