Trust Me, He Says

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The President has frequently altered his Iraq pitch to try to win support

Democracy depends on clarity and daylight; diplomacy is all about secrets and fog. So how can a President show enough cunning to outwit the enemy but enough candor to lead the folks at home?

It may be hard to follow George W. Bush's path to Baghdad because he is walking down two roads at once. The only way diplomacy can succeed is if Bush is fully prepared for it to fail. So word spreads that his generals are planning to mount a military exercise in the Persian Gulf in December and to call up more than 250,000 reserves in the event of war — even as his diplomats are hard at work on a United Nations resolution designed to show Saddam Hussein what he must do to avoid one. For Bush, a convincing threat would cost less than a battle; rattling a saber is smarter than simply using one. If Bush can draw the line and enlist the allies and persuade Saddam to disarm and leave town, he could conceivably prevail without launching a single sortie.

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Thus has it gone all fall, as the President simultaneously plans for war and talks of peace and sounds willing to go either way. From where Bush sits, if Hussein folds under international pressure, it will mean a crisis defused, though maybe only temporarily. On the other hand, if it comes to war, having the U.N. on board means more troops to fight with, fewer friends for Saddam to run to and more help rebuilding the country after the shooting stops. And even if the U.S. ends up fighting virtually alone, Bush will be able to say he at least tried the alternatives. The President sounds impatient when he tells the U.N. to act or get out of the way, which among other things is a steely way of keeping all his options open.

The target audience for all this diplomatic effort is not overseas; it is here at home. "It is important for the American people to see that before you order their sons and daughters into battle, you have done everything you can to find a solution," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice tells Time. The President "is not anxious to go to war. He is prepared to go, but if there is another solution, he is more than prepared to take it." Even Bush's supporters privately concede that while most people trust the President to fight the war on terror, they are much more skeptical about launching a new military adventure. And less than one-third of Americans surveyed in a TIME/CNN poll say they are willing to go along without the U.N.'s blessing. In recent weeks, support for the President has been drifting down as concerns over war and the economy rise. Only half the American people, the poll suggests, now feel they can trust Bush to handle Iraq.

After a year in which America's sense of security has been shattered — by bombers and snipers, crashing markets and predator priests and all the other sorry, scary stories of the season — it takes enormous confidence for a President to plunge ahead. He is contemplating something much riskier than even his father tried — to launch an invasion, a pre-emptive one, of a heavily armed nation in the most perilous part of the world. Just a few months ago, there was no hint that two-thirds of Americans would believe the country is going to war. Many are still trying to figure out why: Why pick this fight, with this enemy, at this time? Everyone gets a chance to make a judgment, but the President gets to make the decision. Bush is about to launch his greatest faith-based initiative — and America is asked to trust him to get it right. What are the terms of that bargain?

At some point this fall, in the backrooms of the U.N. and in capitals around the world, a debate that the U.S. wanted to be about Saddam and his weapons turned out to be one about Bush and his instincts. The President's red alert on Iraq is what hastened the U.N.'s effort to send weapons inspectors back to Baghdad — but the threats that were designed to scare America's enemies frightened its allies as well. They hear beneath Bush's words a new Manifest Destiny, in which the world's lone superpower obeys only the laws that suit it and respects only the nations that resemble it.

Since the start of this year, Bush has blown through door after door. He moved past the unfinished war on terrorism, cracked open a doctrine of "pre-emptive defense," stymied the opposition and manhandled the evidence — all in the service of a mission that may begin and end with Saddam Hussein but may go even further. It's hard to quarrel with Bush when he declares that "if we fight terror, we can achieve peace...not only for America; we can achieve peace in parts of the world where some have quit on peace." But the more messianic people around him imply something much bigger. Transplanting democracy to a region where it has never taken root would be every bit as historic as Reagan's pledge to confront the "evil empire." America's values and interests could at last cohere: America could fire Saudi Arabia as its Arab proxy unless it changes its medieval ways, jump-start the Middle East peace process and spark an outbreak of secular prosperity, so that the soil becomes less hospitable to the next generation of Osama bin Ladens. The emirs aren't quite ready for those talking points, but some true believers in Bush Land have dreamed of them for years.

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