With the terror threat level at orange and the United States on the verge of war, guests gathered for the American Enterprise Institute dinner in Washington were surprised that both the president and vice president were in the same room. "Isn't the V.P. supposed to be in a secure, undisclosed location?" some whispered.
That the leader of the free world and his constitutionally designated successor were together in public outside the secure perimeter of the White House only served to underscore the gravity of the event. What came next was a dramatic, provocative speech-possibly the most radical and important President Bush has delivered.
Mr. Bush explained that the U.S. mission in the Middle East is not simply to disarm Iraq but to (1) remove the regime of Saddam Hussein and help build a new, free, democratic, and peaceful Iraqi government, (2) remove the regime of Yasser Arafat and help build a new, free, democratic, and peaceful Palestinian government, and (3) create models in Iraq and Palestine that serve as an inspiration to some and a warning to others, that the day of the despot is over.
The president spoke bluntly of a "freedom gap" between the West and totalitarian Arab regimes. He also noted that a growing number of leaders in the region "speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater political participation, economic openness, and free trade." And he observed hopefully that "from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward political reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."
"Success in Iraq could ... begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state," Mr. Bush said, referring to a post-Arafat world and drawing sustained applause. "The passing of Saddam Hussein's regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training, and offers rewards to families of suicide bombers. And other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated. Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders."
The venue in which the president laid out his vision of a post-Saddam, post-Arafat world was unusual. He delivered his 25-minute remarks not to the United Nations, nor a joint session of Congress, nor in an Oval Office speech to the nation. He chose instead to address 2,000 conservative policy and political leaders gathered by one of the country's premier conservative think tanks. No less than 20 members of the Bush administration had served at the American Enterprise Institute, including Vice President Cheney, his wife, Lynne, still an active AEI senior fellow, and Richard Perle, widely considered the architect of the administration's "regime-change" strategy.
Also among those in the audience: Attorney General John Ashcroft, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (now a star of NBC's Law & Order).
But the president moved quickly to preempt the argument of those who will say that bringing democracy to the Arab world is pie-in-the-sky foolishness. "There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values," the president noted. "Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq ... is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom."
Applying compassionate conservatism to a war that now appears imminent, the president promised the United States would provide food and medical assistance to Iraqis who have long suffered under Saddam's regime and could soon find themselves in the crossfire of a hot war with the West. He also promised that the U.S. legacy in Iraq would be liberation, not occupation.
"Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more," the president made clear. "America has made and kept this kind of commitment before-in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom. In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home."