- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Bush yesterday vehemently defended his decision to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, saying the U.S.-led war was “an act of justice” that Democrats on Capitol Hill lacked the moral strength and conviction to accomplish.

Heeding demands by conservatives Republicans to strike back at Democratic critics and make a forceful defense of the war, the president said lawmakers who opposed his move to enforce 17 U.N. resolutions would rather emasculate the United States for the sake of international unanimity than protect Americans from a “gathering threat.”

“If some politicians in Washington had their way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power,” said Mr. Bush, addressing hundreds of military personnel gathered on a pier overlooking the Charleston Channel. “All of the Security Council resolutions and condemnations would still be issued and still be ignored, scraps of paper amounting to nothing.”

Mr. Bush acknowledged that inspectors in Iraq have not found the weapons of mass destruction “that we thought were there.”

Pledging to “compare what the intelligence indicated before the war with what we have learned afterwards,” Mr. Bush is expected today to announce the creation of a nine-member presidential commission to investigate U.S. prewar intelligence, which White House sources said will include Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Bush, slipping in the polls and under daily assault by Democrats who accuse him of exaggerated international intelligence, yesterday made his most-forceful case in weeks that Saddam was a threat with an “intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction.”

“We had a choice: either take the word of a madman or take action to defend America,” he said. “Knowing what I knew then, and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.”

The president said Saddam repeatedly had flouted the world’s will, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, funded terrorists and suicide bombers, invaded and threatened his neighbors, and destabilized the entire Middle East.

“For years, Saddam Hussein did all these things. But he won’t be doing any of them this year. Instead, he’s sitting in a prison cell. And he will be sitting in a courtroom to answer for his crime,” he said, barely audible over the ovation.

Mr. Bush said he had no regrets about his decision to disarm Saddam, despite opposition from countries such as France and Germany.

“When you’re the commander in chief, you have to be willing to make the tough calls and to see your decisions through. America is safer when our commitments are clear, our word is good, and our will is strong. And that is the only way I know how to lead,” he said to another roar from the approving crowd.

Mr. Bush said the U.S. action — in spite of U.N. inertia and opposition abroad — has delivered a powerful message to America’s foes, which, in turn, has led to concrete changes in the world order.

“Because of American leadership, the world is changing for the better. Other dictators have seen and noted our resolve. Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in Libya got the message and is now voluntarily disclosing and eliminating his weapons of mass destruction programs,” he said, prompting laughter from some of the hundreds of Navy seamen and Coast Guard cadets in the audience.

Although he didn’t mention it in yesterday’s speech, Mr. Bush also privately credits the war with prompting similar moves by another U.S. adversary, Iran.

The president’s speech yesterday, coming as a USA Today poll puts his approval rating at 49 percent — his all-time low — was the first in weeks to stray from his standard, all-purpose address that he has used at various policy events and campaign fund-raisers.

Senior Republicans, as well as prominent conservative journalists and intellectuals, had decried his refusal to engage Democrats on the war. Top Republican lawmakers last week privately implored Mr. Bush to defend himself, with one saying: “He’s dying a death of a thousand cuts.”

But until yesterday, White House officials would say only that they “respectfully disagree” with critics, who are seeking to defuse an election issue that they fear Mr. Bush owns: national security.

With CIA Director George J. Tenet also offering a strong defense yesterday of his agency’s intelligence and a White House announcement that Mr. Bush would spend an hour Sunday being grilled by “Meet the Press” anchor Tim Russert, the Bush administration appears to have decided that it is time to shift into an attack mode.

Coincidentally, Mr. Bush delivered his speech yesterday within view of Fort Sumter, site of the first shot fired in the Civil War.

Speaking with more energy and enthusiasm than in other recent events, the president ticked off a host of facts about Saddam and the threat he posed to America and its allies.

“We know Saddam Hussein had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the scientists and technology in place to make those weapons. We know he had the necessary infrastructure to produce weapons of mass destruction because we found the labs and dual-use facilities that could be used to produce chemical and biological weapons.

“We know he was developing the delivery systems, ballistic missiles that the United Nations had prohibited. We know Saddam Hussein had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction, because he hid all those activities from the world until the last day of his regime,” Mr. Bush said as dolphins bobbed offshore.

Invoking the memory of September 11, the president said the United States no longer can allow belligerent leaders to threaten Americans with impunity.

“We cannot wait to confront the threats of the world, the threats of terror networks and terror states, until those threats arrive in our own cities. I made a pledge to this country; I will not stand by and hope for the best while dangers gather. … I will protect and defend this country by taking the fight to the enemy,” he said to loud applause.

James G. Lakely contributed to this report in Washington.

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