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 Thursday, 30 January, 2003, 11:23 GMT
State of the Union: You asked a BBC correspondent

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    President George W Bush has delivered his annual State of the Union address to the American Congress.

    He has promised to give the UN Security Council new evidence against Iraq next week - and threatened to use force, if necessary, to disarm Baghdad.

    While the US military build-up in the Gulf continues, a frantic round of diplomacy is under way to try to convince the Security Council to back a second resolution authorising force after the report of chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

    The president's personal approval ratings have "plummeted" in the past two months over the issue of Iraq. And recent US polls reveal that Americans are disenchanted with economic policies.

    The BBC's Washington Correspondent Matt Frei answered your questions in a LIVE interactive forum.


    Hello and welcome to this BBC interactive forum, I'm David Eades. The United States President, George W. Bush, delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday. Mr Bush said Iraq was not disarming and had shown, what he called, "utter contempt" for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world.

    He said Secretary of State Colin Powell would ask the United Nations to consider Iraq's defiance on the 5th February when he'd present information and intelligence about illegal weapons programmes, attempts to hide them from UN inspectors and links to terrorist groups. Mr Bush indicated the United States was prepared to act without UN backing to disarm Iraq.

    Well joining us to take your many, many questions is the BBC's Washington correspondent Matt Frei, Matt welcome.

    Matt Frei:
    Thank you very much David, welcome to you.

    Let's get straight on with the questions then. The first one I have for you Matt is from Molly Phillips, Southampton, in England: As the UK and the US appear to be losing the popular support for an attack on Saddam, do you think this sudden announcement of a link with al-Qaeda operatives is some sort of last ditch attempt to gain support?

    Matt Frei:
    It's a very good question. It is and it isn't. It's not really a last ditch attempt because we've seen members of the administration try to make that link in the past. A few months ago Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, suddenly pulls an al-Qaeda link with Saddam Hussein like a rabbit out of a hat, although he didn't go into any details. Similar allusions have been made by the Secretary of State Colin Powell and then again by the President, not just yesterday but also in previous speeches.

    The importance of the link with al-Qaeda is that in the argument against Saddam Hussein, put forward by this administration, although there's been quite a lot of proof about the nature - the evil nature if you like, to borrow the President's term - of Saddam Hussein's regime, there has never been a sufficiently strong argument, judging by the opinion polls and by the various reactions from critics around the world and at home, to say why we have to go to war against Saddam Hussein now, why you have to take up all the risks of this so-called pre-emptive action.

    So in order to strengthen that argument - the war now argument or force now argument - this link with al-Qaeda has been mobilised on several occasions- but it has never been very convincing because it has not been backed up with any pictures or any details.

    The administration, of course, would say that it does not want to compromise its intelligence sources. But I'm afraid when you try to bring a message across as delicate and as important as this one you're going to have to produce more than just allegations and they simply haven't done that and he certainly didn't do it last night.

    In the light of that link again toward al-Qaeda this next question may have a changing answer I suppose. Sue Walden in the UK wants to know: What's the percentage of Americans in favour of a war with Iraq?

    Matt Frei:
    Again it's a very relevant question because that percentage has slightly changed overnight in reaction to the President's speech.

    Now the correlation between those Americans who think that America should go to war against Saddam Hussein on its own, with Britain and one or two other allies, and those who think that it should do so with the UN has been roughly the same. So about one-third of Americans think that America should do this on its own and about two-thirds, roughly speaking, think that it should do so with the United Nations and the rest think that it shouldn't do so at all if it doesn't get UN support.

    Now these are slightly different figures to the figures that we've seen in Britain and in Europe where the number of people who say America and Britain should do this on its own is much lower, especially in Britain. But the interesting thing is that those figures, although they've slightly upped overnight in response to the President's speech, he hasn't really clinched the support of the waverers, of the sceptics, he hasn't managed to do that with his speech. Maybe Colin Powell will be able to do it next week, on February 5th when he addresses the UN Security Council with what he - what the administration describes as "the most damning evidence so far".

    But the problem in a way, is that they've been protesting so much that people actually seem to believe them less and less every time they protest and it's really this missing link here is the proof.

    Now no one says that Saddam Hussein is doing a good job out there, everyone here - the majority of Americans certainly, according to the opinion polls - would like to see him got rid of in one form or another. But the question that they come up against again and again is should we go to war against him right now or is it better to keep him contained, keep the inspectors in there for the foreseeable future?

    Let's take a question now from someone from our Online audience abroad. This one's from Ohio in the United States, Catherine Gadonsky. She wants to know: Is President Bush and his administration too focused, do you think, on the removal of Saddam Hussein himself and not on what would come after him?

    Matt Frei:
    I think the answer is no actually. There are very detailed plans for how Iraq would be administered, how it would be transformed, how much money would be put into it - into its oil industry of course but also into the infrastructure, into education etc. - very detailed plans indeed for a post-liberation Iraq.

    Now you might say that this is slightly jumping ahead because we haven't even - according to the administration - made the decision yet whether to go to war or not, although you might question that after last night's speech, and there's still quite a few weeks, if not months, to go before such a final decision has to be made or before the first shots are fired. We also then don't know how long the war's actually going to last and a lot of analysts seems to think it'll be over quite quickly but you just don't know - this is a leap into the dark.

    But it is very encouraging, I think, that the administration has made detailed plans for the reconstruction of Iraq because it also knows that this is not just about the disarmament of a rogue state, as they call it, it is not just about the removal of Saddam Hussein, this is the first step in a very important plan, as they would claim, to rebuild the Middle East, to transform the Middle East a number of countries there, along American lines.

    Now this may or may not work but at least they've thought about it very carefully and there are very detailed plans in place. Now again whether they succeed or not is another matter but the money's there and the commitment's there.

