Today's Papers

Bush Push

Everybody leads with the State of the Union address in which Bush essentially said war is inevitable. The president explained that Saddam was given, and has now missed, his “final chance” to drop his weapons. Said Bush, “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”

The president announced that Secretary of State Powell will head to the United Nations on Feb. 5 to present the case against Iraq, including, says the Wall Street Journal up high, evidence from satellite photos allegedly showing Iraqi workers hiding rockets and other goodies from inspectors. Bush also repeated the now back-in-vogue allegations that Saddam has links to al-Qaida. The Washington Post, which off-leads Powell’s pending U.N. visit, suggests that the administration doesn’t expect to get explicit authorization from the Security Council. Instead, it might aim for some kind of softer formulation, perhaps setting another deadline for Iraqi compliance that also states that countries are free to go their own way if Iraq balks. The papers also say that Russia, in what could be a sign of a wider shift, is beginning to come around. “We intend to work with other Security Council members, including the United States, to work out other decisions—I won’t say what kind, but tougher than the existing decisions,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In another good sign for the White House, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, who has long criticized the White House for not showing compelling evidence on Iraq, said yesterday (in the Post) that he’s seen stuff recently from the administration “that can change people’s minds. It’s enough circumstantial evidence that if there were a jury trial I could convict you.”

The Los Angeles Times plays up high Sen. Edward Kennedy’s announcement that he’ll propose a resolution requiring the president to come back to Congress and prove that Saddam poses an “imminent threat.”

The SOTU wasn’t all about Iraq. The president also unveiled a $400 billion Medicare reform plan to provide prescription drugs to seniors. Bush didn’t go into detail, but judging from earlier coverage of the proposal, seniors would get covered so long as they leave fee-for-service Medicare and sign up with an HMO. And in the biggest surprise of the speech, Bush proposed spending $15 billion, “including nearly 10 billion dollars in new money,” to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. Bush said the goal is to “prevent 7 million new AIDS infections and treat at least two million people.” (Question: Will the administration’s plan to preventAIDS cases include encouraging the use of condoms?) Bush also proposed spending $1.2 billion to develop hydrogen-powered cars.

(Slate’s William Saletan notices one thing missing from the State of the Union: the actual state of the union.)  

The LAT (national edition) reefers word from an Iraqi official that his country is “ready to cooperate further” with inspectors. The paper mentions that the official offered “no new initiatives” and insisted that Iraq doesn’t have any banned weapons. In other words, he was all talk. So why play up the story?

USAT fronts the contention from unnamed “U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials” that Iraqis are somehow learning about U.N. inspectors’ plans. The officials told USAT that they’ve seen evidence that Iraq is cleaning up sites slated for inspection well before inspectors arrive. The paper quotes a U.N. official acknowledging the early cleanups but also saying they’re not a sign that Saddam has infiltrated the U.N. team. (The paper doesn’t unduly exert itself and try to explain the discrepancy.)

The New York Times off-leads yesterday’s battle in Afghanistan between coalition forces and rebels (that is, troops under the command of an unfriendly warlord). The battle, as TP said yesterday, appears to be over and a few hundred U.S. troops are now searching for stragglers.

The NYT and WP front news that, as expected, Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party conked their main opposition, Amram Mitzna’s Labor Party. Likud won 37 seats, nearly double the number it had before but still well short of a majority (the parliament has 120 seats total). Mitzna, whose Labor Party fell from 25 to 19 seats, has vowed that Labor won’t join any coalition, meaning that Sharon will probably have to partner with far-right and religious parties.

The other big winner in the elections was the anti-religious Shinui Party, which now has nearly as many seats as Labor does. Despite all the change, voters weren’t all that excited about the election: turnout was 68.5 percent, the lowest for a general election in Israel’s history.

Back to the speech … In a few places, the president played Pinocchio (or was at least misleading), and the papers mostly give him a pass. The NYT, for instance, notes that the president “promised his American audience tax relief for ordinary families and for investors in the stock market.” Setting aside the use of the loaded term “tax relief,” the sentence was a concise summary of Bush’s assertion that his tax cuts will save 92 million Americans “an average of almost $1,000.” Except that that assertion is deceptive, as NYT’s Paul Krugman and others have pointed out. (Americans whose income is near the national mean would probably save a few hundred bucks.)

Something more significant that the papers should have flagged: During the speech, Bush contended that Iraq is still trying to develop nukes. He said Saddam has tried to buy uranium from a source in Africa and also that Iraq has imported specialized aluminum tubes for nuclear development. Chief U.N. nuke inspector Mohamed ElBaradei has said he hasn’t seen any evidence supporting the first allegation and has explained that the second one probably  isn’t true. (A Post piece not connected to the president’s speech reiterates that point.) Idea: Why don’t the papers do a regular feature looking at the accuracy of assertions in major speeches—just like some do with campaign ads?