In the next few days, George W. Bush will make critical decisions likely to determine the fate of his presidency. Whether or not he goes to war with Iraq, and whether he is successful in breaking the tyrannical grip of Saddam Hussein, will decide whether the American people praise him or reject him, and what his place in history will be.
The questions are large, the stakes huge. But what is no longer in question is the transformation of Mr. Bush from an untried new president, something of a naif in international affairs, to a forceful leader with a sense of purpose, direction, and mission.
The defining moment in this coming of age was Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's life changed when Osama bin Laden sent his misguided minions on a surprise suicide attack with hijacked airliners against New York and Washington. As Bush said in his press conference last week, he will not take the chance of that happening again. If bin Laden thought he might exploit weakness in the American people, and lack of resolve by their president, it was an incredible miscalculation. In his campaign for the presidency, Bush may have been out-policy-wonked by his opponent. He may have been dismissed abroad, with all the cultural arrogance of Old Europe, as a cowboy-booted Texas oilman. He may have been elected with a slender margin by a handful of Florida paper ballots.
But challenge produces leaders: Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II, Harry S Truman in the Korean War, Ronald Reagan in the cold war, the first George Bush in the Gulf War.
The unconventional war terrorists declared on the US - on the battlefield of the fallen World Trade Center and the Pentagon - was the fire that tempered the younger Bush. From a president who once sounded a little isolationist, skeptical of the UN, leery of nation-building, he has become a president prepared to fling an army and an armada across the world to liberate a nation held in thrall, with a vision of triggering a wave of democratization across the Arab Islamic world.
In his press conference, he said he prayed for wisdom and strength. Though some may question the wisdom of what he seeks to do, there can be little doubting his strength.
As he weighed his momentous decisions in these "final stages of diplomacy," there was no swagger or bellicose words from this president. He was sober, serious, statesmanlike. He hoped for peace - that Hussein might yet become a "gentle soul." But Hussein had deceived the world for 12 years, he was a threat to America, and Bush was "not going to wait until Saddam attacks." Yes, he'd weighed the cost of war, but the price of inaction was greater. He'd give the UN Security Council the opportunity to "stand up and show their cards." Countries such as France, Germany, and Turkey, who'd been less supportive than he hoped, were still "friends." But he was ready, as a last resort, to go to war. Where US security was concerned "we don't need anybody's permission."
The president's journey has been intriguing. He is acutely conscious of America's enormous military capacity, and willing to bring it to bear on those he believes foment and support terrorism. Insofar as Iraq is concerned, "containment is a thing of the past." Yet his use of force isn't indiscriminate. In North Korea he's trying diplomacy and containment.
Bush has developed the concept of a preemptive strike that sounds like a daring departure from containment - yet it's not so original. John Stacks, in his new book on New York Timesman Scotty Reston, cites President Kennedy telling Reston that nuclear war against Soviet adventurism was not "unthinkable."
Bush has been cautious about nation-building. Yet for Iraq he has developed a vision of freedom that could catch fire in the Middle East, even extending to a Palestinian state. Liberty, he says, is "not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity." Thus has Bush, tempered and seasoned by the burdens and challenges of office, arrived at his fateful moment of decision.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.