MAYPORT NAVAL STATION, Fla. - On the eve of a crucial Security Council debate, President Bush warned the United Nations that it must "show backbone and courage" in confronting Iraq or risk becoming irrelevant.
The president delivered his message before thousands of cheering sailors at this sun-drenched Florida naval station. Deployment orders have not arrived here, but some sailors said they expect to be called on to leave their families and head for the Persian Gulf.
Facing resistance from key members of the Security Council such as France, Russia, China and Germany, all of which favor giving weapons inspectors more time before settling on war against Iraq, Bush insisted that "America has laid out the facts for the world to see," proving that Saddam Hussein has refused to disarm voluntarily as the United Nations demanded in November.
"The decision is this for the United Nations," said Bush, clad in a bomber jacket and standing in the shadow of a hulking guided-missile cruiser. "When you say something, does it mean anything?"
Bush said he believes that "free nations will not allow the United Nations to fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society" and that "free nations will show backbone and courage."
In his visit to this sprawling coastal base outside Jacksonville, the president explained his policy demanding Iraq's disarmament to some of the very people who may be asked to enforce it.
He also was sending a blunt message to skeptical U.N. members that he means business when he speaks of war.
"Great tasks lie ahead for the navy, and for our entire military," the president told a sea of 5,000 cheering sailors. "I know we can depend on you."
At the United Nations today, the chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, will report on their progress in Iraq. Afterward, the United States and Britain are expected to argue that Hussein has defied demands to disarm and that the time has come for a new Security Council resolution authorizing military force.
Opponents on the Security Council want to give diplomacy more time, and plan to argue that the number of weapons inspectors in Iraq should be increased and that war can wait for now. Bush disagreed.
A senior White House official traveling with Bush said the administration was prepared to listen closely to Blix and ElBaradei, but he dismissed any proposals for more inspectors.
"The problem is not the number of inspectors," he said.
Referring to Hussein, the official said: "If he is not cooperating with 100, what makes you think he'll cooperate with 200, 300 or 400?"
He added: "This process of inspections and consultation cannot go on forever."
Stakes will be high at the United Nations. France, Russia and China, all of which can veto any Security Council resolution, are sending their foreign ministers to New York to argue against war.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will try to persuade the Security Council that Hussein has balked in his final opportunity to disarm, and that as more time passes, the risk grows that the Iraqi leader could hand deadly weapons to terrorists.
"The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons," Bush said. "That's the reality of the world we live in, and that's what we're going to use every ounce of our power to defeat."
Bush was visiting an enormous naval community. The Jacksonville area, which includes Mayport and several other bases, is the third-largest naval installation in the continental United States, behind Norfolk, Va., and San Diego.
Mayport is home to 22 ships, including one aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, which returned over the summer from a long deployment in the Afghanistan theater. It is undergoing maintenance but could be ready within the next year for action in the vicinity of Iraq, navy officials said.
Bush's backdrop yesterday was the USS Philippine Sea, a cruiser that accompanies the USS Enterprise, a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier, when it is deployed. Sailors on the Philippine Sea said they are anticipating that the Enterprise could be ordered to the Persian Gulf soon, though no deployment order has been given.
After speaking, Bush spent about 40 minutes aboard the cruiser, dining in the mess and joking with several hundred sailors. Petty Officer Steve Polster called the visit a "great honor" and said the president probably chose to visit his vessel "because we have had a lot of action."
According to Polster, he and 400 fellow sailors were steaming in the Mediterranean Sea, just weeks from returning home, when terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The ship was immediately ordered to turn around and within weeks, Polster said, was firing Tomahawk missiles into Afghanistan.
"There was shock and complete disarray" on Sept. 11, Polster said, "but we knew immediately that we had to go defend our country. Our legs locked and everyone kept a stiff upper lip."
He said he is ready to head to the Persian Gulf if the order comes. He said he knows that there is a political debate over Iraq but that such discussions do not often take place among sailors. "People are more concerned about their families and wives and kids," he said. "Our families did not sign up for this."
During his four-hour Florida trip, Bush also attended a forum with small-business owners in Jacksonville to promote his plan for new tax cuts, which he argues are needed to stimulate a stubbornly sluggish economy.
With Iraq - as well as the nuclear threat from North Korea and a heightened terrorism alert - dominating headlines, White House aides have been stressing that Bush is focused on problems at home even as foreign threats gather. Yesterday's event on the economy appeared designed to underscore that message.
At Mayport, Bush sought to portray any conflict in Iraq as a seamless, and necessary, extension of the war on terrorism. Terrorists are struggling to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, he said, and they demonstrated Sept. 11 that they want to harm Americans.
"I'm not going to forget that lesson," Bush said. "We have seen what terrorists can do with four airplanes. We are not going to wait to see what they'll do with even deadlier weapons."
Bush noted that the Enterprise was sent by President John F. Kennedy to take part in the naval quarantine of Cuba in 1962.
The president has previously sought to draw a parallel between the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis - and the threat of Russian nuclear weapons near the U.S. border - and the situation in Iraq, saying both are examples of when a president must pre-emptively confront a threat to the United States.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the former president's brother, has criticized Bush for making the comparison. Several months ago, the Massachusetts Democrat invoked the 1962 crisis differently, saying in fact that it showed how a president could avoid war by taking careful diplomatic steps and by working closely with other countries.
President Kennedy, Bush argued yesterday, "understood that dangers to freedom had to be confronted early and decisively."
"Our strength, as well as our convictions, have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom's cause," Bush said.