What was the most important message of President Bush's State of the Union address?
It wasn't prosperity, even though the president took pains to emphasize that economic indicators — from dwindling unemployment to the low rate of inflation to steady job growth — suggest that the economy is strong and getting stronger. Nor was it energy security, despite the administration's ambitious plan to reduce gasoline usage by 20 percent over the next decade. It was not even immigration, although the president's new approach balancing better border security with a temporary guest-worker program is sure to be controversial.
Rather, the most significant signal of the Jan. 23 speech had to do with the war on terror and the adversaries that America is fighting.
"Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology," the president told the nation. "Take almost any principle of civilization, and their goal is the opposite." In and of itself, these comments were hardly news; in the five-and-a-half years since September 11, U.S. officialshave consistently reminded the American people about the danger they face from al Qaeda and its ideological fellow travelers.
This time, however, the commander in chief went further. "In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shi'ite extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East," the president said. "Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah — a group second only to al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken."
Mr. Bush's remarks were as momentous as they were little-noticed. They signal a major evolution of administration thinking about the war on terror.
Up until now, America has been fighting the war on terror chiefly on the Sunni side of the religious divide within Islam. The principal targets have been al Qaeda and its affiliates, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
But the vision articulated Jan. 23 by the president is substantially broader. It involves defanging Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist powerhouse currently engaged in a slow-motion coup against the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in Lebanon. It also consists of marginalizing the radical, rejectionist Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group now active in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Most of all, however, a wider war on terror requires that Washington resolutely confront the Islamic Republic of Iran. Already, Iran's nuclear ambitions — and its persistent effortsto acquirea nuclear capability — have begun to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic republic's enduring support forregional radicals such as Hezbollah, meanwhile, is expanding the threat these groups pose to America and its allies. And in Iraq, the Iranian regime has assumed an increasingly destabilizing role, simultaneously providing arms and technology to anti-coalition Shi'ite insurgents and political support to pro-Iranian elements within the country's fragile government.
Doing so will certainly not be easy. But Mr. Bush's comments leave little doubt that, in the eyes of the White House, a successful counterterrorism strategy increasingly revolves around confronting both Sunni and Shi'ite extremism. Washington's allies, and its adversaries, have been put on notice.