    It was interesting, wasn't it, in his State of the Union address he referred to about a dozen countries which might be harbouring terrorists. Another question now from the United States, from San Francisco from Dap and maybe it explains the poor public support that the President has at the moment. But he wants to know: Do you think that Bush has considered that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq may trigger more 9/11 type attacks on USA soil?

    Matt Frei:
    Absolutely and they've been talking about this over and over again and the administration's very honest about this - it doesn't want to have its fingers burned.

    One of the reactions to 9/11 was that the country was so ill-prepared for 9/11 it couldn't conceive of such an event happening - not just the country but also the intelligence services. And of course there were gross mistakes made, so they've slightly over-compensated for that in the last year and a half by preparing people too much for the eventuality of terrorist attacks.

    Now they've got the balance about right. And of course there may well be things and they haven't tried to hide this and they've been perfectly honest because they are expecting things to happen in this country if there is a war. This is also something, of course, that worries not just the American people, the people in Britain and elsewhere in the world that this policy might trigger more terrorist attacks and might actually therefore be detrimental.

    But if I can just say one quick thing: you mentioned earlier his poor ratings, let's not forget that this President is still very popular and the majority of Americans still like what he's doing, they like his foreign policy, a smaller number like what he's doing about the economy But for a President to have these sort of opinion poll ratings and we're talking about 60% approval ratings, give or take a few percentage points here or there, in the second or the third year of his administration is pretty good.

    You mentioned the economy there Matt, I've got a question from someone who clearly isn't that fond of George Bush, I think, in terms of his economic policies. Amanda Schwarzkopf from Seattle in the USA, a slightly leading question here: When will George Bush realise that war will not fix the economy?

    Matt Frei:
    I don't think he's ever claimed that war is going to fix the economy, if anything I think - the accusation has been that he's trying to take on too much. If you look at the State of the Union address yesterday. if you just tot up all the numbers, all the figures, all the billions that he's going to spend on various programmes - many of them very positive like the Aids programme in Africa at the moment, I think there'll be a question about that later on - this comes to an awful lot of money. He's promised more than a trillion dollars right there and then and they're already running a huge deficit at the moment. If you then take into account the unknown cost of the war, and here estimates vary quite considerably but it's a huge chunk, especially if you're going to follow up on that post-liberation "commitment", we're talking about an awful lot of money while at the same time trying to cut taxes.

    Now Democrats and a lot of economists, even in Mr Bush's own inner circle, some of whom, of course, have now left, would say that this is a circle you cannot square, this is the big problem. What this President, in a sense, has taken on and what we saw last night in the State of the Union address, is someone who's trying to be a reluctant warrior, regarding his foreign policy, while at the same time trying to fix an economy that is no longer stuck in a deep recession but that doesn't seem to be creating jobs, where all confidence seems to have gone out of the stock market. Now that is a very difficult juggling act and of course always not just in the back of his mind but in the front of his mind is the spectre of his father that haunts him - that's what keeps him up night. President Bush senior won the war against Iraq, although he didn't get rid of Saddam Hussein but he achieved everything he set out to achieve in foreign policy, he helped to bring down the Berlin Wall and what happens next he loses the election because he took his eye off the economic ball.

    That is not what this President wants to happen to him which was why yesterday's speech was very heavily weighted in the first two-thirds not just economic policy but also healthcare, education and a number of domestic issues on which the American public is actually more critical than they are on his foreign policy.

    I suppose the question then Matt is, and it's one which Melissa McLain is asking, she's from Charleston, is what effect that speech had - have there been any reports that the President's approval rating has gone up as a result of that address?

    Matt Frei:
    Well according to one opinion poll it jumped by, I think, five or six per cent, so it's not a huge bounce and I don't think they expected that, to be honest. It's interesting also if you compare this speech to the other key speeches that he's given and it's sort of ironic really that the President who once himself admitted that he didn't like speaking in public has made some really rather good speeches, since he's been in office, especially since 9/11.

    In a way his speeches have been the crowning moments of his career, extraordinary really when you consider that he's not - he doesn't see himself as a great speaker, he's not a rhetorician like Bill Clinton was. But the speech he gave on the 20th September 2001, in other words 12 days after 9/11, was in many ways a much more powerful speech because he hadn't said an awful lot until then.

    In fact many of his off-the-cuff remarks and doorstep speeches are rather fumbled and not terribly convincing and that speech had the effect of rallying the nation and indeed the world, actually. Again it was an address to both houses in Congress, it was very powerful indeed. It's where he set out that thought - you're either with us or you're with the terrorists. So that was a defining moment.

    Then of course the speech he gave at the United Nations on the 12th September just after the one year anniversary of 9/11, again a very powerful speech and very clever because he put the onus of dealing with Saddam Hussein on the UN. He said, if you want to prove that you are a body that still has any legitimacy and can still fix things in this world then you have to sort this out. Again, a very clever idea.

    This time round there wasn't this central clever idea because perhaps they've run out of ideas regarding Saddam Hussein. Tjere wasn't that new bit of proof that might suddenly swing people round - what they call here the Adlai Stevenson moment. That's when in 1962 I believe Adlai Stevenson went before the UN and showed pictures of Soviet missile pods on Cuba. That was the moment in which the world and the nation rallied behind President Kennedy to deal with the Cuban missile crisis. That moment - that magic moment has so far been lacking. Perhaps the Secretary of State Colin Powell will provide it next week at the United Nations, perhaps he won't.

    Well I'm sure the whole world Matt will be waiting to see if he does or if he doesn't. Whatever happens clearly there are going to be far more questions than answers. I'm afraid for now we haven't got time for anymore questions, so Matt in Washington thanks very much indeed for all your insight. Thank you to all of you for your many e-mails and your messages online. I'm David Eades, goodbye.

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