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The Task Ahead

January 30, 2002

Nothing better underscores the extraordinary times in which the United States finds itself than the guests that President Bush invited to his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. This year the sight of Afghanistan's interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, Shannon Spann, the widow of the CIA agent slain in Afghanistan, and two flight attendants who foiled Richard C. Reid's alleged attempt to blow up an airplane was moving testimony that America is no longer isolated. As Bush suggested in his speech, the nation is not only a beacon of universal values; it has also become an international target.

The president correctly reminded Americans that the hard battle against terrorism has only just begun. Tens of thousands of fighters, he said, remain ticking "time bombs" ready to explode anywhere and everywhere, whether it is in the U.S. or abroad. The big question he left unresolved: whether the U.S. will attack Iraq or other countries. But he named names--Iraq, Iran, North Korea--and prudently left his options open. How far Bush will go in combating an "axis of evil" remains unclear. But Americans have received the message. The last Axis was not defeated overnight, nor will this one be.

Six Al Qaeda fighters were killed Monday in a Kandahar hospital after refusing to surrender for nearly two months. In Singapore, a jailed man is considered a possible link between extremist Islamic groups operating in that island nation, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. Dozens of suspected terrorists have been arrested in those countries in recent weeks, and U.S. Special Forces units are in the Philippines for what the Pentagon says is a mission to train Filipino soldiers fighting Muslim insurgents. The global effort becomes more urgent with Bush's alarming announcement that U.S. forces have found terrorist diagrams for nuclear plants and water treatment facilities. And while it is easy to say, as he did, that the nation will pay "whatever it costs to defend our country," his defense experts will have to decide, soon, which weapons systems can safely be left behind so newer, expensive high-tech systems can be developed.

Bush's call for a new "culture of responsibility," expanding national volunteer service and doubling the ranks of the Peace Corps was as welcome to hear from him as it was to hear from previous presidents. Bush promised economic renewal, but his vagueness on corporate reform could come back to haunt him.

Already Wall Street, as Tuesday's stock tumble indicated, is exceedingly nervous that more Enrons might be in the pipeline. Bush devoted only a few short sentences to protection of pension funds and reform of the accounting practices that led to Enron's spectacular crash. In fact, he never mentioned Enron by name.

This debacle, now apparently spreading to other companies with shadowy or hidden debts, has generated deeper fears on financial markets and in the American psyche than Bush seems to understand. It makes sense that he played to his anti-terrorism credentials in the State of the Union. It has proven much harder for him to acknowledge that the part of government he campaigned so hard against, regulators and overseers, may be as necessary as the Special Forces.

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