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.

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 h! ospitable 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.

These are laudable goals, but trying to achieve them could mean detonating the entire Middle East and wrecking the economy, estranging America's allies and enraging its enemies. It could mean nonstop al-Jazeera TV footage not of Iraqis welcoming G.I.s in the streets but of fighting them while the world's jihadists cheer and moderate Muslim leaders either crack down hard or are toppled themselves. A campaign to make the world safer may wind up making it even more dangerous, as every anxious European editorialist has warned. Yet the very size of the risk cuts both ways for Bush at home. Much as it unnerves people, it also convinces many that he must know something they don't or he would never try something this risky.

Confidence is a Bush family trademark--cocky was the word everyone used to describe George W. for years--yet he came into office without the one kind of confidence he needed most: America's faith in him. Every President is supposed to have the public's trust, or at least the benefit of the doubt, on Inauguration Day. But the tortured 2000 election outcome meant that Bush would have to start by earning it, and in the end it took a national crisis to do that. The nation's trust in Bush was lifted when so much else was lost. "Times have changed after September the 11th," Bush said recently in Pennsylvania. "It used to be we thought oceans would protect us." But not anymore. "We don't have any choice in this new war, see. We learned that the enemy has taken the battlefield to our very own country. My most important job is to protect America."

In the wake of the attacks, while many people wrestled with how to address Islamic hatred of America, Bush was consumed only with how best to fight it. The man who said his own father had failed to spend his political capital was not going to make the same mistake. He had his own evil empire to battle now. In Bush's view, everything that worked through 50 years of tyrant containment--treaties and deals and bribes and threats--was expunged all at once by an enemy with no home address, who can't be pressured, can't be bombed, can't be sanctioned, can only kill or be killed. "That's why I've started and stimulated a discussion on Iraq," Bush says, mixing a familiar enemy like Saddam with a new and terrifying one like al-Qaeda. If there was no visible evidence to link the two, he just used that fact to argue his point: the danger is everywhere, even if we can't see it; the threat is growing, even if we can't prove it. The Administration's argument for war is based not on the str! ength of America's Intelligence but on its weakness. On the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recalled that "the missile shipments to Cuba took the U.S. completely by surprise." More than a generation later, he said, "the only time we'll have perfect evidence that a terrorist regime has deliverable weapons of mass destruction may be after they've used those weapons. And needless to say, that's a bit late."

That leap of faith is all but impossible for the President's critics to make. They flinch at his bluster, challenge his evidence and wonder where it will end. Even some Republicans who want to see Saddam gone wish that Bush would show more discipline when he makes his case. Iraq's record is bad enough, they say, without embroidering it. Yet when the CIA can't put hard evidence of an al-Qaeda-Iraq connection on the table, the Pentagon forms its own mini intelligence agency to find it instead. If Iraq is importing aluminum tubes, the Administration says it can only be for enriching uranium for bombs; if there are al-Qaeda agents hiding out in Iraq, they must be guests of the government. And that message has been received: nearly three-quarters of Americans surveyed think that Saddam is currently helping al-Qaeda; 71% think it is likely he was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, something even the hawks haven't said aloud. "They just assert a reality and stick with it,! " says a former Clinton Administration official with evident frustration. "They do it with tremendous discipline. They keep it simple and use the bully pulpit, and they say it again and again and again until people believe it."

Whatever Bush actually knows or believes, exaggeration itself can be a deliberate tactic. To an adversary who has consistently underestimated America's resolve, it signals that the nation will assume the worst and act on that assumption. While Bush sounds hell-bent on making war, his more subtle defenders will cite the lessons of master warmakers back to Sun Tzu: "To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." While many Presidents may have appeared reluctant about war, even if, like Woodrow Wilson, they were more than willing to enter the fray, Bush has chosen the opposite path, flaunting all the ways he is preparing to fight because doing so may mean he won't have to. In the spirit of cold war Presidents facing nuclear nightmares, it even serves his purpose to seem a little irrational in his itch to fight. "Iraq will not cooperate," Secretary of State Colin Powell told Nat! ional Public Radio last week, "unless the element of pressure in the form of potential military force is there."

