EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. President Bush defiantly repeated his “axis of evil” rhetoric yesterday, warning Afghanistan’s remaining terrorists that they might soon get “a free trip to Guantanamo Bay,” the detention center in Cuba.
Cheered by thousands of ecstatic Air Force personnel in a cavernous hangar, Mr. Bush refused to back down from his blunt declaration, first uttered in last week’s State of the Union address: “Terrorist states and terrorist allies are an axis of evil, seeking weapons of mass destruction,” said the president, who wore a brown bomber jacket emblazoned with an American flag over his heart.
“But I put them on notice: The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons. It is now up to them to change their behavior,” he added. “It is now up to them to join peaceful nations.”
After his speech, Mr. Bush joined the troops for lunch at this massive air force base, encompassing 724 square miles. It marked his seventh presidential visit to Florida, the state that held the key to victory in the 2000 presidential election.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the president will be spending more time on the political hustings now that he is in an election year. Tomorrow, for example, Mr. Bush will attend a fund-raiser for New York Gov. George E. Pataki.
The president will also participate in a “significant number” of fund-raisers for other Republican candidates, Mr. Fleischer said.
“As this election year begins, the president will increasingly be helpful to Republican candidates at the state level, the federal level,” Mr. Fleischer said. “Other members of the Cabinet will do their fair share as well in helping to elect people who will pass the president’s agenda.”
Although Mr. Bush a week ago singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the components of the “axis,” he refrained yesterday from repeating the names of those nations. Still, he was unapologetic about broadening the war against terrorism.
“The Taliban are out of business,” the president said. “And we’re working on our next objective, and that’s to run down al Qaeda and the rest of the terrorists and maybe give them a free trip to Guantanamo Bay.” The crowd enthusiastically cheered this reference to the detention center for captured al Qaeda fighters. Liberals, human rights groups and European editorial writers have complained that the American military is treating these prisoners too harshly.
Mr. Bush, more popular with the armed services than former President Bill Clinton, reminded yesterday’s friendly audience that the first phase of his war on terrorism had proven wrong the naysayers who predicted further instability in Afghanistan.
“A few months ago, some warned that military action would cause an uprising in the streets,” he said. “Well, when we defeated that brutal regime, people did take to the streets, but they came out to celebrate.
“They came out to express their joy,” he added. “They came out to cheer the fact that their oppressors had left and freedom had returned.”
The primary purpose of the president’s stepped-up travel schedule, at least in the short term, is promoting his budget, which he submitted to Congress yesterday.
During his speech here yesterday, Mr. Bush called on Congress to “fully fund my request” for a $48 billion rise in military spending, which he called “the largest increase in a generation.”
The president was scheduled to travel to Pennsylvania today to tout another component of his budget: $11 billion to fight bioterrorism. “He’ll go to Pittsburgh, where there’s a very important research center that’s doing cutting-edge work in bioterrorism,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Bioterrorism, unfortunately, became an issue that took lives with the anthrax attacks. So the president wants to highlight the important work being done to protect people.”
Before tomorrow’s fund-raiser, the president will go to the New York City Police Department in Manhattan to discuss the importance of increasing funding to police, firefighters and other first-line defenders against terrorism.
Before flying here yesterday, Mr. Bush met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasayanov in the White House. Upon boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, he telephoned Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, to congratulate him on the Super Bowl victory.
A reporter asked Mr. Fleischer whether Mr. Bush, who recently fainted after choking on a pretzel while watching football, ate pretzels while watching the Super Bowl.
“I was careful not to ask him that question,” Mr. Fleischer said. “He looked pretty safe and secure when I saw him.”