George Bush’s speech from Cincinnati was calm, composed, reasonable–a studied performance calculated to win plaudits from the punditry and the consent of Congress to an Iraq resolution tailored to his specifications. Yet beneath the dulcet tones of reason was a jangling subtext of fear. Aware that Americans are increasingly ambivalent about the prospect of war, Bush played on public anxiety about terrorism to gin up support for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq.

Much of his war speech was a mélange of half-truths (we know little about Saddam’s nuclear programs–yes, because we pulled out inspectors in 1998), misleading claims (Iraq has ballistic missiles capable of hitting US personnel in Turkey and Saudi Arabia–but why then aren’t those countries worried about an attack on their own citizens?), misleading intelligence data (a “very senior Al Qaeda leader” received medical treatment in Baghdad–how does that prove military cooperation?) and tired boilerplate from old briefing books (“We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud”).

What was new in Bush’s message was the exaggerated stress on fear itself. Iraq, he claimed, is “exploring ways” of using drone planes to attack the United States with chemical or biological weapons. If Iraq obtained an amount of uranium the size of a softball, Saddam Hussein would “be in a position to threaten America” with nuclear destruction. The horrors of 9/11 were evoked. The future was seen through a glass, darkly: “We have every reason to assume the worst.” Indeed, the worst-case scenario ruled: “I’m not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein.” The line that drew the biggest applause from the crowd assembled in a World War II museum was: “And through its inaction, the United States would resign itself to a future of fear. That is not the America I know…. We refuse to live in fear.”

Bush has apparently been reading the pollsters. As one of them, Andrew Kohut, summed up on the NewsHour: “The consideration of Iraq is really [a] response to the 9/11 attacks. The American public is saying to its government, ‘Protect us.'”

Bush’s attempt to exploit lingering September 11 fears is the shrewd gambit of a White House worried that its case for war is losing credibility. The political stakes are high: Winning Congress this year and the presidency in 2004. Testing by fire the unilateralist, imperialist national security doctrine that has practically become this Administration’s raison d’être. Insuring that Iraqi oil is safely ours. Focusing the public on whacking Saddam Hussein so all other issues fade into obscurity.

But war, with its potential for destabilizing the region–not to mention the weak US economy–poses a greater threat to the security of the United States than does a contained and weakened Saddam Hussein. Indeed, a just-released CIA report says Saddam is unlikely to initiate a chemical/biological attack unless he concludes that the United States is going to attack him (assuming he has such weapons). The Administration mantra, that the dangers of inaction far outweigh the dangers of action, is 180 degrees off course. It is rash, unnecessary military action that poses a real threat to this country. Americans sense this; hence the polls suggesting that two-thirds of them oppose a unilateral invasion of Iraq. The President dismisses these people, but their troubled, rational doubts must be the foundation of a growing protest against Bush’s war.