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A shifting focus: from 9/11 reflection to action on Iraq

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

WASHINGTON - In the new age, when the public is impatient with politics, presidential speeches seldom mark important national turning points. But President Bush's evocative remarks last night carried more than the symbolism implied by the flame of freedom at the top of the Statue of Liberty. They also symbolized an important pivot in the nation's mood - and in its direction.

All day, the president's comments - and the nation's attention - were focused on the past. His address capped a somber retrospective of a day, only a year ago, that began with four hijacked airliners and ended with a nation mourning its dead, celebrating its heroes, and contemplating its response.

But once the president's remarks were concluded, he and the nation began focusing on the future. Bush's backlit speech to the nation was the prelude to the speech to the UN General Assembly he will make today, laying out his rationale for seeking to remove Saddam Hussein from power and beginning the lengthy process of preparing his fellow world leaders and his fellow countrymen for conflict in Iraq.

From prayer and contemplation to geopolitics and mobilization, from the gentle anthems of peace to the drums of war, the velocity of change is astonishing - a metaphor for the pace of life in an era that Bush himself once thought would be dominated by issues, such as the level of American taxation and the rules of international trade, that could be examined at leisure and debated at length. But there was no sense of leisure yesterday, either in Bush's itinerary or in the words he used to indicate that the United States was willing to act to remove a dictator from power and his weapons of mass destruction from an incendiary part of the world.

The president's speech didn't specifically mention Iraq or Hussein, but the target of his vow that the United States would not allow any ''tyrant to threaten civilization with weapons of mass murder'' was unmistakable.

Last night also marked a turning point from a war against an untraditional foe that operated across national borders and didn't possess any of the infrastructure and institutions of a traditional state. The war against Al Qaeda isn't finished, of course; administration officials acknowledge that many terrorist operatives, and even terrorist cells, haven't been destroyed but merely have been dispersed. The struggle against Al Qaeda will continue - the president said last night that the Unites States was involved in ''a great struggle that tests our strength and, even more, our resolve'' - but now the emphasis, both of diplomacy and of military deployment, is turning to Iraq.

Iraq presents a different sort of military target altogether from Al Qaeda. Its nerve center is in a traditional capital, Baghdad, itself an ancient city of culture and political intrigue. It possesses a conventional army deployed in conventional ways. It possesses traditional command-and-control centers and defensive arms that the United States has encountered in other military engagements. Its government, unlike an outlaw group of militant terrorists, has a traditional sense of national sovereignty, is represented in the United Nations, and is involved in conventional geopolitical issues. Its leaders are responsible for the full panoply of human needs, from food and shelter to highways and schools.

Americans were reminded yesterday of the many difficult transitions they have endured in what the president called the past ''year of sorrow, of empty places.''

They have gone from an easy sense of well-being to a wary sense of alert, coming to terms, as Bush said last evening, ''with the difficult knowledge that our nation has determined enemies, and that we are not invulnerable to their attacks.'' They have watched their financial security, their national security, and their personal security eroded by forces they had barely contemplated a year ago. They have discovered the limits of a powerful nation's ability to protect itself, even as they have seen limits placed on the personal liberties that set them apart from other nations and, ultimately, may have made them a target for terror.

They have watched, too, their president be transformed from a peacetime leader, with little sense of curiosity, into a wartime leader who has become immersed in the details of security threats and force deployment.

And so last night, when Bush spoke on an evening very different from the same one a year ago, they watched a president who had reluctantly turned his attention to foreign affairs speak of ''the cause of human dignity'' and begin the task of attempting to turn their attention to a military engagement in Iraq.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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