Bush: We're on "Full Alert"

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PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP

Continuing to fight: Bush

In a rare primetime press conference, held on the somber one month anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, an assured and confident President George W. Bush warned of a long unconventional war against terrorism; said the government was on "full alert" even as the FBI warned ominously of new threats against the U.S. and its citizens; and invited the UN to help in restoring Afghanistan after the fall.

At one point, the president even seemed to give the Taliban a second chance, saying that if the radical leaders of Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden, the U.S. air strikes will be halted. "If you cough him up and his people today," the president said, "then we'll reconsider what we are doing to your country."

Rising to the occasion

[an error occurred while processing this directive]In the grand and elegant setting of the White House East Room, President Bush was by turns stern, folksy, animated, and subdued — but he never strayed from focusing on the war against terrorism that has transformed himself and his administration. Mr. Bush seemed supremely confident that even though the task would be long and arduous, the U.S. would emerge victorious.

In fact, many have noted, as does the New York Times editorial page this morning, that Mr. Bush seems to have grown as a leader in the last four weeks. Reflecting the feeling — and wishes — of many Americans, the Times says that the George W. Bush who addressed the nation last night "appeared to be a different man from the one who was just barely elected president last year, or even the man who led the country a month ago."

President Bush stayed on message throughout his conversation with the national press, but the message itself was unavoidably mixed. Americans should return to normalcy and go about their business; Americans should be vigilant and expect more attacks in the near future. Osama bin Laden is the "Evil One" who must be eradicated; this campaign is about a lot more than Osama bin Laden. The Taliban had their chance to do the right thing and must now suffer the consequences; if the Taliban "cough up" bin Laden and his henchmen the U.S. will reconsider its current campaign. Al Qaeda is on the run. And so on.

Mixed messages?

The message is not confused; it's the war that is confusing because the enemy is so unlike any America has ever faced. The President's comment that he was unsure whether bin Laden was alive or dead is not surprising, since the U.S. has no idea where he is. Similarly, the President advised Americans to be aware of an imminent threat that was at once specific and vague — an attack that might come in the next few days, but no one had any idea where and how. That, of course, makes it more difficult to persuade Americans that they can safely go about their business. But better to err on the side of caution, even if that slows a return to normalcy. And he took great care to warn Americans against turning their anxiety into hostility towards Americans of other faiths and cultures, insisting that America's diversity was a weapon in the battle against terrorism.

A second chance?

His invitation to the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden even at this late stage may have been designed to deepen internal splits within the Afghan regime and hasten its collapse. And also, perhaps, to any reassure allies of the purpose of the air campaign. Of course his reference to Saddam Hussein as an "evil man" may have sent a few shivers up the spine of U.S. allies who want the anti-terror campaign confined to Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, but he confined himself to warning the Iraqi leader against supporting terrorism or taking advantage of U.S. distraction to stir up trouble.

Missile shield: full speed ahead

And for those who imagined that September 11 had forever changed the international order, Bush had some sobering news. Asked whether the anti-terror alliance with Russia would change the administration's thinking on its dispute with Moscow over the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the President replied the terror attacks has strengthened his case for missile defense and that he hoped they would convince Russia that the treaty was "outdated, antiquated and useless," And that may be the surest sign that the administration intends to live by its advice to the American people, to resume going about their business.