A Screech of Hawks

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Let's begin with a provocation: ever since Vietnam, the hawks have almost always been right on major questions of national security. Ronald Reagan was right to insist on placing Pershing missiles in Europe, right to disdain the nuclear-freeze movement, right to push ahead with Star Wars, right to call the Soviet Union an "evil empire." George H.W. Bush was right to liberate Kuwait (and wrong not to push on to Baghdad when he had the world on his side). Even after the hawks and doves changed parties during the Clinton years, Democratic hawks were right about the use of force in Bosnia and Kosovo. And in 1998 bipartisan hawks — a group that included such disparate spirits as Paul Wolfowitz and John Kerry — were probably right that Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections was intolerable, a casus belli.

So why does hawkishness seem so intemperate now? Two reasons, I suspect — one psychological and one political. The psychological reason has everything to do with Sept. 11. We now know that an attack on Iraq may lead to terrorist counterattacks. Even the business community, usually a fairly tough-minded precinct, seems jelly-kneed at the prospect. "I have never seen such unanimity on any foreign policy issue," says Leslie H. Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who made a speaking tour of mostly business audiences in the Midwest and on the West Coast in December. "They want a smoking gun. It doesn't make a difference when I point out that we have a smoking forest, that it's clear Saddam has these weapons and doesn't want to disarm."

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This raises the larger, more distressing political question. The Bush Administration has seemed to hurtle thoughtlessly toward this moment of truth, in a lather of righteous arrogance and dim-witted machismo. From the start of his Administration, the President has made clear his skepticism about diplomatic niceties. "We've scared the bejeezus out of the world," says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council Middle East expert, whose book The Threatening Storm: The Case for War Against Iraq is often cited by the Administration's hawks. "We've left the impression that Iraq is, as Richard Perle has said, 'the first of many' American military campaigns. I'm still in favor of taking action. We've gone too far down the road. It's now or never." He paused and sighed. "But I don't feel very comfortable about that. We haven't prepared the ground diplomatically."

Aides to the President counsel patience, and there is some wisdom to that. "It reminds me of last August," said one last week. "The same sort of headlines and complaints — and then the President spoke at the U.N., and everyone was back on board. Wait till he makes the case." No doubt the President will make an effective State of the Union speech this week; he usually does. But there's more to leading the world into war than set-piece speeches — and Bush has seemed decidedly unpresidential at times in recent weeks, flustered and impatient. "I'm sick and tired of the lies and deception," he said on Jan. 14. A President should never sound so juvenile. Indeed, his testiness may be evidence of a deeper frustration: Bush seems to have been blindsided by the institutional entropy of the U.N.--and the chronic grandstanding of the French and Germans. (It was being whispered last week that he blamed his Secretary of State for the mess, which may help account for Colin Powell's own hawkish pique.) It is true that Bush's bluntness forced the U.N. to act last fall — and true too that "Old Europe," to coin a phrase, seems far more comfortable with a toothless League of Nations-style operation than with decisive action of any sort. But Bush — and his divided Administration — have been less than magisterial in their poker game with Saddam, a game that seems destined to end as so many did in the Old West, with a gunfight.

The State of the Union speech will not be Bush's last word on Iraq, according to aides. A more elaborate case for war — with more substantial evidence, perhaps — will be made in February. When it comes, one hopes the President will be forthright about two rather sticky points. He must prepare the nation for the possibility of an imminent terrorist attack. And he will have to be honest about what comes next, after the inevitable military victory: the likelihood that large numbers of American troops will have to remain in Iraq for years to come. There should be no illusions about the difficulty of Mesopotamian nation building. It has been attempted on this same ground many times before, by many other superpowers, and none — none — has ever succeeded. The last to try was England. Winston Churchill, a superhawk hero of the 20th century, ran the occupation, saw the futility of it and favored retreat. "We are paying 8 millions a year," he wrote his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in 1922, "for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano."