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Bush Says Iraq Has Missed ‘Final Chance’ on Inspections

By Dana Milbank and Mike Allen
THE WASHINGTON POST -- washington

President Bush took the nation to the edge of war with Iraq Tuesday night, declaring in his annual State of the Union message that Saddam Hussein had missed his “final chance” by showing contempt for U.N. weapons inspections.

The president, addressing a joint session of Congress and a nationwide television audience of tens of millions, stopped short of committing to war. But he provided a long list of examples of the Iraqi president’s efforts to thwart the inspections and left no doubt that he was ready to part ways with allies who favor extended inspections in Iraq, serving notice that “America’s purpose is more than to follow a process.”

“The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others,” the president said. “Whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people.”

Bush delivered the 50-minute address at a time when his leadership, both domestic and foreign, is less popular than at any point since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Facing growing opposition to his Iraq policy, record doubts about his economic stewardship and lukewarm support for his domestic policies, Bush used Tuesday night’s speech -- as he has other high-visibility addresses in his presidency -- to refocus the nation’s attention and priorities.

Specifically, he proposed spending $400 billion over 10 years to give the elderly a prescription drug benefit if they join a Medicare HMO, $10 billion in new funds over five years to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, and $6 billion to develop new vaccines and treatments for bioterror agents. Bush also said the nation is employing an “early warning network” of bio-terrorism sensors. Among various smaller initiatives, Bush proposed $600 million to expand drug treatment programs, $450 million for mentoring programs and $1.2 billion to develop hydrogen-powered automobiles.

“This country has many challenges,” Bush recognized Tuesday night, vowing, “We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, and other generations. We will confront them with focus, and clarity, and courage.”

Bush devoted nearly half of his address to domestic issues, but he dedicated only glancing reference to some of his biggest proposals. His Medicare proposal got just 130 of the speech’s 5,400 words, and his dividend tax cut, the centerpiece of his economic proposal, was dealt with in a few sentences. Bush also called for limits on malpractice awards, enactment of his long-stalled energy plan (though he did not specifically mention drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and more of his “compassion” agenda, including what aides say will be a voucher program to fund social-service organizations that proselytize.

Bush also announced he will form a Terrorist Threat Integration Center to combine domestic and foreign intelligence from throughout the government. The center, to be run by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, does not require congressional approval, Bush aides said.

In both foreign and domestic affairs, Bush proposed little in the way of sweeping new policies.