For all the focus on the U.N., what bush needs most is the solid support of the American public. And even though Congress voted overwhelmingly to back him in Iraq, Bush hasn't really closed the deal at home and has actually lost ground in recent weeks. For the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, his overall approval ratings dropped to around 60%, just 6 points higher than before the attacks. Americans instinctively trust the President in a foreign policy crisis, but the check isn't blank. Since they sense Bush is deadly earnest, they naturally are asking a lot of questions, looking for enough information to feel at peace with war. The conversation is taking place everywhere. It's not always an argument but certainly an exploration of means and ends. The number of Iraq-related Internet searches on Google more than doubled from July to August, more than quintupled from August to September and doubled again from September to October. A wider war is an increasingly common topic in church; lawmakers on Capitol Hill notice that their fax machines are often flooded on Sunday afternoons. At Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tenn., deep in the heart of Bush country, the congregation last week launched a four-part discussion on the "Impending War with Iraq." The parishioners want to know why America is going to war and what's at stake and what the response should be. "People are questioning," says JoAnn Reafsnyder, director of adult education. "We hear, we speculate on what's going on in Iraq, but we're not sure. We're not sure about the role of economics, the politics of fear, the politics of oil." The need for more information increased after Tennessee Congressman John Duncan Jr. became one of only six Republicans to vote against giving Bush the authority to use force. "I don't think anybody is for keeping Saddam Hussein," Reafsnyder says, "but they're trying to find a more peaceful way of doing it." For more than 100,000 people last month, that involved descending on Washington and elsewhere for the largest antiwar demonstr! ations since Vietnam.

As Bush works to win over the public, it's worth remembering that he's never really taken his eye off it. Back in August, wise old Republican hands from his father's Administration were landing salvos on the Op-Ed pages, saying Bush needed to rethink his approach. But current Administration hawks dismissed the need for alliances--"It's often the case that when America leads, the world follows," observed Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. White House lawyers said they didn't need a congressional resolution because the President had all the legal authority he needed to invade Iraq without it. Vice President Dick Cheney said that all weapons inspections do is provide a sense of "false comfort." By then, Bush's approval ratings had begun to flutter.

And so over the following weeks, the Bush team adjusted the dials. His appeal to the U.N. seemed like a course correction to many, coming after months of unilateral talk. "The most amazing thing he accomplished for himself is that he has shifted so skillfully since Labor Day," says a diplomat who worked for Bush's father. "He is now standing for the very things he criticized others for in the early part of the year, yet paid no price for it. In fact, he's being praised for it."

But it is also possible--and the Bush team will certainly argue as much--that the Administration had planned for things to go this way all along: that they went into the U.N. in September in as belligerent a dress as possible to shock what it regards as a risk-averse international body into action. Only in the face of a U.S. threat to go it alone would the U.N. realize it was being left behind and rouse itself to take on Saddam. Administration officials concede now that Bush wanted the U.N. not only to act but to act in a different way than it had during the bomb-and-back-off years of the Clinton era. "We're talking about a changed set of circumstances," says a top White House official. "The most important element that has changed is the fact that the U.S. is prepared to use force to enforce the resolutions."

Condi Rice said last week that the only inspections regime that the U.S. would accept is one that places a much bigger burden on Iraq than past U.N. resolutions have required. "It's important that people understand what we are saying about inspections this time," she tells Time. "The world has to have a zero-tolerance view on Iraq. This is a country the size of France. You can always hide things in a country that big. So it is not incumbent on the U.N. to find things. What we're saying is that it is incumbent on Saddam Hussein to show that he is compliant."

And so the game goes on and the pressure keeps rising. Bush officials revealed last week that the Administration is preparing a litany of war-crimes charges to level against Saddam and his henchmen--another sword dangling over his head as he decides whether to comply with U.N. inspections. And while Bush made clear that he would not wait forever for the U.N. to approve a new weapons-inspections regimen, he and his aides also said that if inspections resume and Saddam drags his feet or shuts down the search teams, the U.S. would be willing to consult with the Security Council before attacking. An official put it this way: "If he defies the United Nations, we're not going to wake up the next day and go to war. We are more than willing to come back to the U.N. and discuss it." The President, meanwhile, kept the pressure on. "This country is in for the long haul," Bush said. "We understand that some in the world may blink, but we're not blinking."

There is no book in the White House library about how to get the country in the mood for war, but there are some lessons from history. Robert Teeter, who has polled for every Republican President since Gerald Ford, says Bush has rather quickly convinced a lot of people that it might be wise to shift from a defensive foreign policy doctrine to a more aggressive, pre-emptive stance. And if the public isn't sold yet on possible war with Iraq, Teeter notes that the public is seldom eager for military action. "There is always anxiety about sending people over to a shooting war," he said recently. "That tends to change once the war begins."

--With reporting by Amanda Bower/ New York and Massimo Calabresi and John F. Dickerson/ Washington