The most beleaguered president in our history went to the Capitol tonight and gave a fine, and at times very fine, State of the Union address. George Bush was gracious to the Democrats and, more surprising, did not show the war fatigue he must feel even more than the rest of us. There was a little too much of a grab bag in the domestic portions of the speech (for some bizarre reason, ethanol is always good for a round of applause), but he didn’t propose a tax hike to pay for health insurance (as I predicted). Quite the contrary, he proposed tax cuts to help the uninsured. Glad to be wrong. But I’ll leave the domestic aspects of the SOTU to Carrie Lukas.

Iraq was the overhanging issue of this speech, and on that Bush delivered. This was one of his best speeches on Iraq.

“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in,” he said. “Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.”

The president didn’t fall back on irritating and repeated rhetorical devices (such as “stay the course” or referring repeatedly to Saddam as “the dictator” — both of which, of course, are obsolete, as we are changing the course and the dictator has met a richly deserved fate) and his summary of recent history in the Middle East was concise and specific. Is this the first time he has referred to Sunni extremists and Shi’a extremists?

Bush can’t retreat because he regards the war in Iraq as part of (and a very important part of) a decisive existential struggle — not a matter of polls or scrambling for cover, as the Democrats and some Republicans on the Hill do. David Corn of the Nation predicted that Bush would speak but nobody would listen. I think Corn is wrong. The president used his time well to explain what will happen if we do not follow through:

“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.

“For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens… new recruits … new resources … and an even greater determination to harm America. To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September 11th and invite tragedy. And ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East … to succeed in Iraq … and to spare the American people from this danger.

“This is where matters stand tonight, in the here and now.”

That was the challenge to those who want to retreat. George Bush got an A tonight.