Bush treads on thin ice as 2003 heats up

What can we expect of 2003?

For George W. Bush Jr., it will be the most precarious year of his presidency.

On the home front he is challenged by a listless economy. It is a situation eerily reminiscent of the challenge that confronted his father as president. George H. W. Bush came triumphantly off the Gulf War, but failed to win a second presidential term in the face of relentless "It's the economy, stupid" criticism from his Democratic opposition.

Bush Jr. seeks to avoid a repetition of that stumble by introducing a program to encourage new jobs, stimulate the economy, and convince public opinion that the tax cuts he proposes are for the universal good. It will be a tough battle with a sometimes skeptical public and a delicately balanced Congress.

President Bush's popularity remains high after a brilliantly successful military campaign in Afghanistan, but a choppy economy is the albatross he must shed if he is to win reelection in 2004.

On the international front, President Bush is facing down two bad actors - Iraq and North Korea - which are no friends of the US and are mentors of terrorists. Each has had clandestine programs for the production of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. Both claimed to have shut them down. North Korea has admitted it lied about that and is brazenly cranking up its nuclear program again. Iraq has almost certainly lied about it, but won't admit it.

Meanwhile Al Qaeda, although dispersed, remains a shadowy, threatening force, and along with other terrorist groups, a potential recipient of the deadly weaponry that could emerge from Iraq and North Korea.

Against Iraq, President Bush threatens war. With North Korea, he is tiptoeing around diplomacy. Both countries are dangerous, but Iraq is in many ways more significant. It has large reserves of the oil on which many Western countries are dependent. North Korea does not.

Of even greater long-term significance, Iraq is a critical player in the Arab region. A shift in Baghdad could tip the direction of the Muslim world. A regime change in Iraq, and even an initially chaos-beset move to democracy there could have positive repercussions in neighboring Iran, where a new generation is challenging Islamist extremists. It would have implications for reformist forces in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt.

Imagine how the landscape in the forsaken and backward Arab Middle East, the center of the world's problems, could begin to change after the introduction of democracy in Iraq, and a US-engineered settlement between Palestinians and Israelis. Add to this, the potential stimulus for democracy from huge Islamic, but non-Arab, countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey.

A fanciful vision? Yes, but conceivable, and surely a more hopeful one to hold onto than letting the Arab world wallow in backwardness, poverty, and frustration. For President Bush, the best outcome in Iraq would be not war, but a departure under pressure of Saddam Hussein. That is possible, but seems unlikely.

A real problem for Mr. Bush would be an assault upon Iraq that became bogged down, absorbing large numbers of American combat troops for an extended period.

A catastrophe would be a holocaust-like use by a desperate Saddam Hussein of his hidden evil weapons as the assault by American, British, and any other coalition forces began. If it comes to war, the president is hoping for a swift, effective campaign patterned after that which vanquished the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The political stakes in all this for the president are high. But the challenges should not seem too dispiriting for America.

Investors in the stock market may be jittery, but the underpinnings of the economy are sound. It has survived the collapse of the dotcom bubble, a recession, the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, and a longer-than-anticipated recovery from recession, in relatively robust fashion.

Militarily, the US is more formidable than anyone can remember. It has the capacity to project substantial force into any quarter of the globe. It has developed dramatic new weaponry launched from air and sea which lessens the risk to large formations of its foot soldiers.

The public has been made dramatically aware of the homeland threat from terrorism, and the creaking bureaucracy of government is being slowly reshaped to counter it.

There will likely be new attacks on Americans and America by Al Qaeda and others, and Osama bin Laden presumably - and distressingly - remains at large.

But the forces of darkness that have failed to break the American spirit, or cripple the American economy, are not in the ascendancy.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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