'The Word of America'

Most Americans awake from political slumber every four years for the presidential primaries and State of the Union speech. Then, during a long, eye-rubbing campaign, they try to match rhetoric against reality before November's ballot.

To help rouse them, President Bush provided a brisk splash of verbal aftershave in his speech to Congress on Tuesday with this jaw-jutting phrase: "No one can ever doubt the word of America."

The declaration was made after Mr. Bush cited just one result of his action-packed war on terror: Libya's decision to forsake weapons of mass destruction after seeing the US oust Saddam Hussein in April. That war, along with the 2001 Afghan war, also probably nudged Iran, North Korea, and other terror-condoning states to rethink their ways.

More than campaign bravado, however, the declaration is the centerpiece of Bush's plan to build up the nation's resolve - well beyond his time in office - to maintain a credible counterpunch to Al Qaeda and other terrorists. President Clinton failed at that after the attacks of the 1990s, and now Bush doesn't want his Demo- cratic opponents to outflank him on his own trigger-ready tenaciousness.

But to keep one's word on promised actions also requires keeping one's words honest and true. And Bush at some point is likely to have to repair a chink in his credibility if inspectors don't find even a vial of chemical or biological weapons.

For now, the president hedges by citing evidence of Iraqi capability for producing such weapons. Given Mr. Hussein's past gassing of enemies and the speed with which such weapons can be made, Bush is correct in citing that potential threat to the US. But his prewar talk of actual weapons hangs over his administration, the intelligence community, the political campaign, and indeed, "the word of America."

If words are but the shadow of actions, then Bush may need to act to correct this blotch on his war record. It's not enough that the US has liberated Iraqis, exposed Hussein's killing fields, and touched off ricocheting reforms in the Middle East.

If no weapons are found, then any future justification for military action against terror will require the president to restore his credibility, first by an admission of a mistake and then a correction in how intelligence is used.

Democrats should wait for the final weapons report before challenging Bush about this on the stump. And those in Congress who supported the war, such as John Kerry and John Edwards, must be held to account for going along with Bush's justification.

The "word of America" does indeed need to be strong. It can be made stronger if promises and facts correspond.

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