Bush Patient Is As Patient Does

"I'm a patient man," George W. Bush says regarding Saddam Hussein, who has surpassed (at least in presidential rhetoric) Osama Bin Laden as America's most most-wanted. Yet days later, from a disclosed location, Vice President, Dick Cheney, the soul of the Bush White House, blasts Saddam as a clear-and-present danger, noting "there is no doubt" he is "amassing" weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States, and "what he wants is time and more time" to amass further. In other words, patience ain't a virtue here.

So which is it? Is the administration, as Bush suggested, biding its time as it carefully figures out how best to confront Saddam? Or, as Cheney hinted, does an attack have to happen by yesterday? This is just one of the rough spots of the Bush gang's run-up to Iraq: The Sequel. Anyone paying attention in these waning days of summer can be forgiven for wondering about the competency of this crowd -- at least in terms of getting its story straight. Cheney's remarks clearly indicated the Bush administration did not care to resume the weapons inspection program in Iraq. ("A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions [demanding Iraq end its weapons programs]. There is great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow back in his box.") But then John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the administration remained interested if U.N. weapon inspectors had "unfettered and unconditional access." Is Negroponte a fan of "false comfort"?

There appears to be some confusion in Bush circles. Leading national security advisers to Daddy Bush -- notably, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger -- publicly decried the war-mongering. James Baker, secretary of state to Bush I and the lawyer who plotted the successful post-election Florida maneuvers of Bush II, challenged the notion of U.S. unilateral action against Iraq. Richard Boucher, Secretary of State Colin Powell's spokesman, said, "There are no war drums to beat." Doesn't he read the newspapers?

At the same time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed Washington's allies would heartily support Bush should he send in the drones (and/or the troops). Yet German chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who is running for reelection, attacked Cheney's speech, and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw criticized the administration's threaten-to-shoot-first approach to Iraq. (Schroder's defeat would not help Bush, for his opponent has warned the United States not to attack Iraq without a United Nations mandate.) Taku Yamasaki, leader of Japan's ruling liberal Democratic Party has said Tokyo has a duty, as an ally, to say no to Washington on this matter. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told reporters, "We have used every opportunity to tell our friends in the U.S. administration we are opposed to military action against Iraq." (The Turks fret about the Kurds of Iraq gaining more autonomy or independence after a war and setting a bad example for the Kurds of Turkey.) The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab states practically every day cry out, "Stop."

So the question must be asked, is Rumsfeld delusional? What is his basis for claiming if Washington launches it (the war), they (the allies) will come? In recent months, war-cravers in Washington have said that privately the leaders of other nations were telling the administration, if you're serious about this, we'll jump on board at the last moment. But as the pre-war season lumbers on, the allies keep issuing clearer statements of opposition and warning. The French government recently muted its criticism of Bush's stance toward Iraq. Not out of principle, but in order not to piss off the administration and upset relations between Paris and Washington. But then President Jacques Chirac criticized the Bush administration's "attempts to legitimize the unilateral and pre-emptive use of force."

When Bush scooted to his Crawford, Texas, ranch for nearly a month-long "working vacation," I scoffed at him for taking such a long time off while the war on terrorism was under way, the Middle East continued to boil, and Martha Stewart -- and other sectors of the economy -- remained in trouble. Talk about being patient. But Bush detractors should acknowledge he has been working his khakis off, for in-between taxpayer-financed photo-ops in states crucial for the coming congressional elections, this 9-to-5 president and his crew have been putting in overtime to gin up support for their next war. Even though Republican and Democrat Senators have said Bush promised them there would be no military strike before the November election, it sure looks like Bush and Company (excluding the weenies of the State Department) long for action ASAP.

A few weeks back, there appeared the possibility that a creeping unease in Congress (more among Republicans than Democrats) and elsewhere (say, Poppy's den) might derail the White House's effort to turn Bush into Churchill. But the White House is relentlessly raising expectations of war. In an interview, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice (the moralist) said regime change in Iraq -- that is, a military invasion -- is a moral imperative. Cheney (the tough guy) declared the inspection game kaput. And Bush (a bit of both) has maintained there is a need to kick Saddam-butt in order to bring democracy to the region, while depicting Saddam as a direct threat and menace to the entire world -- views no other nation has seconded. With all this war-talk, Bush is placing himself in a corner, where the only option can be war. If Saddam is as bad as he and Cheney assert, there can be no choice. It doesn't matter what the U.N. or Congress thinks, what Tony Blair thinks, what those corrupt Saudi princes think, what Colin Powell thinks. Bush has to respond with force. Having so loudly defined a threat to U.S. security, Bush has obligated himself to save the nation from that threat. Imagine if Bush is still wagging a finger at Saddam when the 2004 campaign rolls around. Almost a year ago, commentators commonly observed that Sept. 11 had defined the Bush presidency. Yet Bush has chosen to define his presidency by Saddam Hussein.

It didn't have to be this way. No one forced Bush to extend his war on terrorism to a crusade against a global axis of evil and a campaign targeting a dictator so far unconnected to the 9/11 attacks. Bush's line could have been: Saddam Hussein poses a potential danger to the world community, and we're going to work vigorously with other nations, including those most threatened, to neutralize this brutal thug, and we're examining all possible courses of actions. Bush then could have pursued diplomatic and military actions (including pre-emptive unilateral variants Cheney and others in his administration seem to prefer) with leeway. But now he is leeway-less. He has unwisely put his credibility at stake.

This is reminiscent of the situation in which the United States found itself during Vietnam. After Richard Nixon inherited that mess, Henry Kissinger argued that Washington had to hang tough in 'Nam to preserve Washington's credibility. It wasn't that this fight was such a geostrategically important war to win. (Screw the dominoes.) But who would take the United States seriously, if it cut and ran? So the rationale became that Washington had to use its military might to preserve the possibility of using its military might (or the threat of that might) down the road. If you take a chessboard view of the world, this reasoning makes some sense. But it was a slim abstraction for which to sacrifice tens of thousands of Americans and kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

This is not to suggest that a war on Iraq is going to be another Vietnam. It could go reasonably well, with a quick collapse of Saddam's regime and military and the emergence of a grateful post-Saddam leadership yearning to do business with the West. It could be a disaster, with thousands of U.S. casualties, more civilian deaths, the use of weapons of mass destruction, post-Saddam chaos, the spread of leftover WMDs, and an upsurge in regional strife and terrorism. There's no telling. But with the risks being so high, Bush has proceeded recklessly by foreclosing all options but war. Even if a misguided Congress or a spineless U.N. says no to Bush, how can Bush and Cheney justify respecting the decision? Don't the sheriff and his deputy know best? Bush and Cheney are practicing no-way-out geopolitics. He's not patient. He's eager. His words and those of his underlings -- even if confusing at moments -- have set the course for war.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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