SALT LAKE CITY — As I left my office after listening to President Bush's Monday night television address to the nation, I walked a block to our local federal building where anti-Bush demonstrators were waving their protest placards under the benign gaze of local police officers.
"We Want Peace, Not War," said one placard. Nothing to disagree with there. Nobody wants war, but it may be forced upon us by circumstances. "Stop US Terrorism," shrilled another. Hmm. that's a bit far-fetched in a nation that little more than a year ago lost several thousand innocent people at the hands of non-US terrorism. Then a cry even shriller: "We Want a Regime Change in the US." Could this be motivated more by visceral partisan hostility to the Bush administration than humanitarian concern for the welfare of mankind?
The protesters ranged from the rational to the histrionic, but in a traditionally patriotic state like Utah, the congressional delegation will not be dissuaded from supporting Mr. Bush.
However, the protest was not pointless. To call for a "regime change" in Washington, in the shadow of our local federal building, was a moving reaffirmation of the strengths and diversity and freedom of expression in this remarkable democratic society called America. One shudders to think how demonstrators calling for a "regime change" in the capitals of China, or North Korea, or Libya, or Syria let alone Iraq would be treated.
The tragedy, of course, was that none of the protesters had listened to Mr. Bush's speech. They were too busy demonstrating in the streets. That is sad, because what we need now is a sensible and rational dialogue about the threat from Iraq and what needs to be done about it.
The George Bush who spoke Monday night was reasoned and deliberate. Not a gun-slinging cowboy, as some of the Europeans paint him. Not the intemperate hot-head waging a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein as some of his domestic critics say. True, he did refer to Mr. Hussein Monday night as a "murderous tyrant," and again as a "homicidal dictator." But he cited facts to boost his case: "Killing thousands of his own people with chemical weapons, invading a small neighbor [Kuwait], waging a campaign of unrelenting hostility to the US."
What it all boils down to is: Whom should we trust? George Bush or Saddam Hussein? Bush says that Hussein has broken all the commitments he made to the UN after the Gulf War to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and has stockpiles of anthrax, mustard gas, VX, sarin, along with ballistic missiles to deliver them to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. He is perhaps within a year of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, and has the contacts and will supply it to terrorists he supports, who hate America.
Hussein, who has shown himself to be a master of duplicity, denies all this and says there is nary a trace of these horrible poisons and gases hidden in his desert land.
The Bush position is that since the Gulf War, neither inspections, containment, sanctions, nor limited military action in the no-fly zones, has deterred Hussein's secret arms buildup. Haunted by the memory of last year's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush sees Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace "which the US is determined to confront." Americans, he said, to a standing ovation from his Monday night audience, "refuse to live in fear."
Disarmament of Iraq is thus essential, and a "regime change" a requisite to achieve that. He told his Monday audience he hoped "this would not require military action." If it came to that, the US would plan carefully, garner allies, use full force of its military, and win. If Iraq's generals used "cruel and desperate measures" upon Hussein's orders, they would, he warned grimly, be treated as war criminals.
Bush now seems embarked on a persuasive course to gain support of the US Congress and the UN Security Council. The polls suggest that with that support, most Americans will stand by him, even if military action is dictated.
Reasoned debate is acceptable, even desirable, as America teeters on the brink of war with Iraq. But cool fortitude in the White House, and a people united behind their president, will be the signal which determines whether Saddam Hussein elects peace or war.
John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Desert News, is a former editor of the Monitor.